Living with Lhus – a research agenda

Recently a team of researchers and I were awarded a Research Development Grant from the Royal Thimphu College and will be comparing ethnoecological relationships of two locations in Bhutan in the coming Spring 2020 semester.  This research builds off my previous work related to ecotourism and conservation, but takes a new turn by exploring particular motivators for conservation that our outside the scope of economics.  Rather, we will be looking at affective relations between humans, the landscape, and multiple non-human actors.  Such actors will include inanimate objects, wildlife, and locally perceived deities.  An excerpt from our research proposal reads:

Previous research has shown that motivations for conservation are varied within Bhutan (Montes & Kafley 2019; Montes, 2019), but largely rely on spiritual values and beliefs (Montes, Tshering, and Phuntsho, in review; Montes, Kafley, Subba, Dema, Dendup, and Seldon, 2019; Allison, 2019, 2015).  However, these spiritual motivators are rarely incorporated into policy planning within the country.  Conversely, many conservation programs within Bhutan have adopted “neoliberal leanings” (Montes and Bhattari, p.214) that aim to incentivize ‘good’ behaviour through financial means.  And as modern conservation policy in the country continues to rely on such means, conservation discourse will shift to inculcate neoliberal norms and train the population to primarily respond to financial incentives.  This risks a ‘crowding out’ effect (Fehr & Falk, 2002; Singh, 2015) in which other motivations for conservation may be  deemed less important by society.  Regardless of current policy trends, there remains a strong current of spiritual adherence within Bhutanese society and represents a capacity for conservation.

While other work has addressed this connection between spiritual values and conservation (Ura, 2001; Pommaret, 1999; Allison, 2019), we propose that such values are under-applied as motivators in conservation policy.  As such, the objectives of the research are as follows:

  1. Improve conservation initiatives in the country through nuanced analyses related to local perceptions and behaviours.
  2. Provide alternatives to economic incentives that initiate commodification processes related to the environment. 
  3. Promote active engagement of local peoples in conservation efforts. 
  4. Develop recommendations for future conservation policy and legislation. 

Allison, E. (2019). Diety Citadels: Sacred Sites of Bio-Cultural Resistance and Resilience in Bhutan. Religions, 10(268), 1-17.

Pommaret, F. (1999). Yul and Lha: The Territory and its Deity in Bhutan. Bulletin of Tibetology, 40(1), 39-67.

Ura, K. (2001, November 26). Deities and environment. Kuensel. Thimphu, Bhutan. 

Fear, territory, and shared traditions


Tuan (1980) provides a historical critique of human interactions with their surroundings, proposing fear as a primary motivator for explaining particular societal-landscape relations.  Many cultures contain perceptions and stories about unforgiving elements of nature, often anthropomorphized, in which spiritual forces inflict pain on humans as a result of their offences, impurity, and/or sin.  Conversely, Tuan also notes that “as human power over nature is extended, fear of it declines” (p.9). 

There are many parallels between Tuan’s interpretations and what I have observed in the lives of many in rural Bhutan.  In a small village in the Phobjikha valley, for example, many villagers express belief in local lhus, particular spiritual beings associated with pre-Buddhist practice, that inflict sickness and other forms of harm on those that disturb their territory.   These spiritual beings are rampant across the landscape, although the territory of each lhu is quite limited in terms of space.  One might assume that one could merely escape the influence of such beings by moving one’s homestead. However, it is commonly understood that where one lhu’s  territory ends another’s begins.  Rather than escape, villagers are much more inclined to co-exist and to have developed rituals and behaviours that appease such beings.  Tuan found similar experiences in China where “peasants felt so helpless before the multiplicity of powers affecting their lives that they much preferred to propitiate them than to fight” (p.91). 

Another common belief in Bhutan is that deities lay claim to territory in mountains and alpine lakes.  Many lakes are feared as inclement weather may be produced by the throwing of stones, burning of garbage, or even speaking too loudly.  Stories are told of travellers being engulfed in fog and blizzards, losing their way, and never being heard from again.  While such stories may seem alien from a Western perspective, Tuan also reflects on a small Christian community in the 15-16th century that held similar beliefs.  Near the town of Lucerne in the Swiss Alps:

the folks held the curious belief that the spirit of Pontius Pilate caused frightful storms there.  Pilate’s body – the story went – was thrown into the lake on Mount Pilatus near Lucerne.  His ghost, after it was exorcised, agreed to remain quietly in the lake except on Good Friday and on those occasions when passers-by threw things into the water…the story was not finally discredited until 1585, when Johann Muller of Lucerne deliberately threw stones into the lake and no meteorlogic disaster ensued” (p.80). 

This similarity in traditions is astounding.  It’s a humble reminder that multiple cultures across the globe, even the underpinnings of today’s western-technocratic worldview, share a common fear of the landscape.  We fear what is unfamiliar, what is unknown, which has resulted in efforts to exert power over the landscape/nature.  Sadly, this positioning of humans over our surroundings has also produced harmful outcomes, such as the present-day environmental crises that seem overwhelming.  It seems that our modernization efforts, that have successfully minimized a perception of fear, deserve a tempered response in which we actively work to maintain a fearful respect for our surroundings.  As such, animistic perceptions seem very relevant to current conservation debates and deserve more attention, going beyond traditional assessments that see them as ‘backwards’ or ‘unscientific’. 

