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Bhutan Rising: Democracy from Scratch

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Photos by iLCP Fellow James Morgan

Main text  © Jill Schwartz & Sarah Wade. Edited from its original appearance in the WWF Magazine.

A young nun studies at the Sangchen Dorji Lhendrup Nunnery. Bhutan's culture is rooted in Buddhism, which emphasises the interdependence between humans and nature. Punakha, Bhutan.
A young nun studies at the Sangchen Dorji Lhendrup Nunnery. Bhutan’s culture is rooted in Buddhism, which emphasises the interdependence between humans and nature. Punakha, Bhutan.
One side effect of the increasing urbanisation of Bhutanese young people is a creeping disconnection with nature. To counter this, and keep youth interested in Bhutan’s environment, some farmers’ markets are offering young people the chance to find stable agricultural work in the countryside and then sell their produce in the city. This young farmer is selling fresh produce by the side of the road. Bhutan.
One side effect of the increasing urbanisation of Bhutanese young people is a creeping disconnection with nature. To counter this, and keep youth interested in Bhutan’s environment, some farmers’ markets are offering young people the chance to find stable agricultural work in the countryside and then sell their produce in the city. This young farmer is selling fresh produce by the side of the road. Bhutan.

Tucked between the Tibetan Plateau to the north and India to the south, west and east, Bhutan lies entirely within the Eastern Himalayas. It’s just half the size of Indiana but 51% of its land is protected—the highest percentage of any nation in Asia. Equally striking, the Bhutanese constitution requires at least 60% of the country’s forest cover to be permanently maintained (the country is currently at more than 70%).

A view of the Himalayas from Dochu La. Tucked between the Tibetan Plateau to the north and India to the south, west and east, Bhutan lies entirely within the Eastern Himalayas. Bhutanese constitution requires at least 60% of the country’s forest cover to be permanently maintained (the country is currently at more than 70%). Dochu La, Bhutan.
A view of the Himalayas from Dochu La. Tucked between the Tibetan Plateau to the north and India to the south, west and east, Bhutan lies entirely within the Eastern Himalayas. Bhutanese constitution requires at least 60% of the country’s forest cover to be permanently maintained (the country is currently at more than 70%). Dochu La, Bhutan.
Monks erecting supports to carry out maintenance work at Gangtey Goempa Monastery, Phobjika Valley.
Monks erecting supports to carry out maintenance work at Gangtey Goempa Monastery, Phobjika Valley.

Those percentages reflect the value of protected areas—and more broadly, nature—to multiple facets of Bhutanese society. One is spiritual: Bhutan’s culture is rooted in Buddhism, which emphasizes the interdependence between humans and nature.

New development in Paro Valley built on padi fields, traditional farming land is being eaten up as people move to urban centres. Paro, Bhutan.
New development in Paro Valley built on padi fields, traditional farming land is being eaten up as people move to urban centres. Paro, Bhutan.
While the younger generation is looking towards to the country’s cities, the older population, like Kahengpa Apa- a farmer in the Phobjikha Valley- remains largely rooted to traditional Bhutanese values, which places emphasis, and spiritual significance, on the interdependence between humans and nature. Central Bhutan.
While the younger generation is looking towards to the country’s cities, the older population, like Kahengpa Apa- a farmer in the Phobjikha Valley- remains largely rooted to traditional Bhutanese values, which places emphasis, and spiritual significance, on the interdependence between humans and nature. Central Bhutan.

“Bhutan’s pristine landscape is dotted with temples,” says WWF Bhutan Country Representative Dechen Dorji. For practising Buddhists, he continues, “that space for religious awakening … is so important.”

Lama Karma in meditation at Tango Monastery. Bhutan is conscious of the many changes taking place throughout the country, but with religious and political bodies working in unison, it is hopeful that it will be able to preserve its unique natural heritage.
Lama Karma in meditation at Tango Monastery. Bhutan is conscious of the many changes taking place throughout the country, but with religious and political bodies working in unison, it is hopeful that it will be able to preserve its unique natural heritage.
Lhakpa and his daughter, Tshering Yangchen, watch TV in their house in Phobjikha Valley. Internet and TV arrived in Bhutan in 1999 and the state owned BBS TV remains the only television channel. Bhutan.
Lhakpa and his daughter, Tshering Yangchen, watch TV in their house in Phobjikha Valley. Internet and TV arrived in Bhutan in 1999 and the state owned BBS TV remains the only television channel. Bhutan.
Most manual work in Bhutan is carried out by Indian migrant workers. To curb unemployment levels, however, the government is trying to increase the numbers of Bhutanese working in the industry. Wangdue District, Bhutan.
Most manual work in Bhutan is carried out by Indian migrant workers. To curb unemployment levels, however, the government is trying to increase the numbers of Bhutanese working in the industry. Wangdue District, Bhutan.

