Nation of the forest

Yeshey Dorji

Yeshey Dorji

Sangay Wangchuk ’93MF has been called "the father of the Bhutanese park system." View full image

Sangay Wangchuk was one of the first Bhutanese to attend the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. When he returned home with his degree in 1993, the royal government appointed him to run the national park service. His first assignment: redraw the map of Bhutan.

The king had first declared in 1974 that Bhutan must remain 60 percent forested, but the policy had never been followed up with a plan. Bhutan had only two national parks, and those more in theory than in practice. “It was mostly on paper,” Sangay Wangchuk recalls, sitting in his office in the pine forest above Thimphu. “It was in tidbits.”

He and his staff began setting aside vast tracts of land. The royal family later added another park, along with forested corridors where wildlife can travel between the parks, and Bhutan has now preserved 51 percent of its landscape. A colleague calls Sangay Wangchuk “the father of the Bhutanese parks system.”

Sangay Wangchuk had no intention of going to Yale when, in 1991, he found himself on a two-and-half-day drive in the company of Bill Burch, then Yale’s Hixon Professor of Natural Resource Management. (He has since retired.) They were driving to the eastern city of Kanglung for a meeting on environmental education. At the time, Sangay Wangchuk was working for Bhutan’s forest service. He told Burch he would be leaving soon to study forestry at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor.

Sangay Wangchuk had almost missed going to school altogether. He was seven years old in 1962 when government officers came to his village to recruit children for school. Most parents resisted. “They wanted to keep their kids in the village to look after the farm, to look after the cows. It was almost like conscription,” he says. His own parents were illiterate, and neither of his two older brothers had gone to school. But Sangay Wangchuk’s mother handed her son a cowhide to sleep on and sent him off on the five-hour walk. The teachers at the school sent Sangay Wangchuk home because he was so young, but “my mother said, ‘Nothing doing. You’re going to school.’” The second time he arrived, the teachers let him stay. They were Jesuits from Canada, and they showed him the first road he’d ever seen, on a postcard of the new Trans-Canada Highway.

The Jesuit school eventually led to a degree in forestry from DAV College in Chandigarh, India, and admission to the master’s program in Ann Arbor. But on the drive to Kanglung, Burch decided to recruit Sangay Wangchuk for Yale. He remembers enumerating the virtues of FES while trying not to look out the Land Cruiser’s window at the “terrifying” mountain roads. Burch described the tight-knit community and the professors who viewed conservation through a social-science lens—a useful perspective for a Bhutanese who valued the forest’s social and spiritual aspects. By the time the two men reached Kanglung, Sangay Wangchuk was convinced. The World Wildlife Fund clinched it by providing funding.

Bill Burch had promised to keep an eye out for Sangay Wangchuk at Yale. Through his continued trips to Bhutan and the contacts he has made there, Burch has ended up recruiting, and keeping an eye out for, many more Bhutanese—helping them adjust to an education system that, unlike that in Asia, requires students to form their own opinions and speak up in class. “Bill Burch was the common thread,” says Tobgay Namgyal ’98MEM. “He was our mentor, teacher, friend, guru.”

In a very small country where only two percent of adults have finished college, it’s not surprising that a dozen graduates of FES would assume leadership roles. Tobgay Namgyal directs the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation, a $41 million fund that gives grants for conservation projects. Sonam Wangchuk ’07MESc heads the wildlife conservation division of Bhutan’s forestry department. Tshering Gyeltshen ’93MES teaches environmental science at Sherubtse College. Tashi Wangchuk ’99MFS, head of an environmental nonprofit, wrote Bhutan’s first field guide to mammals; his coauthors included Deki Yonten ’01MEM, who works as an environmental consultant, and Chado Tshering ’97MFS, a forestry specialist at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Dechen Dorji, the assistant to the king, helped to establish Bhutan’s first environmental education institute.

Sangay Wangchuk thinks Bill Burch should find satisfaction in having built “a core team” of environmentalists in Bhutan. “We consider him a Bhutanese conservationist,” he says.

In Bhutan, conservation does not mean keeping the forest a place apart. I saw this for myself when I hiked for two days with a guide and porter in the central valley of Bumthang. As we began walking, we passed a young woman, in the traditional long dress and short jacket, carrying a bundle of firewood strapped to her back. Deeper in, we stopped to cook rice over a twig fire; when we needed a spoon, the porter pulled out his machete and carved one from a scrap of fallen pine. While we ate, a yak herder passed by on the way from his upland camp to the village, spinning coarse black yak hair on a handmade wooden spindle.

