The Buddhist Outlook & Bhutan

Written by ManjuWakhley, Oxford,UK
Since Bhutan is predominantly a Buddhist country, policies often stem from Buddhist perception and ethics. Buddhist philosophy stresses the importance of all sentient beings and how all beings are interdependent. This notion also agrees with the scientific ecosystem theory that all species have a place and a function. The relationship between human beings and the environment is seen in a fundamentally different way as compared to the western approach. While the latter is based on the Christian instrumental view that nature exists solely for the benefit of mankind, the Buddhist concept of Sunyata (Form and Emptiness) holds that no subject or object has an independent existence; rather it dissolves into a web of relationships with all dimensions of its environment. Buddhism perceives reality as circular and not linear unlike western thought, which means human form is a part of the Karmic cycle and is really difficult to obtain, all forms are transient and therefore sustainable development is in everybody’s self interest instead of just that of the nature and future. Bhutan has never exploited it natural resources on grounds of commercial profitability.

State of Biodiversity

From the data collected so far; the recorded number of vascular plant species is 5603, the recorded number of bird species is 616, and the recorded number of mammal species is 198. Among globally threatened species there are 14 bird species and 26 mammal species. According to the IUCN red list, from the mammals and birds discovered so far, the Pygmy Hog is critically endangered and 14 are vulnerable. So it is quite richly populated though not much research has been done on reptiles, amphibians, fungi, insects and plants. Bhutan today still has a forest cover of 72.5% of which 8% is cultivable. Threats to the continued integrity of Bhutan’s natural resource base are increasingly being felt from a variety of “developmental” sources, including infrastructural construction, industrial expansion, increasing urbanization and the growth of tourism. The effects of development on the environment cannot be taken out as a separate slice and looked into, since to understand the way development started and has shaped, backed by the vision and the philosophies of sustainable development and GNH, it is essential to understand these when looking into the picture of Bhutanese development.Gross National Happiness is a planning and policy tool that guides all developmental activities in the country.

Bhutanese Economy

Tuner in 1783 said “That the absence of money in a society excludes, in a proportionate degree, depravity of morals and vices of various kinds, is in some measure exemplified in Bhutan.” If you have a look at the story from the lens of money or economy, Bhutan is considered an LDC (Least Developing Country), and its economy is one of the smallest in the world, hinging basically on four sectors; namely renewable natural resources, hydropower, tourism and industry. Bhutan is a predominantly agrarian society with 69% of the population living in rural areas and subsisting on an integrated livelihood system of crop agriculture, livestock rearing and use of a wide range of forest products.

GDP Growth

Bhutan has enjoyed strong economic growth performance with an average GDP growth rate of 6% a year, over the past two decades. This sustained growth has increased Gross National Income per capita to US$ 1,345.9 in 2006. In the 80s the GDP once used to be 51$ whereas the per capita GDP for 2006 is US$1, 414.01. Bhutan’s major exports include electricity, timber, cement, calcium chloride, ferro-alloys, agricultural and food products and handicrafts. The preliminary projections based on the Tenth Five Year Plan of the Royal Government of Bhutan indicate that GDP is anticipated to grow by 8-9% through the plan period July 2008 – June 2013. This growth appears very realistic considering the major infrastructure investments in hydropower development and the increased industrial growth expected with the new industrial estate at Pasakha taking off from mid 2008.


Power is literally Bhutan’s greatest asset. High precipitation, extensive forest cover and well-preserved watersheds have endowed the country with abundant hydropower resources. The Department of Energy has estimated the country’s hydropower potential at about 30,000 megawatts.

The total hydropower sale from major hydropower projects is Nu. 16,872 million (2005-2008). The 114 MW Dagachhu Hydropower project is being promoted as a potential CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) project with certified Emissions Reductions (CERs) benefits to be shared between India and Bhutan. Apart from being the main socio-economic driver, hydropower is viewed as an essentially clean source of energy and as a means of reducing the country’s dependence on traditional solid fuels like fuel-wood and coal, which are environmentally damaging. As a major source of revenue, hydropower development provides a strong economic rationale for environment conservation as its sustenance depends on the sustainable management of the watersheds. Hydropower development also imposes environmental and social costs if proper care is not taken during implementation of the projects. Environment impact assessments are mandatory but construction of dams, development of associated infrastructure such as accessible roads, construction of power transmission and distribution lines have a bearing on land stability and biodiversity.

Industrial Development

Development of industries is critical for employment generation and economic development. However, demographic and biophysical factors inhibit the prospect of further large-scale industrial development in Bhutan. The concept of large-scale industrial development is in direct conflict with the country’s fragile ecosystem and limited usable land. Industries contribute not only economically but also pollute the air, water, and generate hazardous waste and land degradation. The proportion of operational industrial licenses belonging to the large-scale units was 1.5 %( 2006) and that of operational industrial licenses belonging to production and manufacturing sector was 8.5 % (2006). The potential for future lies in the development of small scale and cottage industries based on sustainable management of cultural and natural endowments such as hand woven textiles using natural dye and organically produced food and medicinal products.

Tourism and Environment

With a daily tariff with anything between 240$-290$ depending on the season the tourism industry’s average annual earning is US$ 9.8 Million. The Royal Government of Bhutan has adopted a high value approach to tourism development in the country through high tariff structures and operational regulations. The peak tourist arrival was in 2006 with 17,344 tourists visiting which generated a peak annual earning of US$ 23.9 million. This approach to tourism has so far served well in terms of limiting negative environment and social impacts. Because of better infrastructure the number of tourists keeps increasing ever year. Unregulated tourism can pose significant threats to the fragile mountain ecosystem and inadequacy in tourism related environmental management capacity in terms of trained guides and operators as well along with proper camping sites, waste management and sanitation facilities. In addition tourism may display opulence and materialism, negatively influencing local norms and values. Bhutan draws much of the exclusivity factor from the country’s well preserved culture and relatively untouched natural landscapes. It is extremely essential to preserve these not only to reap the benefits of tourism but also to keep alive nature and culture. Tourism and environment conservation cannot be mutually exclusive so the challenge is to harmonize both.

(The article is an excerpt from the writer’s thesis )

(Courtesy: BhutanTimes)

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