Those protected areas are also vital to Bhutan’s economy. In addition to supporting biodiversity, drinking water and irrigation, the country’s many rivers generate hydropower. That power, which is exported to India after meeting domestic consumption needs, constitutes a major source of national revenue. Wildlife delivers revenue as well. The country’s mountains, alpine meadows and thick forests shelter more than 5,600 species of vascular plant and 200 species of mammal. There are tigers, snow leopards and Asian elephants—as well as bird species like the beautiful nuthatch. Tourism showcasing Bhutan’s biodiversity and nature-inspired culture is one of the fastest growing sectors of the country’s economy.

A monk makes the steep climb up to Taktsang Monastery with supplies tied to his back. Paro, Bhutan.
A monk makes the steep climb up to Taktsang Monastery with supplies tied to his back. Paro, Bhutan.
Tourists walking to Taktsang Monastery. Tourism in Bhutan is restricted and visitors must travel as part of a pre-arranged package or guided tour. Despite the fact that independent travellers are discouraged and visitors must pay a daily minimum tariff of at least USD $200, tourism is on the rise in Bhutan. Paro, Bhutan.
Tourists walking to Taktsang Monastery. Tourism in Bhutan is restricted and visitors must travel as part of a pre-arranged package or guided tour. Despite the fact that independent travellers are discouraged and visitors must pay a daily minimum tariff of at least USD $200, tourism is on the rise in Bhutan. Paro, Bhutan.
Thimphu’s only designated landfill site reached capacity in 2002, leading to a great deal of illegal dumping. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Thimphu’s only designated landfill site reached capacity in 2002, leading to a great deal of illegal dumping. Thimphu, Bhutan.

Bhutan is a relative newcomer to modernity: the country’s first paved road was completed in 1962, and the Internet and TV were not introduced until 1999. Since 2000, however, the pace of its development has snowballed. That acceleration is particularly evident in the country’s shifting demographics. Sixty percent of the Bhutan’s population is below the age of 34. While some people work on farms, more and more prefer to live and work in cities such as Thimphu, the capital. It’s easier than ever to move to those cities, but difficult to find jobs in them.

Centenary Farmer's Market in Thimphu. Children are being encouraged to find stable agricultural work in rural areas, as many are finding it difficult to find work in the cities. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Centenary Farmer’s Market in Thimphu. Children are being encouraged to find stable agricultural work in rural areas, as many are finding it difficult to find work in the cities. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Dawa Dem runs a hotel in Paro, having studied hospitality in Thailand. Tourism is on the rise in Bhutan and is the second largest source of income in Bhutan, after hydroelectric power. Paro, Bhutan.
Dawa Dem runs a hotel in Paro, having studied hospitality in Thailand. Tourism is on the rise in Bhutan and is the second largest source of income in Bhutan, after hydroelectric power. Paro, Bhutan.

This demographical shift is resulting in a growing disconnect from nature. There are fewer and fewer stewards of the land—those rural residents with a deep connection to, and respect for, the incredible landscapes many tourists come to see.

An elderly woman making the pilgrimage to Taktsang Monastery pauses for a moment of reflection at a prayer wheel. Paro, Bhutan.
An elderly woman making the pilgrimage to Taktsang Monastery pauses for a moment of reflection at a prayer wheel. Paro, Bhutan.
This new development in Paro Valley has been built on paddy fields. Traditional farmland is being engulfed as urban centres expand to accommodate the increasing numbers of people moving to seek work in the city. Paro, Bhutan.
This new development in Paro Valley has been built on paddy fields. Traditional farmland is being engulfed as urban centres expand to accommodate the increasing numbers of people moving to seek work in the city. Paro, Bhutan.
A tributary of Thimpu River. Because of Bhutan’s wealth of fast flowing rivers the country is entirely powered by hydroelectricity, most of which is generated through joint venture projects with the Indian government. Thimpu, Bhutan.
A tributary of Thimpu River. Because of Bhutan’s wealth of fast flowing rivers the country is entirely powered by hydroelectricity, most of which is generated through joint venture projects with the Indian government. Thimpu, Bhutan.
Bhutan’s capital city has seen a great deal of development and expansion since the country opened up to the outside world in 1975. Increased migration from rural areas has also seen a rise in the urban population. Thimphu Bhutan. (move this one up)
Bhutan’s capital city has seen a great deal of development and expansion since the country opened up to the outside world in 1975. Increased migration from rural areas has also seen a rise in the urban population. Thimphu Bhutan. (move this one up)

That’s one reason WWF, the Bhutanese government and other partners are searching for new strategies to keep youth interested in Bhutan’s environment and natural resources. One way is to create jobs in rural areas. Some farmers’ markets are offering young people the chance to find stable agricultural work in the countryside. They are then able to sell their produce in the city. Homestay programs, in which families open their homes to travellers, also create income opportunities and encourage tourists to spend more time in the countryside.

