Cultural Keystone Places: conservation and restoration in Bhutan

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Jessica Low, Micaela Hogger, Stephanie Mastro & Shahad Alnaji. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

Bhutan, a small country between China and India in Southern Asia, is known to the Bhutanese as Druk-yul (which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”)[1]. It is made up mostly of mountainous terrain, but also includes valleys that contain either forests or agricultural land[2]. Additionally, as it is a small and landlocked country there are limited resources to attain clean water. With such a small population of around 750,000 people and 0 new migrants entering the country for jobs or other opportunities[2], the country first became known solely for its grand temples and vast landscapes many came to explore[3].Moreover, it has a rich traditional Buddhist culture, which many came to visit for. However, now its newfound environmental and political advancements have created a new wave of attention focused on the small country.

Location of Bhutan
South Asia, landlocked country between China and India
Population: 758,288(from July 2017)[2]
Land use: forest: 72% [3]Credit:By TUBS via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Carbon Dioxide has become the leading element of the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming throughout the world. Most countries produce a surplus of carbon dioxide, however Bhutan has environmental and political policies that have allowed it not only to become a carbon neutral country, but also to have a carbon negative output, producing less carbon than their trees absorb[4]. This environmental change started off with the promise made in 2009, at COP15 in Copenhagen, one to become carbon neutral, and still to this day the whole country still is a carbon sink[4]. From there they replaced their political and economical concepts with Gross National Happiness, to lead them towards a better combination between their cultural values and the environment. However, just them being environmentally sustainable isn't enough, for they still feel the negative impacts of global warming, glaciers melting and flooding throughout their towns[4]. Therefore, they still hope to pursue further endeavors in Bhutan itself, but also hope to inspire the rest of the world to follow in their footsteps to aid in reducing carbon output, and living more sustainable lives.

Bhutanese thanka of Mt. Meru and the Buddhist Universe, 19th century. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


A vast majority of Bhutanese history remains uncertain due to the fire in 1827 that destroyed most of the historical records as well as the ancient capital. However, according to stone tools, weapons, elephants, and remnants of large stone structures, people have been living in Bhutan since as early as 2000 BC[5]. In the sixteenth century, the area came under Tibetan rule. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal set up a dual administration system in which both a spiritual and a civil government leader were in charge. This system lasted until the nineteenth century when the British decided to colonize Tibet, threatening Bhutan. Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck, who was the mediator between British India and Tibet, solved the problem when he became the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan in 1907. Bhutan was finally able to gain independence in 1949[6].

In 1952, the king passed away and Jigme Dorji Wangchuck’s reign began, and so did the transition to a more democratic form of government [7]. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the first council of ministers, renounced his power of veto, and created the High Court (the Thimkhang Gongma), giving it the right to review the king’s decisions[7]. When king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck died in 1972, his son Jigme Singye Wangchuck came to power. In his reign, he put forth The National Security Act, which allowed lengthy prison sentences and capital punishment to be the consequences for treason and speech crimes. However, in 2004 Jigme Dorji Wangchuck abolished this. In 2008, the first Constitution of Bhutan was created in which it commenced a “bicameral parliamentary democratic framework” to ensure human rights, while still preserving the institution of the monarchy[8]. Bhutan first made its promise to remain carbon neutral In 2009[9]. While In 2010, the Parliament of Bhutan did even more to protect the air by enacting the Tobacco Control Act, which restricted the import and possession of tobacco in Bhutan[10]. The government of Bhutan continued to set boundaries and take initiatives to help the environment, making Bhutan the only carbon negative country in the world today[9].


Bhutan did not always have the name that it claims in the modern day. Previously, it was referred to as Druk- Yul, meaning “Land of the Thunder Dragon”[11]. Given that Bhutan was never colonized, the first efforts of development in began in 1961. On one hand, this does make it one of the least developed countries but, on the other hand, it is one of the most traditionally cultured and biologically diverse environments[12]. Bhutan’s national flag is incredibly symbolic. It is split diagonally in half with the top portion being golden yellow and the bottom orange with a white dragon in the centre. The yellow portion represents the nonreligious power of the king while the orange symbolizes Buddhism. The dragon itself symbolizes the country of Bhutan while the jewels it is holding represent the prosperity and greatness of the country[11].

