How The Tiny, Poor Country Of Bhutan Became One Of The Most Sustainable Countries On Earth

The country knows it needs to develop, but it’s making sure the development doesn’t come at the expense of its natural resources.


Photo: Flickr user sprklg

That’s the first thing that Tshering Tobgay, the charismatic prime minister of the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan, wants you to know about his homeland.

People are forgiven for thinking otherwise. For its beautiful forests and mountains and ancient Buddhist architecture, Bhutan—a poor, isolated country sandwiched between India and China that famously measures Gross National Happiness as its main economic indicator—has been called the last Shangri-la. But the prime minister knows that perception works against Bhutan’s efforts to develop economically along a truly sustainable path that has eluded many other equally beautiful nations. In Bhutan, many people still live in poverty, youth unemployment is rising, and pressures on forests are increasing. Its total GDP, $2 billion, is half that of Springfield, Ohio.

But Bhutan has ambitious, long-term conservation goals. Its constitution requires a minimum of 60% of its land must be forested at all times; currently it’s at 72%, with more than half the nation covered by a network of national parks, nature reserves, and wildlife sanctuaries. And when it became the first country to commit to being carbon neutral in perpetuity in 2009, it was actually already carbon negative: Its forests absorb three times more CO2 than the whole country emits.

All of this is easier in Bhutan than most nations. For one, its politics and culture are unusually cohesive. Governed under a series of monarchs who voluntarily let go of their power over the last two decades, the first democratic elections took place in 2008. And like Costa Rica—another small country within reach of being carbon neutral, Bhutan’s many rivers allow it to generate vast quantities carbon-free hydroelectricity. Much of the excess is exported to India.

Tobgay, a reformer who is only the second prime minister in the nation’s history, knows none of this can be taken for granted. Even in Bhutan, he tells Co.Exist, forests face pressures from the outside in—from illegal logging, poaching, and mining—and the inside out—from poor communities who live in them.

“Over the next few years, our small economy won’t have the resources to cover all the costs that are required to protect our environment,” he said to a room full of wealthy people at the latest TED conference in February. “When we run the numbers, it looks like it will take us at least 15 years before we can fully finance all our conservation efforts. But we in Bhutan and all the world can’t afford to spend 15 years going backwards.”



A new financing model for saving the world’s protected places

Tobgay has been traveling a lot recently. He is courting donors to a new program called Bhutan for Life, an innovative financing plan devised by the World Wildlife Fund to bridge the government’s gap in conservation funding.

The model, formally called a project financing for permanence plan, requires that Bhutan put a clear, realistic price tag on the money it needs to protect its forests and devise a strategy to pay the costs over time. A transition fund is created to bridge the gap, where donors give money in a Kickstarter-like model, where the deal won’t close until the full amount needed—in Bhutan’s case $40 million over 15 years—is raised.

World Wildlife Fund CEO Carter Roberts tells Co.Exist that the structure solves an enduring problem in conservation: a history of working to save a place and only getting half-way there.

“If [protected places] remain declared only on paper and we don’t have the means to actually manage them and secure them,” he says, “the evidence is that we will lose them gradually and sometimes dramatically over time. This is one of the great challenges of our movement.”

The idea, first pioneered in British Columbia and later repeated in Costa Rica, is starting to spread. At a much larger scale, a $220 million fund closed in Brazil in 2014. The same year, WWF presented the concept at the World Parks Congress, and interest from other countries, including Bhutan, Colombia, and Peru flooded in such that WWF is limited by its own capacity. Each will take its own unique twist in each country; for example, in Columbia, it is being tied to the ongoing peace process there. A big challenge, says Roberts, is that over the lifetime of any deal, governments change, and some could be less supportive.

Right now, Bhutan for Life is about halfway to raising its goal, with the money coming from large and small foundations, institutions, and individual wealthy donors so far. The money would be released each year based on the government fulfilling protection requirements as part of the deal.

Tobgay says the $40 million will be used to pay for things like more park rangers and scientists, building eco-tourism, and compensating for local communities who live in the parks. “People who live there look after cows, for instance,’ he says. “If the cow is eaten by the tiger, you would compensate them.” (This prevents people from shooting tigers to protect their cows.) Eventually, the government will do things like raise taxes and generate revenue from the parks to fund this work on its own.


Flickr user Christopher Michel

A balanced view of ecotourism

Bhutan for Life isn’t the only way that the country is remaining sustainable and carbon neutral. Rural farmers get free electricity so that they won’t have to use firewood to cook food. The country is actually planting new trees through a program called Green Bhutan. And for a country that has been famously slow to incorporate new technologies—it only lifted a ban on televisions in 1999—it is subsidizing the purchase of LED lights and electric vehicles in a big way. With its cheap hydroelectric power, it hopes to become a world leader in EVs and has suspended import taxes on two EV car models.

Bhutan is also a famously isolated country. It requires expensive tourist permits for a fee of $250 a day, which include a mandatory guide. But it is working to develop this part of its economy, with its employment and revenue potential, in a careful way. “We can’t overdo tourism because it will undermine the very things we want to preserve for ourselves and share with the world. So it is a fine balance,” Tobgay tell us.

Despite its uniqueness, Roberts hopes that Bhutan can be a model for many other countries. “Every country is different. But every country is also hungry for models that let them overcome the limits of traditional models of conservation. There is no other Bhutan on Earth … but anytime you do something that works on a scale that matters, people are hungry to learn from it.”


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