A PRIMITIVE MODEL OF FRUITFUL ECO-ECONOMY FOR THE WORLD
Written By: Daniel D. Chiras
country of Bhutan, nestled in the majestic Himalayas, is a country in
transition, its air is clean, its forests are largely intact, and its wildlife
are abundant and diverse. About the size of Switzerland, Bhutan has a population
of only 700,000.
In Bhutan, land is distributed relatively equitably so that landlessness and poverty are rare. Today,
90% of the people live in rural
areas, mostly on small farms where they grow corn and rice to feed their
families. They use draft animals to pull their plows. Although most basic needs
are met, infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world,
largely due to a lack of medical facilities and clean water. Additionally, 70%
of the population is illiterate.
37-year-old monarch, King Wanchuk, wanted to improve the condition of his
people. To do this, he realized, Bhutan could have followed the economic
development strategy of nearby countries, which have paid little attention to
the environment. In neighboring India and Nepal, the
results of this approach are painfully evident: The forests are severely overcut,
much of the soil is eroded, and more lives have been impoverished than improved.
These examples and factors discussed below convinced Bhutan to follow a
sustainable path, one that would sustain human progress not just in a few places
for a few years but for the entire country into the distant future.
May 1991, the king said, “We would like to develop rapidly, but we would also
like to ensure that there is a certain amount of harmony between rapid
development and our culture and environment.” Fortunately, culture and
environment are closely linked in Bhutan. The religion of Buddhism, practiced by
many of the nation’s people, dictates respect for the environment. In fact,
some think that the practice of Buddhism in Bhutan is one reason the
natural environment is still largely intact.
64% of Bhutan’s land area is covered by forests. When it came to the
government’s attention that forest resources were being overcut in some areas,
officials responded by nationalizing most logging operations. In 1985,
the government enacted a National Forest Policy, which made the conservation
of forests a top priority and economic considerations secondary. This policy,
designed to ensure that 60% of the country remains forested, requires that
the rate of tree harvesting be equal to the rate of replanting. To preserve
part of the forests, the government of Bhutan has set aside more than 20% of its
land in ten reserves. The Royal Manas National Park covers 45,000 hectares (165
square miles) and provides sanctuary for many of the endangered species of
south Asia. Elephants, golden languar monkeys, tigers, wild buffalo, and more
than 500 species of birds can be found in
1990, Bhutan’s highest officials passed the Paro Resolution, a call for a
national sustainable development strategy. It recognizes that the key to
sustainable development is to find a path that will allow the country to meet
the needs of the people without undermining the natural resource base of the
nation. According to the agreement, new industries, new agricultural markets,
and new forestry products need to be carefully developed with respect to the
in Bhutan is slated to proceed slowly and to be based primarily on renewable
resources, among them hydropower and solar energy. Officials see hydropower as
the country’s largest source of potential earnings. Today, most rivers still
run free in Bhutan. The largest dam in the country produces $25
million worth of electricity, which is sold to India. It also supplies power
to approximately 23,000 families in and around Bhutan’s two largest towns.
Bhutan hopes to build more dams in the future with financing from the World
Bank. Aimed at increasing export income, these projects will be built only when
the king and his advisers are sure that such prospects will cause minimal
the goal of development is to improve the lives of people, a better alternative
might be photovoltaics, which produce electricity from sunlight. Used to power
thousands of isolated farms and villages, photovoltaics could provide a
sustainable supply of energy for local needs without having to dam the
nation’s rivers. Unfortunately, foreign funding sources for this approach are
scarce, so photovokaics are not being aggressively pursued by the government at
has also begun to develop extractive industries. In the north, the conifer
forests are selectively harvested by the government-owned Bhutan Logging
Corporation. In the south, a joint government-private company operates a large
plywood plant. The company is allowed to clear-cut hardwood forests in the area
as long as it replants.
has also opened its borders to tourists but limits the number to 1500 to 2000
per year. To limit the impact of tourism, those allowed into the country must
follow a strict, government-set itinerary.
deal with its rapidly growing population and fears that it will have to increase
grain imports more than the current 10% to feed its people, the nation hopes to
limit the growth rate of its population to 2% per year in part by limiting
families to two children. Contraceptives and family planning advice are available
in 70 clinics across the country.
industrialization is allowed to progress too far or too rapidly, the Bhutanese
government knows that it is likely that natural resources will be irrevocably
destroyed and people impoverished. Rapid economic growth may be accompanied by
growing inequality, which could tear the social fabric of the country.
Increasing consumerism may lead to the pursuit of narrow economic goals.
The country of Bhutan has the option
of creating a prosperous and sustainable society from scratch. Few countries
have such a choice. A fundamentally sustainable course is already in place.
Environmentally damaging infrastructure and polluting industries have not been
developed. The country is not hindered by debt as many other nations are. Its
cultural values remain strong and intact. Income is evenly distributed. There
are few economic or ethnic tensions. Moreover, the government has strong
convictions about sustain-ability and has not been corrupted by business
Even with such strong convictions, the road to sustainability will require constant vigilance. Most think that the effort will be well worth it. As World-watch Institute’s Christopher Flavin notes: “It will involve a process of continual adaptation and change, preserving what is best in Bhutanese society while improving living standards and protecting the natural resource base on which the country depends. Such an endeavor would truly make Bhutan a model for the world.”