Even with a gross domestic product of less than two billion dollars, the Bhutanese manage to provide free education and healthcare by staying faithful to Gross National Happiness. Gross National Happiness is an idea first brought about by the fourth king of Bhutan in 1972 that implies a country's well being should not be based on the Gross Domestic Product but instead on things that are far more important like education, health, and all other components that make up happiness. Since then, all development in Bhutan has been driven to reach Gross Domestic Happiness[4].

Even though Bhutanese law grants freedom of religion, the government limited this right by preventing non-Buddhist missionaries from entering Bhutan, restricting the construction of non-Buddhist places of worship, and inhibiting the celebration of some non-Buddhist religious festivals (U.S. Department of State, 2007). The state religion is Mahayana Buddhism, and around two-thirds to three-quarters of citizens practice Druka Kagyupa or Nyingmapa Buddhism, which are branches of Mahayana Buddhism (U.S. Department of State, 2007). Mahayana Buddhism is a collection of Buddhist traditions which teach that one can achieve enlightenment in their lifetime even if they do not practice Mahayana Buddhism[13].

To understand how incredible it is that Bhutan is not only carbon neutral but carbon net negative, one must understand what that terminology really means. Carbon net negative implies that the amount of renewable energy that is both generated and exported from Bhutan is greater than the total carbon emitted by the country. More specifically, Bhutan produces about 1.5 million tonnes of carbon while its forests absorb 6 million tonnes, four times the amount produced[14].

Bhutan has a countless number of waterfalls, allowing it to be the largest exporter of hydropower in the world. In fact, it has also been predicted that by the year 2020, Bhutan will be exporting an amount of electricity significant enough to cancel out 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide [4]. Even more so, it is believed that if the country found a way to harvest even half of its potential hydropower it would offset some 50 million tonnes of carbon; to put this in perspective, that is more carbon dioxide than all of New York City generates in a year[4].

Trashigang Dzong, Trashigang, Bhutan. By Christopher J. Fynn via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Present Problem

The real tragedy of Bhutan's efforts is that despite their lack of contribution to global warming, they are unfairly experiencing tremendous consequences of it; consequences that countries such as the United States, which is an immense contributor, is not even experiencing. Bhutan's glaciers are melting at a rapid rate with anywhere from 8 to 40 meters receding per year. In other terms, the glaciers receded by a whopping 22% between 1980 and 2010, increasing the average water level by just over 8%[15]. This is unsurprisingly causing destructive and unpredictable flash floods. They have become so frequent that even floods that wipe out entire towns in Bhutan go unbroadcasted. In the past 25 years alone the country has experienced six significant flooding events and there will undoubtedly be more to come in the near future.

The best thing Bhutan can do is to try and become more prepared for these catastrophic events because as of right now it has been ranked 113th out of 181 countries for most prepared (number 1 being the most prepared and number 181 being least prepared). That being said, it has been ranked 134th out of 181 for the most vulnerable, 181 being the absolute most vulnerable. It is in a very dangerous predicament and although some action has been taken by organizations such as Japan International Cooperation Agency, ICIMOD, etc. it needs a lot more support in order to contain the inevitable damage as much as possible[15].

The Present Solutions

Bhutan is able to maintain carbon net negative through various methods. For starters, the government invests large amounts of money into sustainable transport systems and subsidizes electric vehicles to decrease gas consumption; the government recently made a deal with Nissan in which they will provide Bhutan with hundreds and eventually thousands of electric vehicles[14]. The government also subsidizes LED lights which are significantly more efficient and less wasteful than regular fluorescent lights. The government is also making an active effort to go entirely paper free whilst simultaneously increasing the number of trees planted throughout the country[4]. For example, Bhutan recently set the world record for the most trees planted in an hour when only 100 volunteers were able to plant 49,672 trees[14]! Most importantly, Bhutan has increased the number of protected areas in the country, which is what’s considered the “core” of their carbon neutral strategy as these areas are ultimately the carbon sink. Therefore, around half of the country (5 million acres) has been classified as protected under the title of either a national park, a nature reserve, or a wildlife sanctuary- all of which are interconnected so that the wildlife can move freely. Lastly, through Bhutan For Life, a project initiated through the Bhutan government and through the help of the World Wildlife Fund, various individuals, corporations, institutions, etc. are able to help raise money for Bhutan to easily continue its conservation efforts without money posing a problem[4].

