Reconceptualizing the ‘Village’

I recently read an older article, Rigg (1994), that was very enlightening. Rigg confronts the mischaracterization of ‘village’ by appealing to evidence that such a construct is falsely created and thus drives development towards a false standard of measurement. ‘Village’ has been romanticized by many writers, and has created polarized views “of rural life which is somewhat divorced from reality” (p. 124). He addresses specific mischaracterizations such as egalitarianism, and shows how ‘traditional villages’ were very much engrained with hierarchies of power and influence in which labor was used and incorporated into production activities for export. Rigg also addresses the corporate village fallacy and shows how shared labor activities, and other examples, point towards self-interest rather than selfless acts of redistribution to impoverished members of the community. “Relations of mutual help and assistance are not necessarily indicative of a moral economy. Indeed…they may merely be mystifications of exploitation” (p. 127). Thirdly, the autonomous and self-reliant village fallacy is taken up, showing how there are links to export markets very early on. And finally, Rigg addresses the colonial origins of a village. Rather than being a self–induced regional organizing method of a local population, a village is seen as being a state/colonial method to observe populations, imposing control, and facilitating the extraction of surplus labor and production. Therefore, the ‘village’ may have been ‘arbitrarily imposed’ as “the colonial state found that it was necessary spatially and administratively to define villages in order to control the population and then be in a position to extract surplus from them” (p. 129).   With these critiques of ‘village’, Rigg posits that development practitioners need to be aware of false characterizations that do an injustice to current development practice and limit potential outcomes for moving forward. Commercialization of local products and labor being integrated into global markets are “not a case of new technologies operating on a tabula rasa and creating class structures, but rather of ‘capitalism’ building upon structures that already exist” (p. 131). With this new view, then, development can properly move forward by ‘conceptualizing new ways of ‘doing’ development’ while avoiding false images of past/present and “misinterpretation[s] of history” (p.131).

Rigg, J. (1994). Redefining the village and rural life: Lessons from South East Asia. Geographical Journal, 123-135.

Ecotourism Research in the South-Eastern Himalaya

Over the last 18 months I have worked closely with a group of students at the Royal Thimphu College, also in collaboration with Sikkim University (SU) and Kathmandu University (KU) students, conducting research related to ecotourism. The research was funded by a grant from the Himalayan University Consortium (HUC), a chapter of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Each of the three partnering institutes (SU, KU, and RTC) conducted research in their respective region of the eastern Himalayas, training students in research methods, field work, and data analyses. The work culminated in a conference hosted by SU in Gangtok, Sikkim, India from March 30th – April 2nd. I accompanied five of my student researchers to Gangtok where they delivered analysis presentations to a panel of ecotourism experts. After official conference meetings from March 30th – 31st, participants then travelled to South Sikkim to visit Sikkim field sites from April 1st – 2nd. The project was a large success in that it also resulted in signed MOUs between the three institutions, thus laying a groundwork for future collaborations.


Biodiversity, Cultural Resilience, and Potatoes

Preserving biodiversity is a critical area of many conservation programs across the globe. Biodiversity is a determinant for ecosystem health, thus falling rates have produced a significant amount of concern. I recently read an article by Brush (1992) who explored the diversity of potatoes in Andean agricultural fields while fusing the analysis with an ethnoecological perspective investigating the influence of cultural practice and economic decision-making. Essentially, the research examined the resiliency of the potato agriculturalists, which were motivated to preserve indigenous varieties in the wake of globalized market forces that favor one or two varieties.  Brush found that in two particular valleys, cultural norms and values motivated the maintenance of indigenous varieties that were understood as being important to social connections, festivals, and a gift giving culture. Bush notes:

“Ritual meals and celebrations and meals for guests emphasize native potatoes” (p.178)

“Native varieties are favored gift items and are used to strengthen social ties, and some reports refer to them as ‘gift potatoes’ (Spanish: papas de regalo)” (p.178-179)

“Within farming communities, native potatoes are also appreciated, perhaps as much for their cultural significance as for their superior flavor. They are favored gift items, and in a rural economy that is increasingly short of labor, they are used as added incentives by landowners to attract workers” (p.180-181)

In a world that often seems at the mercy of globalizing market forces, these findings provide optimism. Cultural practices are expressive tools that not only shape social interactions, but also shape the world in which we live.

Brush, S. B. (1992). Ethnoecology, Biodiversity, and Modernization in Andean Potato Agriculture. Journal of Ethnobiology, 12(2), 161-185.  

