Bhutan must urgently undertake a forest-thinning programme: Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel, forestry scientist

Bhutan, a landlocked country in the eastern Himalayas in South Asia, which has 84 percent forest cover in its land, often gets admiration and accolade for preserving its environment and forest in the best possible way

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Oct 26, 2020
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Bhutan, a landlocked country in the eastern Himalayas in South Asia, which has 84 percent forest cover in its land, often gets admiration and accolade for preserving its environment and forest in the best possible way. The country has a very strict policy to safeguard its forests leading to an increase of 24 percent in the last 70 years.

Recently an economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, mocked a 2017 report of The World Bank regarding Bhutan’s underutilized forest sector. He tweeted, “The World Bank is upset that Bhutan’s old-growth forests are just standing there, doing nothing when they could be turned into Ikea furniture.” The tweet went viral, and heated debate on the topic began.

The debate actually shows how people are unaware and ignorant about the challenges and losses caused by the existing forest policy. But under the dense and vast forests lies the challenges mostly unnoticed and often ignored by people and policymakers. The country’s increased and crowded forest cover comes with a huge cost impacting the other aspects of biodiversity, e.g loss of agriculture land, non-tree ecosystem, and degrading forest quality.

South Asia Monitor interviewed Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel, a Bhutanese forestry scientist, who has worked in the government in the past, and has long been questioning Bhutan’s forest conservation policy.  In this email interview, he explained how the current policy is, in fact, inefficient not only in accommodating emerging climate challenges but also in sustaining biodiversity and ecological balance in the country.  

Excerpts from the written interview: 

Q.Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world, and when the world is saying plant trees to save forests, why are you propagating a radically different approach for your country i.e. cut some trees to save forests?

A. I have for a long time been perplexed by the forestry paradox in the country, a country with very rich forest cover, 84 percent, yet timber is the most protected commodity, scarce and expensive beyond the reach of the common people. Its share of GDP is under 3 percent. The forest cover has increased from under 60 percent in the 1950s to 84 percent today. In 2017, the Department of Forests brought out the second National Forest Inventory Report. The first National Forest Inventory was published in 1981. Out of curiosity, I looked at the figures of the two inventories. The figures from the two inventories and other national reports set me into deep thinking and asking questions.

The increase in forest cover in the country has come at the cost of agricultural lands and grasslands. For instance, agricultural lands decreased from 9.26 percent in the 1970s to 2.75 percent in 2016. Similarly, meadows declined from 4.07 percent in 1995 to 2.51 percent today. These non-tree ecosystems are rich in biodiversity and support high densities of domestic animals and wildlife, and their loss and resulting habitat change remain a serious threat to our national food security and the ecological integrity of our natural environment. The downside of minimum or no timber harvesting over the years is that the forest stands to suffer from the overcrowding of trees. The overcrowded forests are poor habitat for herbivores, for light-demanding plant species, vulnerable to pests and diseases, and climate change. In drier conditions, they dry up the groundwater. The present forest policy and practice of forest preservation is no way to manage the forest, the most dominant renewable resource base in the country.  

Q. One of the reports of the World Bank in 2017 warned the country of new emerging climate-induced challenges like lower rainfall, higher temperatures leading to growing problems of infestation and die down. Do you think the current policies are unable to address these challenges? 

A. The world is witnessing the death of trees on a massive scale and destructive forest fires again on a massive scale. This world phenomenon is real for Bhutan too. We have enjoyed and continue to enjoy normal monsoon years but our overstocked forest remains a flashpoint for a major natural disaster during a drought year in the future. At the moment it is neither part of the forest policy concerns nor everyday conversation of the Bhutanese people. In order to prepare our overstocked forest for climate change-induced trees dying and big mega-fires, the country without further loss of time must undertake a forest thinning program.

Q. Despite having its 72 percent of the land as forests cover, Bhutan imports six times more wood and wood-based products than what it exports. Is it justified for a country that survives on already stretched economic resources?

A. This is the saddest part of the Bhutanese forest story: a country with 84 percent forest cover is a net importer of wood and wood products. The protectionist forest conservation policy, education and practice based on western perspectives have killed our thinking power, and our traditional ways of forest management built on love and respect for nature. 

Bhutan is a poor and aid-dependent country with donor grants and loans financing over 40 percent of the government’s annual budget. We face a large current account deficit, high public debt, rural-urban migration and high youth unemployment.  Forest is a rich renewable resource hidden in plain sight.

Q.In 2017, one of the reports from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests stated the incidence of forest fire as the second biggest factor responsible for forest degradation in Bhutan just after degradation caused by timber harvesting. Do you think the problem could be addressed by relaxing policies regarding timber harvesting in fire-prone areas?

A.Wise sustainable utilization of the forest resource for a forest-rich country and traditional society like Bhutan can be the greenest and inclusive economic sector. When I say cut trees to save forests, all I am asking is to raise the current sustainable harvest level, and this will be good for both the economy and ecology. More sustainable use of forests has the possibility to enhance the carbon stock in the country through removing dead and dying trees and through the promotion of the use of wood in house construction. House construction made of wood can act as carbon storage. It is said that 1 m3 of wood stores 1 ton of carbon. 

Q.Do you think there is urgent need for inter-agency debate within Bhutan regarding the country’s forest policy? 

A.The need of the hour for Bhutan is to have a fresh look at its forest conservation policy and narratives based on our traditional ways of forest management built on love and respect for nature.

Q. Do you see the public in general largely unaware or ignorant of the unique challenge Bhutan’s environment has been facing?

A. The timber reserve (growing stock) in the country has nearly doubled in the 35 year period from 529 to 1001 million m3 growing at an annual rate of 13.5 million m3. But timber harvest over the years has ranged from 0.3 to 0.5 million m3, equal to two to four percent of the sustainable harvest level (net annual increment). Bhutan is preserving the forest, hardly taking out any timber. From aerial photographs and satellite images. forest cover has increased from under 60 percent in the 1950s to 84 percent today. Bhutanese people have not been presented with other models of forest conservation in a serious way. It is time we provide the Bhutanese people with choices.

(The interviewer is a researcher with SPS. He can be contacted at snbhatnagar296@gmail.com)

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