Environmental degradation, deforestation, and “deteriorating quality of life” are terms increasingly used to describe the conditions in which the people of the Himalayan foothills live. A refreshing exception, it seems, is the small mountainous dragon kingdom, Bhutan. On seeing the pristine mountain streams and uninterrupted tracts of hemlock, spruce, fir, and juniper forests, one is likely to forget the “gloom and doom” prognosis of the Himalaya.
A closer look, however, reveals that Bhutan’s resources are being subjected to pressures not entirely dissimilar to those in neighbouring Himalayan countries. Most vulnerable presently are its forest resources. Although almost one half of Bhutan’s land area is under forest cover, forests are gradually declining in area and quality, due to 1) uncontrolled grazing by cattle, yak, and sheep, 2) fires occurring both intentionally and accidentally, 3) land cleared for shifting cultivation, and 4) high consumption for both commercial and domestic uses.
Cattle, which are grazed in forests and shrublands during summer months, are increasing at the rate of 8 percent yearly. Already fodder supplies in some areas are inadequate, resulting in low production of milk, which supplements the Bhutanese diet of rice, maize, millet, and chilies. Signs of erosion are already evident in many of the heavily overgrazed alpine pastures.
The Bhutanese use periodic fires to regenerate the forest grass and make fertilizer from the ash. But forest fires are spreading to coniferous areas as well, and villagers are unable to control them.
The practice of “shifting cultivation” accounts for 27 percent of the land under agricultural use, and is prevalent in eastern and southern Bhutan. Cultivators clear small plots of forested land, and cultivate them for a few years, then leave them fallow, thus using more and more forest cover. Although prohibited by law, this practice continues due to the acute shortage of arable land available to the growing population.
More than 90 percent of the population farm subsistence crops on just 5.5 percent of the country’s total area. Due to the preponderance of steep slopes, farmers are more inclined to intensify production on already cultivated land rather than convert forested slopes to arable land. With a population estimated at 1.2 million in 1986, and a population density of 25 persons per square kilometer, which is half the average for the Himalayan region, one might assume Bhutan has adequate resources to be self-sufficient in food. The reality is, however, that every square kilometer of agricultural land must sustain 481 persons (this figure is 667 persons for Nepal). With an average farmland holding of one hectare per capita, and no option to open new land to crop production, it is obvious that the country will soon face growing problems as its population increases.
If the Bhutanese are poor in arable land, they are rich in forest wealth. Bhutan’s per capita forest area is 3.52 hectares, many times more than that of the neighboring regions. Per capita forest area for the neighbors, in hectares, is as follows: Nepal 0.31, Kashmir 0.36, Himachal 0.51, Garhwal 0.5, and Sikkim 0.81. The Bhutanese, however, are also the largest consumers of wood, consuming 10 times more timber and three times more firewood than Nepalis. Hearths often burn all day for cooking and heating, and houses are constructed of timber. Timber is often viewed as a lucrative source of export earnings through sale to India’s insatiable market. The government of Bhutan is proceeding cautiously with commercial extraction, but some areas accessible to roads are being heavily logged, and have created erosion hazards.
Bhutan’s planners have evolved a unique development strategy so as to promote its cultural heritage and values while aiming for self-sufficiency. To date, a small population, limited land use, and few development efforts have exerted only slight pressures on the fragile ecological system. Now, with a population growth rate of two percent, and the impact of improved health care beginning to be felt, it is likely that the growing population will initiate changes in land use. This may include encroachment on marginal lands, land fragmentation, increased pressures on forests for livestock feed, fuel-wood, timber, or migration. An environmentally sustainable future for Bhutan requires wise land use policies and an informed, aware populace whose participation is sought to strengthen their cultural values, while addressing their basic needs.
Jeanette Denholm, a specialist in community forestry, is presently with ICIMOD.