Natural Capital, Neoliberalism and Motivating Conservation

In environmental literature there seems to be a recent fascination with the term ‘natural capital’. While the term seemingly signifies a positive notion, by producing a perspective of natural resources that are now understood as capital, and should thus be valued as such, the term also solidifies a particular socio-ecological relationship in line with a neoliberal worldview. Neoliberal forms of conservation work to provide external incentives that motivate people to act in conservation-friendly ways. So by framing resources, or the environment more generally, as ‘natural capital’, one associates benefits that can be derived and therefore one is motivated to treat the ‘natural capital’ in conservation-friendly ways. While this works towards a positive outcome, the means of providing such incentives contains troubling logic. What happens when the incentives for conservation are removed?

If people’s actions are trained to act towards monetary incentives, this not only puts the environment at risk during times of economic downturn, but also changes significantly the relationship that humans have with their surroundings. We are trained, in the capitalism system, to view objects in our environment according to how they benefit us individually. Therefore, the environment becomes a source of meeting our personal needs and wants and we impose power over it so that it produces what we want. This becomes even more intensified as we live in urban spaces that see ‘nature’ as something ‘other-than’ our current surroundings, thus nature is abstracted as a commodity to be managed and manipulated.

Such a conception of the environment is very different than that experienced by indigenous communities. In pre-modern Bhutanese farming communities, people viewed themselves as being at the mercy of the environment, crops being dependent on weather patterns that were controlled by deities in the landscape. Creation narratives in multiple religions also attest to alternative human-environment perceptions that frame the environment as worthy of protection motivating ethical behavior from followers. These examples point towards different socio-ecological relations that contest the model provided by neoliberal capitalism, one that does not create a vision of dominance over, but rather a symbiotic relationship with the environment.  

Conservation and the Terma Tradition

In the 8th century Guru Rinpoche (not pictured above), also known as the 2nd Buddha, was very active in spreading Buddhism across Asia. He became the figure of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism and is still a highly revered figure in much of the Tibetan Buddhist world. Guru Rinpoche foresaw a time in which Buddhism would be suppressed, and therefore saw the need to hide various treasures (both physical and supernatural) that would be revealed at a later date (Hargens, 2002). This tradition of ‘hidden treasures’ has become known as Terma, and is particularly strong in Bhutan. Along with the hidden treasures, Guru Rinpoche foresaw the Tertön, or Treasure Seekers, who would reveal the Terma. Terma have been found in various features of the natural landscape as Tshewang et al. (1995) comment:

“The entire landscape bears marks and memories; the Terma could also be seen more generally as specific manifestations of the living landscape itself, of the forces available to those whose attitude to their environment is one of constant mindfulness and deep reverence” (p.13).

Hargens (2002) also notes:

“the Terma tradition illustrates that even common-place rocks, lakes, and tress can contain the highest spiritual truths. Indeed the Bhutanese landscape comes alive through the Terma and their beloved revealers” (p.67).

What is of particular interest is the connection of Terma to a conservation practice amongst Buddhist practitioners. With the understanding that Terma may be present in the landscape, it produces a reverence that motivates conservation-minded behaviour.

While the connection between spiritual practice and conservation is not a new finding, it is interesting to see how the Bhutanese tradition of Terma is currently evolving, and is very much in decline due to an ‘opening’ of sacred spaces. Spirituality, as a value, has become less important to the younger generation of Bhutanese who are more and more influenced by globalization and the hegemony of scientific discourse. As a result, the current generation of Bhutanese are an interesting case study to explore how societal values are in transition, as are motivators for conservation practice. Today in Bhutan, modern forms of conservation policy seem much more attuned to a neoliberal agent of the homo economicus nature, rather than a spiritually minded individual. More on this to come in the future.

Hargens, S.B.F. (2002). Integral Development: Taking ‘The Middle Path’ Towards Gross National Happiness. Journal of Bhutan Studies, 6, 24-87.

Tshewang, P., Tashi, K.P., Butters, C., and Saetreng, S.K. (1995). The Treasure Revealer of Bhutan: Pemalingpa, the Terma Tradition and its Critics. Kathmandu: EMR Publishing House.

