Our Director Julian reports on his recent visit to Bhutan

3rd May, 2017
by Julian | 6 Min Read
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I have recently had the good fortune to spend two weeks in Bhutan as part of a course organised by Schumacher College and the Gross National Happiness Centre.

Bhutan, known as the 'Land of the Thunder Dragon', is a Himalayan kingdom situated between India and China. Its remoteness means that it is a challenge to visit - it took me three days to get there from Devon! But this remoteness has also protected the country from some of the modern perils associated with development.

Bhutan is a small country with a population of around 740,000, the majority of whom are Buddhist. Until recently the country was ruled by a royal family but in 2005 the much-loved King took the decision to abdicate in favour of his son and to create a parliamentary democracy with the first ever elections being held in 2008.

The royal family is still very much respected, a fact we witnessed when we attended the annual dance festival in Paro overseen by the Queen. It seemed like most of the local population were out in force all wearing their very best traditional clothes. Indeed it is government policy to maintain such traditions and preserve the Bhutanese culture in the face of westernisation and development.

The previous fourth King who had so recently abdicated was the reason for us visiting Bhutan because it was he who 30 years ago announced that as well as pursuing economic development, commonly referred to as Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan would instead pursue Gross National Happiness. GDP as a measure of economic activity does not distinguish between those activities that increase a nation’s wealth and those that deplete its natural resources or result in poor health or widening social inequalities.

As the present King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has said: “Today GNH has come to mean so many things to so many people, but to me it signifies simply – development with values. Thus for my nation today GNH is the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth. GNH acts as our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future.”

This approach to development has led to specific policies such as not allowing western-style advertising billboards, maintaining traditional dress and restricting construction to buildings that follow the traditional Bhutanese style. However the recent newly-elected governments have gone beyond this to introduce a more comprehensive GNH screening tool that all new policies are subjected to before being ratified or implemented. This tool looks at nine domains and in practice this has led to some significant decisions such as the refusal to join the World Trade Organisation.

Our trip to Bhutan was organised by Dr. Tho Ha Vinh and Dr. Julia Kim from the Gross National Happiness Centre, an NGO working to spread the GNH message both in Bhutan and overseas. The GNH philosophy is underpinned by Buddhism which is manifested across Bhutan in the beautiful temples that pepper the landscape, often in precarious locations overlooking the river valleys that flow through the mountains.

Buddhism in Bhutan connects people in a very real way to the landscape and the natural world with many of the pre-Buddhist nature spirits featuring in the temples. As a carbon-positive country which is 70% forest, the protection of the environment is a priority. There are however development pressures: for example, Bhutan’s largest earnings come from hydroelectric power which is sold to India.

As part of our visit we met with leaders from the NGO community including the first waste management company operating in the capital Thimphu and Clean Bhutan focusing on reducing consumption. In these you could see many of the arguments and debates that the west has wrestled with for decades beginning to play out in Bhutan. The key question seems to be can Bhutan forge a different path which allows a form of modernisation that doesn't threaten the environment or its cultural identity?

We saw these dilemmas in play when we visited a local school that is involved in the GNH Centres programme to spread the message to teachers and students. The pupils gave a brilliant presentation about GNH and their project to reduce the use of tissue paper by giving everyone a proper handkerchief to use! We then went on to share a cup of tea with some older students who spoke of their love of rapping and hip hop and their fears about finding a job in the future. As greater numbers of young people access education Bhutan faces a challenge of providing employment for them at home.

Tourism in Bhutan is strictly controlled in pursuit of high value but low numbers to minimise the impacts. In fact we were encouraged to view ourselves as pilgrims rather than tourists and this culminated in our last day pilgrimage to Tiger's Nest Monastery - the most sacred temple in Bhutan perched high on a cliff overlooking the Paro Valley.

I found the two and half hour climb at altitude very hard going not helped as I was overtaken by elderly Japanese visitors who were clearly much fitter than I!

Tigers Nest itself is a collection of temples including the cave where Guru Rinpoche, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to the country in the 8th century, first meditated for three months having flown to the site on the back of a tigress to subdue the local demon.

All the temples and monasteries we visited throughout our trip were special places that serve to connect local people to their cultural past but also a living breathing philosophy of which GNH is a modern manifestation.

There's no doubt that Bhutan is facing some tough challenges and there are many lessons that are relevant to our work at Sharpham. How can we enable people to rediscover their connection to the natural world, a connection that is still very much alive in Bhutan? Can our westernised societies develop a more holistic approach to development, one that respects the natural world, cultural traditions and promotes individual and collective happiness?

One of the highlights of our trip was staying two nights on a farm in a traditional farmhouse with a local family who still farm the land in the traditional manner with terraces of rice paddies cut in to the surrounding hills. This was small scale sustainable agriculture which has evolved in harmony with the natural environment.

We had the chance to try out traditional ploughing with oxen and interestingly the farmer explained that the new mechanical rotavators that were being introduced don’t do as good a job as the animals and they don’t provide the fertiliser either! Bhutan is aiming to become the first country to follow a fully organic approach to agriculture within ten years, replacing the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that modern industrial farming relies upon.

My abiding memories of my time in Bhutan are of the friendly people who went out of their way to help and were more than willing to discuss their lives and the challenges of pursuing Gross National Happiness in the modern world. Although they were aware of the many ways in which they are falling short they were also aware of the unique aspects of life in Bhutan that they and the GNH initiative are fighting to maintain.