A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the tiny village of Piplantri in Rajasthan state in western India, my home country. For every girl child born there, the local ruling body ensures that not only is the girl child saved and her mother is empowered, but also a trust fund is created for the child. In addition, one hundred and eleven trees are planted, which is nature’s gift to celebrate the birth of each girl child in the village. Now there are over a quarter million trees in and around Piplantri.
If the whole world planted at least one tree for every child born, the climate change problem would be solved, the deforestation problem would be solved, the environment would be conserved, eco-diversity would be preserved, water conservation enabled, and we would live in a greener, pristine world. Well, perhaps, the people of Piplantri were on to something…
Now in 2016, a tiny Himalayan country, The Kingdom of Bhutan, gifted its newly born crown prince, Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, 108,000 saplings upon his birth. Among the 100,000 volunteers who planted these saplings was the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Togbay, as well as, several of his party’s ministers, and the opposition ministers, too.
Conservation and Climate-Change:
The Bhutanese constitution states that 60 percent of the country must be under forest cover at all times now and in the future.
Recently, I traveled to Bhutan. There, I asked our guide, Kinley, about the massive plantation efforts, and he said, “This isn’t the first time we are doing this. In 2015 Bhutan set a Guinness World Record by planting almost 50,000 trees in just one hour!”
“We Bhutanese take this very seriously. In Buddhism, trees are providers and nourish all life forms. Planting a tree is the most wonderful gesture for someone we love. A tree symbolizes longevity, health, beauty and even compassion.”
I inquired about the significance of planting 108,000 trees…
Kinley replied, “As Buddhists, we believe that each person is required to cleanse 108 defilements to become enlightened. That is our inspiration behind the numbers. Even our rosary has 108 beads.”
I found his response so interesting. After all, trees are the lungs of this Earth! But we are fast losing their presence. The rainforests are diminishing by about 80,000 acres every day, and we are also losing about 135 plant and animal species every day, as these forests fall, according to the Scientific American.
And with this math, in another 100 years, we will have no forests at all. The Earth would be barren land, the likes of which we see in apocalyptic movies.
At this juncture this “earth-arriving-gift” for the Prince of Bhutan is certainly something for all the countries to emulate. I learnt that day, from the Bhutanese guide that at least 80,000 households in the entire country planted at least one tree sapling in honor of the prince’s birth. The remaining were planted by volunteers in special plantations in 14 districts.
Are the trees making a difference? According to the National Environment Commission of the Kingdom of Bhutan, Bhutan is a net sink of greenhouse gases. In 2008, it had a very insignificant 2040 Gg of CO2.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, which is located deep within the crevices of the mighty Himalayas, has pledged to remain carbon neutral for all time. What this means is that the country’s forests absorb more carbon dioxide than the country emits each year. It is one of the fewest countries to have negative carbon emissions.
As I traveled across this tiny kingdom more extensively, I observed a lot of interesting environmental policies and plans.
Bhutan is a democratic country, delicately balancing monarchy, too. It bases the progress and development of the nation by a unique policy called “Gross National Happiness” as opposed to “Gross Domestic Product.”
Gross National Happiness means that material well-being is important, but it is also equally important to enjoy sufficient well-being in the community, culture, governance, knowledge, wisdom, health, spirituality, psychological welfare, a balanced use of time, and harmony with the environment.
In 2015, the country reported a 91.5 % of its population as narrowly, extensively or deeply happy. Bhutan ensures that its citizens lead their life with joy, which is an incredible concept.
To further understand Bhutan’s vision and motivation to preserve the environment, check out this video of the country’s Prime Minister, Honorable Tshering Tobgay:
Conservation and Bio Diversity:
With the mandate of a 60% forest cover for all time to come, trees like teak, elm, oak and pines are so common and abundant in Bhutan’s topography. Half of the area is protected national parks and ecological corridors. There are also about 700 species of birds and 200 species of mammals inhabiting this area. And 64% of the population derives their employment opportunities from these renewable natural resources.
To ensure Bhutan’s commitment to preserving the environment, the RSPN (Royal Society for Protection of Nature) was founded as a citizen based non-profit, non-governmental environment organization in 1987.
The commendable work that RSPN is doing is evident from its most recent report. In May 2016, a team led by Dr. Lubomir Peske worked on a project to save the last of the white bellied herons, which are some of the rarest birds of Asia. Only 250 white bellied herons exist in the world. With just 5-8 fledglings being born every year, this species is not increasing in its population, but rather on the brink of extinction. The RSPN mounted satellite transmitters to monitor and rescue semi-fledged juveniles to ensure juvenile survival and population increase of these critically endangered species.