Cartesian Dualism and Capitalism


Jason Moore (2011) introduces a broad theoretical framework for understanding Capitalism, not so much as a dominant world economy, but as a ‘socio-ecological’ relationship that he calls a ‘world ecology’. Moore states “Capitalism does not develop upon global nature, so much as it emerges through the messy and contingent relations of humans with the rest of nature” (p. 108). One of the main thrusts of this argument is to break down the Cartesian model that sets up a false dichotomy between society and nature. As such, the economy is not seen as an independent institution, but one that is integrated into a broader ecology and host of interactions between human and non-human nature. Moore provides this theoretical framework at a global scale trying to understand the integration of the global economy into larger planetary processes.

Tim Ingold’s work also explicitly confronts a Cartesian/Dualist model and has been very influential as he explores local perceptions of the environment, particularly in what he calls the “Dwelling Approach” (2000). In this approach, Ingold calls out the Cartesian model as a flawed ontology, however approaches the issue with a more localized anthropological perspective trying to understand how humans perceive and interact in their environments. As such, I am curious to explore how Moore’s broader framework might integrate such a localized anthropological approach.

In exploring Moore’s work further I came across an interview conducted after the release of his book “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital” (2015a). In the interview he was challenged to define how his approach is different from other strategies for breaking down this Cartesian dualism. Moore sees his work as an extension of work that has already been done, but questions “how do you move from a philosophy that says humans are a part of nature into writing stories about the modern world? And what kind of impact does that movement from philosophy to history have on our methodological frames and conceptual premises?” (2015b). Exploring Moore’s philosophical approach, and using it as a basis for understanding Ingold’s musings over how humans perceive and interact with the bio-physical world will create space to ontologically ground future field work.

Why are such musings critical to societal-environment relations? There is a history of societies positioning themselves as somehow separate from nature. As such, particular worldviews develop that fail to develop a proper environmental ethic, viewing nature as something to be harnessed and defeated, rather than something to be cared for. Such instrumental and anthropocentric thinking drives a particular ontology that fails to account for the dependency that humans have on thriving ecosystems.

Ingold, T. (2000). The Perception of the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London and New York: Routledge.

Moore, J. (2011). Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of our Times: Accumulation & Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology. Journal of World-Systems Research, 17 (1): 107-146.

Moore, J. (2015a). Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.

Moore, J. (2015b, December 3). New Books in Environmental Studies [Podcast Interview]. Retrieved from

Spatial Fixation in Bhutan


A number of researchers have reflected on Harvey’s (1982) concept of the ‘spatial fix’ in which Capitalism seeks new frontiers of accumulation. This spatial fix can be manifested in both new spaces, but also in structural changes that allow new opportunities for accumulation. However, the ‘fix’ should only be seen as temporary, as the strategy is not able to deal with the contradiction inherent to Capitalism, in that continual growth is being promoted by the use of finite resources (Büscher & Fletcher, 2015).

In terms of research in Bhutan, the spatial fix concept has application both in terms of physical space as well as the ‘Green Economy’ discourse. Bhutan has often been orientalized as ‘the last Shangri La’ and has served as the subject of western imagineries promoting much interest in Bhutan’s virgin territory as the age of exploration has come to a close. While Bhutan has predominately operated as an isolated state, this has served well to protect both cultural and ecological uniqueness from expanding capitalist markets that tend to be consumptive in nature. However, non-consumptive forms of capitalism have taken root in the kingdom, very much in line with the Green Economy, and what Buscher & Fletcher (2015) refer to as ‘roll-back’ strategies. This is exemplified in recent policies related to Protected Areas in which National Parks must seek strategies to ‘fund themselves’ through Ecotourism type strategies. As such, the Royal Government, as a cautious player in globalizing forces, has also created avenues for forms of accumulation to take root in what could be considered a spatial fix of the larger Capitalist agenda, which is constantly seeking new frontiers as it approaches material limitations.

In addition to territorial spaces, the concept of the ‘spatial fix’ is also useful for analysing the Gross National Happiness (GNH) discourse. GNH in many ways reflects the ‘Green Economy’ discourse and can be seen as an extension, and further greening, of Sustainable Development. The 4 pillars that serve as the base to GNH remarkably resemble the pillars of Sustainable Development as they seek 1) Environmental Conservation 2) Cultural Preservation 3) Socio-Economic Development and 4) Good Governance. In many ways GNH can be seen as a cultural adaptation of the Sustainable Development concept, or a reframing in terms of Buddhist values, and is perhaps just another of Tienhaara’s (2014) varieties of ‘Green Economies’ that find common ground with Capitalism. With the ‘spatial fix’ in mind, the GNH discourse can be evaluated in terms of how it further promotes a capitalist style agenda. However, Shear’s (2014) work stands as word of caution to a purely negative critique. The ‘Green Economy’ and GNH discussions should not be seen as destined spaces for reinforcing hegemonic capitalist values, but should also be seen as spaces where imaginaries come into play and have room to explore alternatives beyond capitalism. In this framing, more productive explorations can be made into the possibilities that GNH creates for conceptualizing new economic structures.

