Forest For Gross National Happiness
- Thinley Dorji
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To my lament on a Facebook post on the widespread practice of cutting down of straight, tall trees for prayer flags, I got a few customary likes from close friends but one comment struck a discordant note. It politely pointed out that trees, as a natural resource, must be used to support our cultural and social life. Moreover, it added, thinning trees is good for forests. I could sense immediately that this gentleman seemed to know what he was talking about.
Well, let me ask for an expert opinion, I demurred, wanting to hold onto my shaken sense of being an armchair eco-friendly, self-appointed protector of forests. A closer look at the profile of the person confirmed my first impression. He was none other than Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel, a man with PhD in Forestry. He also informed me that he had just brought out a book on forestry and what’s more, he offered to send me a copy!
The book, “Forest For Gross National Happiness,” is a compilation of 16 years of online forum on forestry issues in Bhutan moderated and edited by Dr. Phuntsho. If you think, as I did, that it’d be too technical and boring for a layman, you’d be pleasantly surprised. While the participants are indeed experts in forestry and related fields, Dr. Phuntsho’s slick editing and choice of topics made this one of my favorite reads of the year.
Environment protection is one of the cornerstones of Bhutan’s image, appeal and development approach. As a small developing country dependent on the largesse of the international community as well as its inherent vulnerability, this matters a great deal. So much so that keeping at least 60% forest cover is enshrined in the nation’s Constitution. But how many of us, even the so-called “educated” lot, know even the most rudimentary facts about our forests? For instance, did you know that more trees do not translate into more water? Or that crowded forest is bad for ecology? Or that the small regular wildfires are good for environment? And he has not skirted politically sensitive questions, for instance, what is the use of having all that forest cover if wood for building houses is priced out of ordinary people’s reach? Why and how we are getting the wildlife conservation wrong? Why and how the forestry share of GDP at 2.6% is pitiful, this coming from over 80% of land under forest? These and more questions are raised and discussed by experts at home and from abroad. And always, there is the sensitive and knowledgeable moderating hand of the editor.
My own take after reading the book? The state’s role is inevitable to protect and ensure that all resources are used for the equitable and sustainable benefit of all Bhutanese, keeping in mind the Constitutional mandate. We must learn also from the knowledge and experience of other countries and incorporate latest findings from rigorous research and scientific knowhow suitable to our conditions. And these should always include the active participation of local communities because nobody knows the local bushes, animals and trees better than them.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to restore the custody, ownership and use of local resources to them? The current scenario is one of Forestry officials – Guru bless their dedicated service – protecting the natural resources of the forests, including trees, from being destroyed by the people. Given these, Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel’s views on the need to change public policy on forestry deserves serious consideration.