Bhutan’s people and planet approach

The tiny kingdom of Bhutan has sought a new path to development with a dual focus on ambitious conservation and human wellbeing

Bhutan holds the Guinness World Record for the most trees planted in an hour – nearly 50,000 – last year. It is also one of the most forested countries in the world. Despite this, the people of Bhutan decided to plant another 108,000 trees in one day earlier this year, this time in celebration of the birth of the country’s new prince.

But more than a symbolic act, the planting was part of the country’s wide-ranging commitment to sustainability. Bhutan is now carbon negative: it produces more renewable energy than it needs, but the kingdom also acts as a carbon sink.

A country previously known for its isolationist policies, Bhutan’s former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, sought a new path to development, not least with the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index.

GNH requires at least 60 per cent of land to be forested, allowing the country to absorb three times more carbon than it produces. Protected forests now cover over 72 per cent of the country.

Dr Saamdu Chetri, executive director of the Gross National Happiness Centre, believes the policy will grow more relevant as the country struggle with rapid modernisation and the direct threat of climate change. “After all, how can the future of a country be a prosperous one if you neglect to conserve your environment and take care of the wellbeing of your people?” he says.

 How can the future of a country be a prosperous one if you neglect to conserve your environment?

How has Bhutan been so successful? Officials believe that policy isn’t the only reason. Bhutan’s hydroelectricity, most of which is traded with India, is a crucial local industry. A spike in urban migration also plays a part – every year a sizeable chunk of the country’s population moves to capital Thimphu, leaving historically forested, rural areas largely untouched.

The most trees planted in one hour is 49,672 was achieved in Bhutan in June 2015. Photo: Drukpa Publications. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Bhutan’s 2015 tree-planting project saw nearly 50,000 trees planted in a single hour

But like many developing nations, these changes bring new challenges. Bhutan is concerned about how to continue such efforts in a country that is rapidly modernising. Climate change remains a particular concern.

Bhutan’s commitments at the UN climate talks in Paris stood out as the most ambitious; along with high rates of reforestation, it promised higher taxes for imported vehicles and continued education programs throughout the country’s primary schools. Continued international assistance was also called for (Bhutan relies heavily on the World Bank for investments in clean power projects).

But for now, from its annual tree planting efforts to calls for united global action, Bhutan’s grassroots approach seems to be working. The nation is committed to securing the future of its kingdom and its residents for generations to come – tree by tree, and person by person.

Main Image: Flickr user: muddum27