Büscher, B. and Fletcher, R. (2015). Accumulation by Conservation. New Political Economy, 20(2): 273-298.

Harvey, D. (1982). The Limits of Capital. Oxford.

Shear, B.W. (2014). Making the green economy: politics, desire, and economic possibility. Journal of Political Ecology, 12: 194-209.

Tienhaara, K. (2014). Varieties of green capitalism: economy and environment in the wake of the global financial crisis. Environmental Politics, 23(2): 187-204.

Druk Path Trek, a prime destination?

Startrail of Chele La Pass

From May 1-6, 2016 I took a group of student researchers to hike the famous Druk Path Trek, a 45km path that spans the distance from Paro to Thimphu venturing through alpine lakes, rhododendron forests, and Buddhist monasteries. It was the 2nd time I had conducted the trek, yet I remained cautious in my planning as mountain weather is certainly not to be underestimated. During our stay we saw hail, snow, and rain and also unfortunately experienced minor headaches (due to altitude), diarrhea, and fevers. Despite these misfortunes, we had a great time. Although, there were a number of critical observations I made regarding the Druk Path as a whole.

I have to be careful when I criticize ‘eco-destinations’, as my own western assumptions cloud my assessment. Western ‘framings’ or viewpoints about what a trek in the Himalayas ‘should’ look like are a starting point for many tourists. Their expectations are heavily Orientalized, which is a product of purposeful branding, advertising, and imposed values. When tourists come to the Himalayas, they want to see 7,000-meter mountain peaks surrounded by clear streams, untouched communities of non-English speaking natives, herds of yak grazing in pristine high-altitude grasslands, and an experience that is altogether otherworldly. This is what they pay for, and this is also what many tourist operations are geared towards providing (for more on authenticity, see previous posts).

Approaching the Druk Path with such a framing will likely prove a disappointment to tourists, as it did for myself. Part of this disappointment is well-deserved, why should I assume that Bhutanese yak herders should meet my expectations for living a primitive lifestyle lacking in cellphones and electricity just to meet my experiential longings as a tourist? Such an expectation is misplaced and unfair to local peoples working towards advancement and ease in meeting everyday needs. However, there are other aspects of the experience that are much more practical in terms of basic waste management and cleanliness. Along the various stopping points along the trail there are clear signs of disturbance, some of the garbage is purposefully centralized in piles, but much is scattered randomly. Who is to blame for such mismanagement? Some blame the tourists, some blame the tour guides, and others blame the porters. Regardless of where blame should be laid, it is likely that all parties need to be sensitized to the seriousness of the issue. There are environmental concerns related to the presence of waste and economic issues related to tourist experiences and the decreased likelihood of repeat visits.

Authenticity and Commodification

Rural Lady

What does it mean to be ‘authentic’? I put the word in quotes because the word has lost some meaning in that people, or tourists in the context of ecotourism, seek an ‘authentic’ experience, by which they mean to have some experience that is more authentic than the experiences they have in their day to day lives. And much of this understanding is based on the false idea that ‘modernity is associated with inauthenticity’ (Koot, 2013; MacCannel, 1976). There is a myth built into the modernized understanding that those who live more ‘primitive’ lives are somehow more ‘authentic’, thus many travel to places such as Africa, Asia, South America and such, to have a brief window into lives of the less developed, as their lives are seen to be more connected to nature or a truer form of what it means to be human. Authenticity as described above does not exist. There is no specific content ascribed to such a description, only an expectation that an onlooker has about what they consider to be authentic.

In the context of tourism, and ecotourism specifically, the quest for authenticity has driven the creation of mythical cultures that don’t exist in reality, but rather play to the expectations of tourists. As a result, many indigenous communities have marketed and ‘put on a show’ to meet these expectations and capitalize on tourist demands. So the tourist’ expectations are used as a format for the host cultures to model, thus creating a reenactment, not of actual life events, but of a created myth. “It is therefore outsiders who determine what really is authentic to the rest of the world, often not the authentic people themselves” (Koot, 2013, 54). Because of this, local people are further marginalized as such strivings for authenticity are manifestations of power relations, or pressures to conform to a particular way of being (Mowforth & Munt, 2003; Koot, 2013).