In Bhutan’s constitution it is declared that at least 60 percent of the land must be kept as forest[16]. And, currently, around 72 percent of the land is being kept in this pristine condition without development. Bhutan’s carbon sink is around six million tons at the moment, and is a feat that no other country has yet accomplished. And they are not just stopping there: Bhutan has set a goal of a carbon uptake of just seventeen million tons by 2020 according to the Digital Journal’s editor-at-large for environmental issues[17].

Effects on the People

The people of Bhutan have decided to focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of gross national product, (GNP), which is what most countries use to show their growth and success[18]. Bhutan’s government believes that although economic growth is crucial, the environment must be taken into consideration when evaluating a country’s well-being. According to the Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, “Economic growth is important, but that economic growth must not come from undermining our unique culture or pristine environment.”[19]

There is an even deeper reason Bhutan prioritizes the land; it holds a spiritual identity to their religion, which to the people of Bhutan is just as important as the GNP of the country and directly correlates with GNH. Though, some argue that it's hard to measure happiness, according to Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan's Minister of Education, “GNH is an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society. We believe the world needs to do the same before it is too late.”[19] Therefore, GNH is not actually measuring how happy the people are, instead it measures how well the country is doing in its ideals, and the leaders believe that these ideals will help their citizens thrive. This is shown by the ongoing dedication and leadership in environmental stewardship with Bhutan taking the lead being the first carbon net negative country. And, Bhutan plans on continuing this trend in their environmental policy by being a zero waste country by 2030[20].

Effects on the Environment

Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu, Bhutan.By Christopher J. Fynn via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

Bhutan has also limited the environmental impacts of tourism by controlling the numbers of people allowed into Bhutan for travel, which in turn unfortunately, has made it more expensive for people to visit. Some argue that this downward turn of tourism could have a negative impact on the livelihood of its citizens. Bhutan is also working to limit the effects of human’s detrimental impacts by putting a ban on export logging, which has helped to allow the nation to keep the forests well above the country’s quota of 60 percent of the land[21]. Both of these actions call into question the effects on jobs and livelihoods, considering that according to the national statistical bureau of the RGB around 31 percent of the nation still lives under the poverty line of US $200. According to an article from Annie Kelly, a renowned journalist who writes for both the Observer and the Guardian,“A quarter of its 800,000 people survive on less than $1.25 a day, and 70 percent live without electricity. It is struggling with a rise in violent crime, a growing gang culture and the pressures of rises in both population and global food prices.”[19]So, although Bhutan is an environmental steward and leader, they still have issues with GDP and providing for their people.

However, some of their environmental efforts are also spurring the economy and becoming a commodity. For example, Bhutan has helped their local economy by using hydropower to power 100 percent of their rural areas and around 90 percent of all other areas even including their urban environments[22], greatly diminishing the need for carbon emissions. Bhutan also plans on selling some of their hydro electricity to India, not only helping their own GDP in an environmentally friendly way, but also helping other countries achieve clean energy.

Not only are they concerned with protecting the land, the Bhutan government is extending their environmental mission to wildlife with the herd compensation programs for livestock. This program provides compensation for farmers that are affected by the growing snow leopard population, allowing for these predators to make a rebound especially in rural areas[18]. The country has gone even further to protect these endangered species by making more than half of the land within Bhutan established as national parks and biological corridors, allowing animals such as the snow leopard, the tiger and red panda to gain further habitat[16].

Effects on the Education

Even in schools, Bhutan has expanded the idea of sustainably being an integrated part of life. Bhutan now has a program called “green schools”, where children are taught early on the importance of being a guardian of the environment. According to Annie Kelly, “Alongside maths and science, children are taught basic agricultural techniques and environmental protection. A new national waste management programme ensures that every piece of material used at the school is recycled.”[19] Teaching children to be sustainable from a young age further drives the future citizens’ passion for their climate; as further explained by Choki Dupka, a teacher in Bhutan "An education doesn't just mean getting good grades, it means preparing them to be good people," says Dukpa. "This next generation is going to face a very scary world as their environment changes and social pressures increase. We need to prepare them for this.”[19] This way of thinking helps the people take preventative measures, as they see the world around them changing, considering the fact that agriculture is the main source of income for most families, with 62.2 percent of people relying on it according to the 2015 assessment of Land suitability for agriculture in Bhutan, by the Royal University of Bhutan.

Needless to say, although Bhutan does have its struggles, it has accomplished a large feat. And the general population remains onboard, “We commit ourselves to keep absorbing more carbon than we emit – and to maintain our country’s status as a net sink for GHG.” As said in the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference[16].