Traditional dress is giving way to western fashion in Bhutan. With a median age of just 24.8 years social values are changing fast. Thimpu, Bhutan.
Traditional dress is giving way to western fashion in Bhutan. With a median age of just 24.8 years social values are changing fast. Thimpu, Bhutan.
Thimphu's electric switching station. All of Bhutan's power currently comes from hydroelectric dams scattered around the country. After domestic needs have been met the remaining renewable hydropower is sold to India. This currently generates more than 45% of national revenue. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Thimphu’s electric switching station. All of Bhutan’s power currently comes from hydroelectric dams scattered around the country. After domestic needs have been met the remaining renewable hydropower is sold to India. This currently generates more than 45% of national revenue. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, is the proud owner of an electronic car and an outspoken advocate for environmental policy. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, is the proud owner of an electronic car and an outspoken advocate for environmental policy. Thimphu, Bhutan.

People aren’t the only element of Bhutan that is in transition. The country is also investing in infrastructure—despite a decline in foreign aid—and dams are becoming an increasingly common feature. Renewable hydropower sold to India currently generates more than 45% of national revenue, and the country must diversify its economy to address its evolving needs. At the same time, Bhutan’s leaders are keeping a close eye on Gross National Happiness—the country’s holistic approach to prosperity that includes social, environmental and political priorities alongside economic ones.

Tashichho Dzong in Thimpu houses government ministries as well as the Je Khenpo-the Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan. Religion and government are deeply entwined in Bhutan. Every high level bureaucrat has his equivalent in the monastic order.
Tashichho Dzong in Thimpu houses government ministries as well as the Je Khenpo-the Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan. Religion and government are deeply entwined in Bhutan. Every high level bureaucrat has his equivalent in the monastic order.
Women and children crush cans for recycling; the cans are sold by the kilo to India where they are recycled. There are no recycling facilities in Bhutan. Paro, Bhutan.
Women and children crush cans for recycling; the cans are sold by the kilo to India where they are recycled. There are no recycling facilities in Bhutan. Paro, Bhutan.

That’s where Bhutan for Life comes into play. For several decades, the Bhutanese government has been working with WWF, the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank, the Bhutan-based Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, and a variety of other partners, to harmonize its development and conservation goals. In the face of intensifying challenges, some of those partners are creating a new strategy, now modeled after a groundbreaking initiative that WWF helped create in the Brazilian Amazon. That strategy seeks to raise the money needed to make Bhutan’s incredible protected areas system fully functional and maintain it forever.

Thimphu’s only designated landfill site reached capacity in 2002, leading to a great deal of illegal dumping. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Thimphu’s only designated landfill site reached capacity in 2002, leading to a great deal of illegal dumping. Thimphu, Bhutan.
A group of women and children take a hot stone bath with spring water, which is believed to heal bone ailments. The story goes that a vulture with a broken wing dipped its wings in the water and was cured. Bhutan has a rich mythology of such stories. Paro, Bhutan.
A group of women and children take a hot stone bath with spring water, which is believed to heal bone ailments. The story goes that a vulture with a broken wing dipped its wings in the water and was cured. Bhutan has a rich mythology of such stories. Paro, Bhutan.
A group of young people hitch a ride home. They have just made the sacred pilgrimage to Taktsang Monastery and have changed back into their casual clothes. Paro District, Bhutan.
A group of young people hitch a ride home. They have just made the sacred pilgrimage to Taktsang Monastery and have changed back into their casual clothes. Paro District, Bhutan.

Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay says the initiative is ultimately “about a balance. Balance between economic growth and social progress. Material progress balanced with spirituality.” And, he explains, a balance between the needs of two different Bhutans: the Bhutan of the future, and the Bhutan that’s working and eating and praying right now.

Traditional dress is giving way to western fashion in Bhutan. With a median age of just 24.8 years social values are changing fast. Thimpu, Bhutan.
Traditional dress is giving way to western fashion in Bhutan. With a median age of just 24.8 years social values are changing fast. Thimpu, Bhutan.
Students congregate outside a high school in the capital. An increasingly educated population is leaving the rural areas for the city to find better-paid jobs. However, jobs are not always so easy to find. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Students congregate outside a high school in the capital. An increasingly educated population is leaving the rural areas for the city to find better-paid jobs. However, jobs are not always so easy to find. Thimphu, Bhutan.
There is a ban on exporting timber from Bhutan. A number of saw mills operate in the country but solely for domestic use. However, incidences of illegal logging and wildlife poaching are of increasing concern. Paro, Bhutan.
There is a ban on exporting timber from Bhutan. A number of saw mills operate in the country but solely for domestic use. However, incidences of illegal logging and wildlife poaching are of increasing concern. Paro, Bhutan.
Jigme Wangmo and Thujee Zam study together at the Kela Dechen Yangtshi nunnery. Both monks and nuns keep their heads shaved and wear distinguishing red robes. Much of their day is also dedicated to meditation, the performance of rituals and praying for the dead and ill. Paro, Bhutan.
Jigme Wangmo and Thujee Zam study together at the Kela Dechen Yangtshi nunnery. Both monks and nuns keep their heads shaved and wear distinguishing red robes. Much of their day is also dedicated to meditation, the performance of rituals and praying for the dead and ill. Paro, Bhutan.

To see more of James Morgan’s work visit his website: www.jamesmorgan.co.uk

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Comments

  1. rebecca
    usa
    July 15, 10:15 am

    Thank you for sharing your experience with these lovely people and their colorful culture.