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Forests Are Worthless Until Cut Down

Nine domains form the basis of GNH measurement, indices and screening tools. (Graphic courtesy of GNH Centre)

We determine the health of our economies and state of human progress through Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Under the theory of GDP, a forest is worthless until it is cut down. If greenhouse gases increase, so does the GDP.  Such a tool of measurement perpetuates and relies on killing ecosystems and keeping unhealthy citizens in patterns of passive consumerism. Frankly, I am sick of it, but often am at a loss for what to do.

“Nothing will stop you, only you will stop yourself,” Dasho Neten Zangmo tells me over tea.

Dasho Neten is the kind of woman that prefers to sit on the floor and carry her own bags. She is also the former chairperson of the Anti-Corruption Commission for the Royal Government of Bhutan. After completing her service, she became a farmer and the executive director of the Lhomon Society, a leading civil society organization in Bhutan designed to foster genuine Gross National Happiness(GNH)-based development. Originally coined in 1972 by the Fourth King of Bhutan,“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,”  GNH has evolved out of a criticism to GDP’s model of how to measure development in a society.

“We need to wake up,” Dasho Neten exclaims. “There is an inconvenient truth lingering, and we need to ask: Are we really moving towards self-reliance? Sometimes we need reminders, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.”

“We need to wake up,” Dasho Neten exclaims. “There is an inconvenient truth lingering, and we need to ask: Are we really moving towards self-reliance? Sometimes we need reminders, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.”

Though intended for the people of Bhutan, these words seem borderless.

Very few have the opportunity to cross Bhutan’s borders since tourism is not a priority to the extent that it is in neighboring India and Nepal. Even so, material and consumerist cultures sink deeper into Bhutan’s insulated society. While Bhutan has never been colonized, Western ideals pose a great risk to the preservation and promotion of Bhutanese cultural values, one of the four core pillars of GNH.  While multinational corporations like McDonalds and Starbucks are still denied access to setting up shop in the country (thanks to the GNH Policy Screening Tool) trends of urbanization, outsourcing food production, and obesity rise.

Almost 10 years ago, the King of Bhutan transitioned the Thunder Dragon Kingdom into a democracy to better serve GNH values.  And in 2011, the United Nations placed “happiness” on the global development agenda. While a king initiating democracy and a global forum embracing (inherently) anti-capitalist values are formidable developments, Dasho Neten hesitates to see such systems as panacea solutions.  People must first take action in their own lives; no democracy nor monarchy will instigate that.

The Lhomon Society envisions reigniting the sense of individual responsibility for personal and communal transformation. In a country where the majority of citizens work in agriculture, but where about 80% of their food for consumption is imported from elsewhere (usually India), Dasho Neten’s call for action rings especially true. Three years ago, the government proudly announced that it would become the first all-organic country. With very few young people willing to stay on family farms, however, this impressive goal seems evermore challenging.  As in most rural areas around the world, Bhutan’s villages are emptying out, leaving older generations to age with their homes and soon-to-be-stewardless land.

How do we eat without farmers?

Dasho Neten visits local farmers in India working with Navdanya
Dasho Neten visits local farmers in India working with Navdanya. (Photo courtesy of Navdanya)

Using the South Eastern district of Samdrup Jongkhar as a potential model for the country, the Lhomon Society addresses the rural-urban migration tide and aims to raise living standards by establishing food security and self-sufficiency, protecting the natural environment, strengthening communities, and fostering a cooperative, productive and self-reliant spirit. With a farmers-first mentality, the project provides training, a resource database, farmer-to-farmer promotion and exchange.

The Lhomon Society receives agricultural expertise support from Navdanya, the India-based educational and advocacy organization initiated by environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva. “Dr. Shiva encouraged us to understand that what we had and [what] we’ve done is valuable and good,” states Dasho Neten.  Bhutanese farmers do not need seeds from Denmark, vegetables from India, cultural cues from America. Local ways and wisdom will always prove most nourishing and resilient.

The Lhomon Society breathes local wisdom into its youth educational program.  The school strays from traditional subjects like math and science, and instead intertwines such skills into more applicable units like Earth, personal identity, food, and belief systems.  Promoting the dignity of labor, students are assigned chores: maintain a vegetable garden and take classes on skills like shoe repair. While most classes in Bhutan are taught in English, The Lhomon Society teachers integrate native languages as much as possible to genuinely engage their students. The curriculum is not tied to any standardized tests or certificates, and instead aims to cultivate life-long learners.

“Our project is not to exist,” Dasho Neten assures. “We want to achieve impermanence.” These projects serve as models for the country, with the hope that across all levels–individuals, communities, and the government–people and systems will transform.

Click here to see unit breakdown of Lhomon Society Curriculum (courtesy of Lhomon Society)
Click here to see unit breakdown of Lhomon Society Curriculum (courtesy of Lhomon Society)

“Knock on any door in the middle of the night, and someone will feed you,” explains Drona Chetri, a former youth program coordinator at the GNH Centre of Bhutan. This sense of citizenship increases community vitality, and to put a dollar value on it, cuts costs on ambulances.  Like Dasho Neten, Chetri sees a decrease in traditional values in Bhutan, especially in the city.  But he believes education is crucial to keep the next generation in touch and in tune with GNH. Chetri has helped develop programs with national and international youth to teach the kind of happiness GNH pursues. “The happiness we are talking about is not that fleeting feeling of elation, smiles, and light-heartedness — but the feeling of interdependence, inner self-reflection and self-worth.”

How do we cultivate self-worth? Is it simply through material asset gain? Or are we worth something more?

Chetri now coordinates educational programming at Navdanya in India. Their extensive internship program attracts visitors young and old from all around the world to learn about agroecology. Chetri reminds eager interns that “you cannot change the world; but you can change your community. Simply invite neighbors over for tea and listen–you will see the transformation unfold.”

What is worth? (Photo credit Lauren Ladov)
What is worth? (Photo credit Lauren Ladov)

Lauren Ladov is a local food activist and educator. For the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, she is based in India, creating resources and an interactive open-source digital curriculum for teachers and youth around the world to engage in seed saving and diversity education. Participate with Lauren’s project through facebookinstagram, or sign up for a monthly newsletter with lesson plan challenges and materials.