This power, or pressure from the outside, entails changes to traditional social relations. Cultural items/practices that previously operated outside a capitalist system and were perhaps exchanged freely amongst indigenous community members, will necessarily be adapted and change as they are appropriated and given exchange values. Such items/practices will be given a new context for operation and will leave behind their previous significance to some extent. The exchange value allows the item/practice to be incorporated in to a market based system and considered a commodity that can be bought and sold. This contrasts items/practices that merely have a ‘use value’, which are not commodities, but still serve a purpose in meeting individual material or immaterial needs such as physical, social and cultural requirements. Local medicines, dances, and practices are now viewed as having additional values that can be capitalized, especially in the context of tourism where outsiders are given access to such a market.

These cultural impacts as a result of interaction with the tourism industry highlights what should be a key concern for the Bhutan government, which so fervently strives for cultural preservation, as prescribed in the pillars of GNH philosophy. One example of this is a call from local Bhutanese to revive the traditional ‘Neypo’ sytem of hospitality. The Neypo system, a traditional practice of offering hospitality in Bhutan, consisted of a cultural understanding in which travelling guests could impose themselves upon a household to find shelter and food as they travelled from one place to the next. However, this practice seems to have diminished in many areas where tourism has been the dominant mode of production, where service providers find it more economically profitable to cater to tourists in which a higher exchange value has been applied to lodging provision. Such services, traditionally serving as a socio-cultural ‘use value’, have now lost their significance causing concern from the host population (Namgay, September 30, 2014).

While tourism is often upheld as a panacea for development opportunities, issues of authenticity and commodification should be critically considered to ensure culturally appropriate modes of development that avoid the deepening of inequalities.

Koot, S.P. (2013). Dwelling in Tourism: Power and myth amongst Bushmen in Southern Africa. African Studies Collection, 54. African Studies Centre.

MacCannel, D. (1976). The Tourist: A new theory of the leisure class. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Mowforth, M., and Munt, I. (2003). Tourism and sustainability: development and tourism in the Third World, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.

Namgay, P. (September 30, 2014). A Quest to Revive Neypo System. Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS).

Science and Discourse in Environmental Management

Bumthang Agriculture

Escobar (1996) speaks of a term ‘techno-science’ which entails an evolution of human scientific endeavors. Science has moved forward in the ‘management’ of nature in a way that separates nature from its organic origins. In the scientific age, we manipulated forests in a way that produced ease in extraction for human purposes, for example tree farms. We changed the way in which trees naturally form spatially and even temporally, in order to meet resource needs. In the ‘techno-science’ age, we have moved beyond such ‘simple’ manipulations to genetically modifying species so that they further meet our desires. We now manipulate fruits and vegetables to meet such extraneous desires, and further depart from an ‘organic’ nature.

Such manipulation is in line with the dominant western scientific worldview that sees nature as something to be manipulated and managed. Such a management view has come to dominate not only the West, but also the developing world where potential lies for alternative forms of viewing nature. Escobar (1996) posits that ‘sustainable development’ is yet another form of nature appropriation that solidifies the western mindset at a global scale. While SD discourse may seem harmless, the values that form the base of such a theory are based on a particular human-environment understanding, thus proliferating such a worldview at the expense of alternative knowledges. This critique of SD is critical at such a juncture where more governments are disillusioned with the promises of such a strategy.

Forsyth (2003) goes further and describes the importance of social framings in environmental management. In many cases, the environment is managed in a way that environmental problems are determined according to preconceived ‘framings’ or understandings, which are laden with underlying values and assumptions, thus promoting a strand of particular policies that support the dominant understanding. The discourse of such framings is accompanied by a set of language that promotes the particular dominant view. For example, Forsyth uses the example of ‘deforestation’. At face value, it implies a negative connotation leading the hearer to develop a particular cognitive understanding to what is being applied. However, a straightforward definition of deforestation simply involves the removal of trees, without any negative connotations or whether the removal of the trees is due to destructive human activity or perhaps natural cyclical environmental processes. Therefore, the discourse or framing of discussions around deforestation entail a particular perspective. This perspective becomes dominant as it promotes certain policies that strengthen the base assumptions. In the case of deforestation, the underlying assumption is that it is bad and should be avoided in order to promote stability within a forest ecosystem. This leads to another key point of Forsyth in which much environmental policy is based on such a commitment to equilibrium ecology, despite the fact that much modern critique promotes non-equilibrium within nature.