As mentioned by Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan’s Prime Minister, their goal is not only to continue to improve their carbon neutral policies, but also to put happiness before economic growth and, ultimately, became a standard for environmental preservation for other countries to follow in their footsteps[4].

In Bhutan

The future goals for Bhutan really are to continue to be a carbon neutral country, however, with completing this goal, other problems have arisen, such as low economic diversification within the country, which means that there is increasing youth unemployment. To fix this and so be able to remain carbon neutral, ‘Bhutan for life’ was set up[23].

Thimphu from Sangey Gang. By Douglas McLaughlin via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.5

A collaboration between the Bhutan Government and the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), ‘Bhutan for Life’ is a trust fund that hopes to raise money for the long term investment in Bhutan’s environmental and economical sustainability[24]. Some goals have been accomplished, such as “climate-smart management plans” have been put into action, and “SMART/effective patrolling instituted in all PAs/BCs to prevent, combat and monitor poaching, wildlife”[25]. Other goals have future end dates such as;

"By 2022, at least one high conservation, economic and culturally valued stretch of river linked to a PA is designated as free-flowing and effectively managed for conservation and climate-resilience. By 2023, watershed conditions in 10 critical catchments within the Protected Area System (one per PA) improved for climate resilience, wildlife and socio-economic development. By 2023, the Five Year Plans and all PA/BC management plans incorporate natural capital valuation, environmental services provided by PAs and salient climate change risks and mitigation/adaptation strategies."[25]

However, all the goals lead to one thing, bringing together economical success alongside environmental sustainability.
Another future goal for Bhutan alongside with the UN is that of water security[26]. This goal became important due to the fact that Bhutan is landlocked and so has limited resources for water. It attempts to follow the UN’s 6th goal: to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”, by 2013[26]. Though previously Bhutan was abundant in water, now with global temperatures changing the government has become concerned with the balance or providing water to all its people, while also preserting enough for the resource to be sustainable[26]. The Asian Development Bank approved of these plans to improve the water reserves and so the plan will now be put forth for the future. Such plans were like those of improving water quality by reducing pollution, to increasing access to water-use efficiency, to "protect and restore water-related ecosystems"[26].

Awareness to the World

Bhutan became a global phenomenon after promising to continue to be one of the first carbon neutral countries at COP21, in 2015 at Paris. The word spread fast throughout magazines, newspapers and online articles of the positive impact Bhutan had on the world, therefore causing other countries to take notice and become aware of their own impact[14]. Countries now and for the future are more willing to come together to fight the reality of global warming.
As previously mentioned, COP21 was were Bhutan was given the attention for what they were doing to aid the world, but more than that COP, (Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)), is a committee where the 195 nations have now come together to set up regulations to tracking the stabilization of global warming[27].Annually, the nations meet to discuss the progress toward their convention and, ultimately, managing global warming. As an example, the COP21 not only involved Bhutan’s rise to fame for their environmental policies, but also lead to the negotiation of the Paris Agreement. Countries legally established mandatory rules, such as having to “financing mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries”[27], to therefore reach their goal of only allowing the annual rise in temperature to be 1.5 degrees Celcius[26].

Logo of the 23rd UN Conference on Climate Change from 6 to 17 November in Bonn under the presidency of Fiji. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The most recent conference was the COP23 in Bonn, Germany, where new future goals towards global improvements where discussed.

"The conference brought together over 16,000 participants and adopted 31 decisions that: provide guidance on the completion of the Paris Agreement work programme; launch the Talanoa Dialogue (the Fijian name for the 2018 facilitative dialogue); give prominence to pre-2020 implementation and ambition, under the ‘Fiji Momentum for Implementation;’ operationalize the local communities and indigenous peoples platform; establish a gender action plan; decide that the Adaptation Fund shall serve the Paris Agreement subject to decisions to be taken at CMA 1-3; take work forward on long-term finance; and give guidance to the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM)."[28]

These goals will be regulated and implemented globally, with the hopes on reaching a decreased level of global temperatures. Within this, Bhutan is proof that the goals of the UNFCCC can be reached.

Bhutan continuously demonstrates that its lushes green trees and vast mountainous areas are a clear result of their sustainable carbon neutral environmental policies. These policies implemented prove that being able to combat global warming by changing simple policies, such as subsidizing LED lights, or promoting sustainable transport systems[4], have overarching positive effects on carbon emissions. Though Bhutan is a small country, with little effect globally, they remain the first nation to have gone carbon neutral and so are the first real nation to fully tackle the problem of global warming[29].