In the afternoon, near a grove of rhododendrons three times our height, we trampled shards of split bamboo left from recent basket making. My guide pointed out edible plants by the path and a tree that can be tapped for liquid during a drought. We descended from a 13,000-foot pass thick with prayer flags and met a woman and her daughters on the meadows below. They’d heard that a wolf was abroad, and they were driving their cows closer to home.

Unlike the United States, Bhutan doesn’t evict locals from protected areas. Ten thousand people live in the parks and reserves and earn their livelihoods there. One Bhutanese environmental administrator mocked the U.S. approach to parkland: “The Americans are so proud: Yellowstone is so pristine. But how many visitors are there? A million?” Actually, last year, 3.6 million.

Many people who live outside the protected forests also draw on their resources. The porter who tended the packhorse on my hike is a potato farmer, but he makes most of his annual income by trekking into the highlands near Tibet to gatherCordyceps sinensis, a high-altitude fungus much sought after for Chinese medicines. (He also sells cheap clothing from Bangladesh to Tibetans in China, traveling at night to avoid border patrols. The forest conceals him by day.)

In Bhutan, it’s expected that people like this farmer will use the resources of land they don’t own—but prudently. The system for ensuring this, in Bhutan and elsewhere, is called community forestry, in which local people form cooperatives and decide, collectively, how to use the forest for their benefit without depleting it. Yale graduates are involved in this work too. Chado Tshering heads the community forestry division of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Karma Yangzom ’01MEM co-founded a company called Bio Bhutan, which markets organic lemongrass oil and powdered ginger, turmeric, and teas, all grown, collected, or processed by farmers’ groups and sold mostly in Europe. (She now works as an environment specialist for the Asian Development Bank.)

For now, Bhutan’s system for protecting its forests and biodiversity is working. In the estimation of Princeton ecology professor David Wilcove ’80, an expert on wildlife conservation, “The protection and management of endangered species in Bhutan is way ahead of the United States.”

Sangay Wangchuk believes that two factors have safeguarded the Bhutanese forest so far. The first is low population density: Bhutan is roughly the size of the Netherlands, but its population of 695,000 is dwarfed by Holland’s, at 16.6 million. The second saving grace is what he calls “the implicit”: Buddhist principles. Buddhists see all “sentient beings” as sacred and interconnected, and Bhutanese generally avoid not only fishing and hunting, but also setting fires that might kill insects.

Ideas of sacredness serve to preserve nature in subtle ways, too. Villages throughout Bhutan have always designated certain groves uphill from cultivated land as sacred, says Nawang Norbu, director of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, a government conservation research and education center. “There are some forests where you would be advised not to enter because of deities,” and these inviolable stands of trees safeguard water sources. “Some elders in their wisdom would have understood this intricate relationship between forest and water and, ultimately, their livelihood.”

In the midst of this discussion comes one of those exchanges that illustrate how much Buddhist faith informs thought, feeling, and daily life in Bhutan. When I ask Nawang Norbu how many people the forestry department employs, he estimates 1,200. But he says the exact number doesn’t matter: “One could die tomorrow.”

Taken aback, I attempt a joke: “Knock on wood.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. He pauses, then adds, “Emptiness.” Others in the room nod.

I’ve heard of emptiness. It’s a Buddhist belief that human beings are deluded in thinking of ourselves as discrete from other beings; everything is continuous and the “self” empty. But my concept of it is hazy. “I don’t understand emptiness,” I tell Nawang Norbu. “Nobody does,” he replies, “so there’s no point in me talking about it.”

“Buddhism informs the very fabric of Bhutanese life,” says the WWF’s Miceler. “Things like GNH—many of its underpinnings—come from Buddhist ideas of how to conceptualize contentment. Buddhism has tempered, very much, Bhutanese concepts of development—understanding the need to live in harmony with nature, understanding that if you do something, you’re going to have effects downstream. These principles can and should be informing First-World development policy.”

As Sangay Wangchuk puts it, Bhutan’s small population and the Buddhist worldview “have delivered us into the twenty-first century.” What happens next will depend on the resilience of Bhutanese ideals.  


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