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Story Publication logo August 12, 2019

Rethinking a Conservation Narrative from One of the World’s Only Carbon-Negative Countries


The Punatsangchhu River is the hotspot for hydropower construction in Bhutan: Pictured is the new mega Punatsangchhu-II hydroelectric project, delayed extensively by geologic challenges. Image by Emma Johnson. Bhutan, 2019.

In mountainous Bhutan, water is critical. From Himalayan glaciers to Indian plains, rivers sustain...

The Trongsa Dzong, or fortress, sits nestled among the trees in the early morning mist in the district of Trongsa. Image by Emma Johnson. Bhutan, 2019.
The Trongsa Dzong, or fortress, sits nestled among the trees in the early morning mist in the district of Trongsa. Image by Emma Johnson. Bhutan, 2019.

As a Pulitzer Center student fellow from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I wanted to study the effects of climate change in a country that is so forest covered, so environmentally conscious, that it is considered carbon-negative country: Bhutan. Returning to this country after living there for a year working for The School for Field Studies, I am back to investigate the effects climate change will have on this geographically challenging country, especially on the future of their hydropower resources. From the existing dams to the future ones, Bhutan is shifting how it thinks about water, energy, and national security in a changing climate.

If you look around Bhutan, you will see two major resources: the forests and the water. Most of my reporting will be focused on the water resources, but I wanted to give a brief look into the life of the trees in Bhutan—deeply connected to the water that sustains them. And it is the trees, for many, that make up what Bhutan is known for: conservation.

The recent history of conservation in Bhutan is a unique one. Up until 2008, Bhutan was a monarchy, until the Fourth King decided that to join the modern world, Bhutan needed to become a democracy. So, a constitution was written, a democratic system was formed, and Bhutan become a constitutional monarchy. Written in their constitution is a section on the environment, including this sentence:

“The Government shall ensure that, in order to conserve the country’s natural resources and to prevent degradation of the ecosystem, a minimum of 60 percent of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time.”

This idea of 60 percent cover was first introduced as part of Bhutanese forest policy in 1974, and especially since 2008, the Bhutanese have taken this to heart. Tree plantings happen constantly all over the country. Last time I was here, I conducted a survey where I asked young people how they perceived climate change. Of the 48 people I surveyed, half said that planting trees is how Bhutan should mitigate the effects of climate change. Since Bhutan started surveying in 1956, forest cover has skyrocketed—the latest surveys, including shrubs and alpine scrub, put it at 83.9 percent.

It’s hard to get a sense of just how many trees Bhutan has from photos. There are so many trees that they blanket the hillsides, blanket everything, appearing as just a greenish blur that forms the shape of the mountain, so that you could mistake it for the usual color of the hill instead of for the thousands and thousands of individual trees that are there. Trees cover everything here.

But why is this commitment to forest protection so strong in Bhutan? Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel tells a different possible story about this commitment—with tendrils snaking back to colonial times. A forester by training with a PhD from the University of Reading in forest policy, he presents a new narrative explaining conservation in Bhutan.

Colonial Britain to present-day Bhutan

“We have been sold the colonial narrative,” Namgyel tells me as we talk in a small coffee shop in the rapidly growing capital city, Thimphu. A bold statement said in his soft-spoken tone, made even more gentle by his round glasses and smiling face.

While Bhutan was never colonized, it does share a fairly flat southern border with India. Over the centuries, this border has seen wars, forced deportations, and the transfer of money, knowledge, energy, water, food, goods, and just about everything else. India has long had a close relationship with Bhutan that is actively maintained today—a topic I will get into more when I write about hydropower.

Bhutan’s current forestry practice is one of the many things transferred across that border. In India, the colonial British Empire saw the forests as a critical resource to sustain their overseas colonies. The British established national rule over the forests by selling the Indian people a false narrative that the colonial government needed to protect the forests from destructive local people.

Those Indians who were indoctrinated into this narrative were then brought to Bhutan to lead the country’s new Department of Forestry—passing on the same colonial story of protecting a resource from local people. When Bhutanese went to India for forestry, they learned that same narrative. Namgyel was a forester once too, reflecting: “I also went to India, I also learned the same narrative.”

Today, “this narrative is still very strong,” Namgyel says definitively, “The tree is the property of the state.” People are not allowed to cut down even a single tree without the approval of the department, for any reason. “They enjoy tremendous authority of the whole forest. The narrative adds legitimacy to their whole existence,” Namgyel remarks frankly. This can make it extremely difficult for villagers: I’ve seen this in quotas for winter fuel wood and foresters patrolling for illegally cut logs.

Out of this narrative, Bhutan has maxed out its own space for forests. With about 13 percent of the country as areas of permanent snow, alpine meadow, mountain, and standing water and 3 percent as agricultural and urban land—83.9 percent is as much space that forests can physically take up.

Too many trees in the forest?

Could it be detrimental to Bhutan to have this much forest? Even with re-examining colonial forest practices, Bhutan could still have forest cover well above 60 percent. And, forests are what has led Bhutan to its carbon-negative status. But, as Namgyel lays out, this single-minded drive can be problematic.

“The natural world is larger than the trees,” Namgyel argues. When thinking about terrestrial space, trees dominate. But what about grasslands, meadows, and seasonal wetlands? They also harbor lots of biodiversity, which Bhutan prides itself on, and those species may be lost without the ecosystems to sustain them. “We are doing an injustice to the constitution by only considering the trees.”

Furthermore, too much of a good thing almost always ends up being a bad thing. Bhutan’s forests have been left so alone, with all prescribed burnings banned, that the forests are at a knife-edge of being a carbon sink versus a carbon source for Bhutan. With lots of dead trees in crowded conditions, fueled by a long winter drought, all it would take is a spark for acres and acres of forest to go up in flames, releasing stored carbon back into the atmosphere. As the country has severely limited firefighting skills, the result could be catastrophic. In February 2018, I was in Paro, a historic town 23 km from the capital, as a huge forest fire erupted on a hillside above town, and a monastery at the top was barely saved. Rural towns and temples may not be so lucky next time. As climate change shifts seasonal weather patterns and makes the summer monsoons unpredictable, Bhutan could face serious wildfires in the near future.

While Namgyel has presented a new narrative, he is not expecting a quick change in Bhutan’s strict practices. “Change will come,” he says, “But a paradigm shift is not an overnight thing.” He shares hoping that people will listen and start a conversation about what forests could someday be for Bhutan.

(This field note was updated on August 15, 2019, to reflect that Bhutan is considered a carbon-negative country, not carbon-neutral.)




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