In a time of diminishing global biodiversity, Bhutan’s conservation achievements read like an environmentalist’s heavenly dream. More than 50% of its land area is designated as protected in national parks, nature reserves and biological corridors. More than 80% of the country is covered by natural forests, and it has a reafforestation program that is further increasing this figure. And its record on carbon sequestration is greater than its national emissions by a factor of two.
Bhutan’s environmental successes are running so counter-current to most other countries, they represent a “pleasing paradox”. And they demonstrate that it is possible to preserve very high biodiversity while achieving sustainable development.
Bhutan’s counter intuitive development goals
For Bhutan, environmental sustainability is both the primary objective and the starting point for national development.
Within its 2008 national constitution, the government pledged to protect, conserve and improve its pristine environment and safeguard the biodiversity of the country.
The flip side is that all Bhutanese are formally held responsible under the constitution to protect the environment.
The country is transcending the classical tension between economic development and environmental conservation by developing sectors that require continuing environmental protection to be sustainable.
This has included a “run-of-the-river” hydroelectricity development which requires the preservation of watersheds in natural forest. Their national needs for electricity are met while generating foreign exchange with India, which has expanding energy needs.
Bhutan has also developed a “low impact-high value” approach to tourism, guarding against some of the negative, culturally destructive aspects of mass tourism.
Controlled pricing and limiting the numbers of tourists and their access to certain areas is also minimising unwanted impacts.
They have built an eco-tourism industry around protected areas. This ensures the conservation of biodiversity and landscapes that particularly attract the eco-tourist. It also generates income for communities living with problematic wildlife.
Resolving human-wildlife conflicts
Bhutan’s success in growing wildlife populations can often lead to conflicts with communities living within protected areas.
Snow leopards can be very effective predators of domestic yak, often the primary source of livelihood and wealth of yak-herding communities.
These communities who experience high losses to snow leopards are renowned for their unbelievable level of tolerance to these beautiful predators that are so attractive to eco-tourists.
However, nationally it felt unjust that communities in prime snow leopard land should bear the full brunt of their predation.
Community-based compensation and herd insurance programs, funded by revenues from eco-tourism and non-timber forest products, are transforming snow leopards into an economic asset.
This brings tangible benefits rather than liabilities to the local community.
Why is environmental conservation so important to Bhutan?
Part of the answer seems to lie in aspects of Bhutan’s metaphysical heritage. The original religion of Bon Shamanism inculcates reverence for the local deities and spirits that inhabit components of the landscape. Supernatural qualities are ascribed to animals.
Forests are seen as a valuable source of spiritual health, necessitating their conservation. Moreover, Mahayana Buddhism, that supplanted Bon, aspires to deeply perceive the interdependence of all things and events.
A very strong eco-ethical sentiment is found in the Buddhist belief that all actions should bring the most help and least harm to other sentient beings.
What can we learn from Bhutan?
It is important to firstly acknowledge that Bhutan’s Eastern metaphysics, which ascribe sentience to other animals, is a very similar viewpoint to the Western scientific tradition.
Our ultimate materialist, Charles Darwin, was willing to look for sentience in worms and he found it. Recent investigations have found sentience in a variety of taxa, beginning with ants.
Moreover, Darwin proclaimed: “the love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man."
This is not so far from Bhutan’s ethic for compassionate conservation. But the priority we give to biodiversity conservation and sustainability is much lower in our list of concerns.
We could learn to celebrate our wildlife in festivals and art forms as the Bhutanese do, acknowledging they are also sentient. In doing so, we might care for them more.
And maybe the compassionate Australian ethic of a “fair go for all” could be extended to embrace all the sentient beings that we share our continent with.