Forsyth is quick to point out that such criticisms are not to remove merit from claims concerning environmental degradation, but instead he promotes a reframing of environmental ‘crises’ as to encapsulate place-based perspectives that can then formulate appropriate policy measures that avoid discrimination or inequality. A harmful example would be forest policies framed around the protection of ‘wild’ nature, thus promoting national parks while excluding indigenous use of such areas. Such a policy will be seen as socially and economically harmful, and even unnecessary, yet further promotes the hegemonic western perspective. It may be more appropriate to frame the problem in terms of sustainable forestry use, and then create options for conservation and preservation with an appropriate starting point. But such a reframing is difficult within a global culture that is already dominated by a particular framing and where decision makers are unwilling to consider alternative viewpoints.

Escobar, A. (1996). Whose Knowledge, Whose nature? Biodiversity, Conservation and the Political Ecology of Social Movements. Journal of Political Ecology, 5, 53-82.

Forsyth, T. (2003). Critical Political Ecology: The politics of environmental Science. London and New York: Routledge Press.

GNH as ‘Governmentality’


Researcher Simeon Teoh recently highlighted Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), not only as a philosophy, but as a specific ‘conduct of conduct’, related to the Foucauldian notion of ‘governmentality’ (Teoh, n.d.). This characterization of GNH puts it in direct confrontation with other such governmentalities such as Neoliberlism which emphasiszes the use of external mechanisms to motivate particular actions from subjects in a society. In contrast, GNH promotes key pillars that guide how the government makes decisions and promotes specific actions amongst subjects by enforcing the morality of such pillars. However, the recent promotion of various environmental conservation efforts in Bhutan, specifically PES schemes and Ecotourism, have much more in common with a Neoliberal rather than a GNH governmentality. While these forms of conservation have their origins in neoliberal economic concepts, case studies and specific praxis have shown mixed success results. Successful PES and Ecotourism ventures have not fully actualized neoliberal principles, and have rather relied on continuous state support for ongoing maintenance (Fletcher & Breitling, 2012). What does this mean for actualizing authentic GNH ‘conduct of conduct’? Should Bhutan continue to seek such mechanisms that claim origin in alternative governmentalities? Or can such mechanisms be adapted to an authentic GNH strategy?

Whatever the case, it must be paramount that policy makers recognize such neoliberal origins and adapt accordingly if they want to avoid the outcomes of such a ‘conduct of conduct’. In other words, if Bhutan wants to govern through GNH philosophy, then GNH principles must be at the core of whichever conservation initiatives they choose to adopt. Otherwise, the type of actions promoted amongst the populace will be out of sync with the proclaimed governmentality.

Fletcher, R. and Breitling, J. (2012). Market mechanism or subsidy in disguise? Governing payment for environmental services in Costa Rica. Geoforum, 43, 402-411.

Teoh, S. (n.d.). The governmentality approach to the business of sustainable tourism: Bhutan’s tourism governance, policy and planning. Curtin University. Accessed on October 27, 2015 from:

Herders of Haa: Landscape Ethnoecology and Toponomy

20150721-IMG_2553-EditHidden in the highlands of Haa, Bhutan lies yak country. Pastureland spans across hills over 4000 meters in elevation welcoming herds and their caretakers. A cycle of semi-nomadic seasonal movements has occurred for many generations facilitating a co-evolutionary process between yak, the landscape, and herding culture. The yak graze the land regularly keeping at bay species that might otherwise become dominant, providing a unique niche for various grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. Herders develop a precise ecosystem knowledge that is shaped by, and also shapes, an underlying worldview used to interpret the landscape. What might be perceived as a ‘natural’ landscape actually reveals a uniquely managed landscape with influences from both man and beast.