The RSPN contributes significantly to environmental conservation in Bhutan through natural resources management and development of sustainable livelihood approaches.
Other species like black-necked cranes, Bengal tiger, snow-leopard, and langurs, among many others, are endangered, too. With 29 years in conservation, RSPN contributes significantly to the country’s preservation efforts and ensures a good habitat its diverse species. This year in addition to updating satellite transmitters for the white bellied herons, RSPN has also, in the past, used radio transmitters for monitoring and preserving cranes in the central valley of Bhutan.
Farming, Water Supply, Flooding and Hydro-Electric Power:
Agriculture is the major occupation and means of the livelihood of the human population. With only a mere 8% of the land suitable for agriculture, 78% of the population is farmers. I trekked through the rice fields of the Phobjika valley, waving and smiling to the occasional farmers who came our way.
It has been difficult to maintain access to a sustainable, steady water supply for irrigating the paddy fields for the farmers. There has been a decrease in monsoons, as well as, periods of extensive floods of the lakes and rivers.
The farmers have been complaining of increased temperatures even in the normally cooler hills. Nowadays, they can cultivate cabbage and chilies even higher up in the altitude because of warmer climate. This temperature increase is causing glaciers to melt and lakes and rivers to overflow. Bhutan’s rivers (Chuus) generate hydro-electric power contributing to 40% of the national revenue of the country. There are more glaciers than arable land.
The fear is that, this melting of glaciers would soon cause a terrible avalanche effect. It is expected that with the massive tree plantation effort undertaken by the government, the melting of the glaciers would slow down, and this avalanche effect could be stopped at the right time. Only time will tell.
On the way to the Tiger Nest Monastery, there is only one restaurant on the very difficult trek up where one can stop, have a cup of tea, stretch one’s legs, and eat a bite.
I had heard the rumors and asked the young boy serving hot tea, “Did Prince William and Princess Kate stop here too and drink tea here?”
The boy said, “Yes, they had lunch with us.”
“You are all so lucky. What did you cook that day?”
“The same, and a few extra things…. Umm … do you want to see the kitchen?”
“Am I permitted to come in?”
“Sure, Princess Kate also had a look.”
It was a privilege to be invited into the sanctum of the restaurant.
This is what it looked like:
Firewood is still very much in a majority of the kitchens in rural areas. In some kitchens, an electric cooker is used in addition to firewood. In spite of the hydroelectric power providing energy, fuel wood is still used a lot. Burning wood leads to some amount of greenhouse gases, too, and can affect the health of people regularly exposed to the smoke of the wood burning.
What also surprised me about Bhutan was that plastics are effectively banned in the country. There was an initial ban in 1999, but it was later overturned in 2005. Now plastics are again banned from June 2016.
A photo of the general vegetable market in Paro, Bhutan.
An announcement in the vegetable market in Paro, Bhutan, banning plastics.
Bhutan is placed uniquely and serves as a supreme example of conservation and preservation of the environment and its flourishing biodiversity. With a majority of green lands, the mandate of 60% greenery from the constitution, a Prime Minister who is very active in the public and social circles to promote and preserve the culture and heritage of Bhutan, a Monarch whom the people worship, and a spiritual ethos to fall back to, Bhutan is rightly placed at this juncture where modernization has not captured the people completely yet with ill effects on it’s spot on the planet, and at the same time culture and tradition has not been lost.
Any nation which places its progress on the happiness of its people stands to gain a lot, and for a long time to come, too. Bhutan is a beautiful country, with monks meditating and advocating peace with an inner contentment and purity.
The beautiful pristine condition of the heart is reflected outwards with the citizens of the country, too. Anything good, which is inside the heart, manifests outwards beautifully and helps the society and nation.
The Bhutanese take pride that they are creating a pristine, pure environment, born out of a heart which is at peace, which is at joy, and which is settled. Indeed with the highest possible index of Global National Happiness, these reforms and measures, which are an inherent part of the spiritual culture, are easily acceptable to the citizens, and they play a happy and inclusive role to achieve it.
This article first appeared on World Moms Network, and is an original report by #WorldMom, Purnima Ramakrishnan from Chennai, during her travels to Bhutan in May 2016.
My visit to Bhutan in May 2016, was just less than a fortnight, but it included the most important cities and villages, and I am very grateful to our guide, driver, host, hoteliers, and others who helped immensely in this visit.
Photo Credit to the Author.