Even though Bhutan is attempting to tackle the problem of global warming, there are still negative effects that come with it, such as increasing youth unemployment, increased poaching and illegal trade [23]. However, by rationalizing out the options, it becomes clear that Bhutan’s environmental policies are beneficial to themselves and to the world, so should continue to be put forth(as is planned to) and should inspire other countries to follow in their footsteps(which it has).

Therefore, Bhutan’s environmental and political policies clearly show an improvement not only to the countries environmental wellbeing, but also the people's, demonstrating that they should continue to be implemented and hopefully, similar policies will be implemented in other countries globally.

  1. Culture of Bhutan - history, people, women, beliefs, food, family, social, dress, marriage. (2018). Retrieved 4 April 2018, from
  2. Central Intelligence Agency. (2018). The World Factbook: Bhutan. [online] Available at:
  3. 3.03.1 Tyler Protano-Goodwin, T. (n.d.). Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world.Retrieved February 10, 2018, from
  4. Tobgay, T. (2016, February). This country isn’t just carbon neutral - it’s carbon negative [Video file]. Retrieved 7 February 2018 from
  5. Mould, P., Hutt, M., & Aris, M. (1996). Bhutan: Aspects of Culture and Development. Mountain Research and Development, 16(1), 84. doi:10.2307/3673901
  6. Nepal and Bhutan: Country studies. (1993). Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress.
  7. 7.07.1 Bowman, J. S. (2000). Columbia chronologies of Asian history and culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
  8. Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan. (2008). Government of Bhutan.
  9. 9.09.1 Protano-Goodwin, T. (n.d.). Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world. Retrieved April 12, 2018, from
  10. Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan. (2010). Government of Bhutan.
  11. 11.011.1 Howard, C. (n.d.). Bhutan. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from
  12. Brooks, J. S. (2011). Buddhism, Economics, and Environmental Values: A Multilevel Analysis of Sustainable Development Efforts in Bhutan. Society & Natural Resources, 24(7), 637-655. doi:10.1080/08941920903463838
  13. Woodhead, L., Partridge, C. H., & Kawanami, H. (2016). Religions in the modern world: Traditions and transformations. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  14. This Country Isn't Just Carbon Neutral ... It's Carbon Negative. (2018). EcoWatch. Retrieved 9 April 2018, from
  15. 15.015.1 Flash floods the dangerous new normal in Bhutan. (2018). The Third Pole. Retrieved 9 April 2018, from
  16. Braasch, G. (2005). Environment and Climate Change in Bhutan. World View of Global Warming. Retrieved from:
  17. Graham, K. (3/19/2016). Bhutan is not just carbon neutral its carbon negative. Digital Journal. Retrieved from:
  18. 18.018.1 Jeffree, R. (12/26/2017). Bhutan’s environmental success is a pleasing paradox. The Conservation. Retrieved from:
  19. Kelly, A. (12/1/2012). Gross national happiness in Bhutan: the big idea from a tiny state that could change the world. The Observer. Retrieved from:
  20. Climate Action Programme. (1/18/2017). Bhutan the world’s first carbon negative country. Retrieved from
  21. World Wildlife Fund. (2018). Bhutan: Committed to Conservation. Retrieved from:
  22. Gurung, A. (3/17/2017). BHUTAN MAY BE SMALL BUT IT IS SCALING GREAT HEIGHTS IN SOCIETY. Keys to Bhutan. Retrieved from:
  23. 23.023.1 Bhutan For Life. (2018). Retrieved 6 April 2018, from
  24. BHUTAN FOR LIFE. (2018). Bhutan For Life (BFL). Retrieved 6 April 2018, from
  25. 25.025.1 BHUTAN FOR LIFE. (2018). Bhutan For Life (BFL). Retrieved 6 April 2018, from
  26. Water; Securing Bhutan's Future. (2018). Retrieved 6 April 2018, from
  27. 27.027.1 About COP23 - Cop23. (2018). Cop23. Retrieved 6 April 2018, from
  28. Hub, I. (2018). COP 23 Adopts Decisions on Adaptation Fund, Gender, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities | News | SDG Knowledge Hub | IISD. Retrieved 6 April 2018, from
  29. This is the world's first carbon negative country. (2018). World Economic Forum. Retrieved 9 April 2018, from

Post image:  By TUBS via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 3.0