The number of herders is less than it was, resulting in an abundance of space. Prime pastures are redistributed every 5 years through a ritual casting of dice, with the winner having first choice of the area’s resources. The wise nomadic herders know not to judge a pasture by a simple visual assessment. Prime pasture is not determined through a mere presence of long thick grasses, as short varieties have proven just as productive. The key to understanding pasture quality relies on a knowledge of grass variety, herd response as yak seek certain vegetation, and milk production. Generations of experience has built a wealth of ethnobiological knowledge which is used to increase the efficiency of pasture resource use
With ethnobiological knowledge serving as the knowledge of proximity (Johnson & Hunn, 2010), the herders have also developed a macro-level conceptualization of their landscape in which they have developed an understanding of larger bio-physical patterns that help in resource use decisions. Patterns of rainfall, seasonal vegetation growth, presence of predators, and other site-specific details have helped herders cognitively map the usefulness of the landscape and its components (pastures, forest patches, streams). Knowledge of temporal characteristics of the landscape also serve the herder as they make decisions based on declining grass quality. Burning, which has now been deemed illegal by governing authorities, was a practice used to revive pasture quality every 3 years. The presence of whitened rocks and certain shrubbery are signs of historic burn areas that now dot the landscape.

During a stint of fieldwork in July 2015, in conversation with herders, toponomy of the area was discussed, gaining an understanding for why various landscape features were ascribed specific descriptors or naming patterns. The discussion focused more on proper names assigned to specific locations (Drum Lake, Yak Pass, etc.) rather than general feature descriptions (slough, low-lying grassland, flat-topped peak, etc).   The naming patterns tended to be cosmological/spiritual for water bodies, and more descriptive in land formations. For example, all the lakes in the area had names associated with the mythical figure Terton Sherab Mebar, also known as the ‘Treasure Seeker’. The Treasure Seeker, from his home region of Paro, travelled to Haa and stole a number of treasures from a lake known as Rego Tsho. In response, the lake rose up to retrieve its stolen treasure, however as the Treasure Seeker escaped, a number of treasures were dropped that were then transformed into additional lakes in the shape of the associated treasure. Thus the lakes were called “Drum Lake”, “Hammer Lake”, “Trumpet Lake”, and so on. All of the treasures were associated with common religious tools used by the Tibetan Buddhist monk body. Contrasting this, land features were given names according to non-religious associations such as “Yak Pass”, an area known well for viewing yak herds below. It should be noted that this is a generalization as a few land features also contained spiritual significance.

It is my hope to revisit this discussion and concentrate more on general feature descriptions, as they may be more useful for exploring indigenous insights to resource value in specific land features.

Johnson, L.M. and Hunn, E.S. (Eds.). (2010). Landscape Ethnoecology: Concepts of Biotic and Physical Space. New York: Berghahn Books.200_7668-Edit20150720-IMG_2472-Edit


‘Nature’, an Anti-Essential Assessment


Nature is an interesting term that, according to a constructivist philosophy, does not have an essential or consistent meaning across societies. Rather, ‘nature’ seems to be a term with incorporated culturally processed significance. This understanding of nature, led Escobar (1999) to posit an ‘antiessential’ understanding of the term. This understanding sees ‘nature’ as lacking essential qualities or characteristics, acknowledging the constructivist viewpoint of applied cultural influence over time, while also recognizing the bio-physical substance of the term. However, even the ‘biophysical reality is constituted as experience’ (Escobar, 1999, p.27).

Escobar (1999) notes that “nature is a specifically modern category, and many non-modern societies have been shown to lack such a category as we understand it”. This assessment is in unison with the work of Berkes (2004) who acknowledges the Systems-Based thinking present in many indigenous cultures in which the human-nature dichotomy is absent. This is not difficult to appreciate when one analyzes the history of societies that have been engulfed in post-industrialism and thus have lost connection to a biologically dependent lifestyle in favor of urban sedentariness. This disconnect has bred generations that mythicize the idea of nature as something beyond human society, an idealic untouched ‘nature’ (Fletcher, 2014). Yet to many pastoralist and agriculturalist communities, this idealized form of ‘nature’ does not exist as humans are seen as a necessary characteristic of the biological surroundings.

With shrinking spatial scales between societies, due to technological advances and globalization, this has brought together competing understandings of ‘nature’. Political ecology, a historical analysis of cultural articulations of biology (Escobar, 1999), allows one to recognize competing articulations as evolved understandings containing multi-faceted cultural influences that perhaps share certain histories while maintaining distinctness manifested in differing cognitive understandings.

Berkes, F. (2004). Rethinking Community-Based Conservation. Conservation Biology, 18(3), 621-630.

Escobar, A. (1999). After Nature: Steps to an Antiessentialist Political Ecology. Current Anthropology, 40(1), 1-30.

Fletcher, R. (2014). Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.