Tuan, Y. (1980). Landscapes of Fear. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

PhD Thesis – Environmental Governance in Bhutan

On November 1, 2019 I received a doctorate degree from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. The thesis that was successfully defended can be accessed at the following link: Environmental Governance in Bhutan

This research is a culmination of a multi-scale analysis of environmental governance in Bhutan which starts globally by positioning GNH as a “Revolutionary Imaginary” (Gibson & Graham 2008), then moves to examine national conservation policy, highlights local impacts of the ecotourism industry, and investigates subject formation at the individual level. This work examines ecotourism as a discursive cultural process, departing from traditional analyses that focus on economic and environmental outcomes, to provide a nuanced investigation of how communities/individuals adopt novel perspectives and behaviour patterns as they enrol in the ecotourism sector. While the work is critical of the neoliberal nature of the sector, even in how it operates within Bhutan that is often characterized as anti-capitalist, I offer hopeful recommendations that seek to change current trajectories in order to find synergies with the intent of the GNH agenda.

Gibson- Graham, J.K. (2008). “Place-Based Globalism”: A new Imaginary of Revolution. Rethinking Marxism 20(4), 559-664.

Montes, J. (2019). Environmental Governance in Bhutan: Ecotourism, Environmentality and Cosmological Subjectivities (Doctoral dissertation). Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, the Netherlands.

Social Cohesion and Comparing Ecotourism Experiences

In a recently published article, Montes et al. (2019), I work with co-researchers to compare ecotourism experiences in both Phobjikha and Laya. As both locations have unique characteristics and histories, a straightforward comparison is complicated and difficult to find concrete best practices for the sector. Nevertheless, we work to inform the ecotourism literature by highlighting struggles specific to the area of social cohesion, while also contributing to GNH scholarship. While GNH is often appealed to as a rationale for promoting ecotourism in Bhutan, we show that more critical perspectives and adaptions are required in order for ecotourism to “become the hopeful development solution that Bhutan envisions it to be” (p.41).

Montes, J., Kafley, B., Subba, D., Dema, T., Dendup, T., Selden, P. (2019). Ecotourism and Social Cohesion: Contrasting Phobjikha and Laya Experiences. Rig Tshoel, 2(1), 23-44.

Ecotourism Discourses in Bhutan

I recently co-authored the paper “Ecotourism Discourses in Bhutan: contested perceptions and values” , which was published in Tourism Geographies. This paper explores ecotourism beyond traditional analyses that frame the sector as a material and economic practice, in order to address it as a discursive process that reshapes cultural values and perceptions. I adopt a case study approach in which three ecotourism destinations in Bhutan are investigated showing how socio-cultural and human-nature relations are reshaped through engagement with ecotourism. These new relations are attributed to an underlying neoliberal logic that drives the ecotourism sector, a logic that contrasts local societal values. The paper employs Ingold’s (2000) dwelling as a primary theoretical approach and also engages with environmentality as conceptualized by Agrawal (2005).

Agrawal, A. (2005). Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects. London: Duke University Press.

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

Montes, J. and Kafley, B. (2019). Ecotourism discourses in Bhutan: contested perceptions and values. Tourism Geographies, DOI: 10.1080/14616688.2019.1618905.

Temporality of the Landscape and Storying

Ingold (1993) reflects on something he calls the ‘temporality of the landscape’, which essentially works to make sense of how the natural world and human culture/activity (what Ingold calls ‘taskscape’) are an integrated whole.  Ingold posits that the landscape and taskcape cannot be understood as separate entities because they work together shaping one another.  As humans interact and operate within a landscape, they cause various changes that mold their surroundings.  However, these surroundings also impact human activity, shaping how culture and behavior form.  For example, consider the differences between agriculturalist and pastoralist livelihoods that are largely dependent on environments that promote and support such activities.  The temporal aspect for Ingold is important, not so much in terms of historical sequential patterns, but as a way of conveying a progressional relationship that exists between the landscape and taskscape.  Ingold states: “it is from the relational context of people’s engagement with the world…that each place draws its unique significance” (p.155).  He then goes on to imagine watching the landscape in a ‘fast-forward’ manner in which the land changes and responds to numerous human generations over time.  While these past generations cease to exist, their imprint on the landscape remains as they have left something of themselves.   This allows one to see how the “rhythmic pattern of human activities nests within the wider pattern of activity for all animal life…which nests within the life-process of the world” (p.164).   

From this perspective, Ingold goes on to reflect a particular ontology in which truth is conveyed through the act of storying.  Different cultures have different ways of experiencing a relationality with their surroundings, and therefore have particular ways of conveying these perceptions, often through the act of storying.  In many instances western technocratic approaches to environmental management have dismissed ‘stories’ from indigenous groups.  However, Ingold warns that: “we should resist the temptation to assume that since stories are stories they are, in some sense, unreal or untrue, for this is to suppose that the only real reality, or true truth, is one in which we, as living, experiencing beings, can have no part at all.  Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it” (153).

Therefore, indigenous perspectives represent novel ways of perceiving the environment that may have profound significance for present-day environmental decision-making.  While much research and global efforts have been made to acknowledge indigenous perspectives, much work is still needed.  Misrepresentation of such knowledge and biased scientific narratives continue to marginalize these perspectives.  Some of the research I have been involved in works to advocate these perspectives.  For example, in a manuscript submitted for publication (Montes, Tshering, & Phuntsho, forthcoming), I have presented the story of Rigo Tsho, a famous lake in the hill country of Haa Dzongkhag (district), Bhutan.  In this story, a fantastic cosmological battle ensues that incorporates deities, landscape features, humans, and historic saints.  What is important about the story is not necessarily the historicity, but rather the relationships portrayed between the various actors.  How are humans positioned within larger cosmological hierarchies with deities and elements of the landscape?  What is found is that humans do not have the advantage of power in which they practice dominance over their surroundings.  Rather, humans are at the bottom of the hierarchy, relying on the landscape and spiritual beings to protect them.  How does such a perspective change environmental management behaviors?  First of all, it does not prioritize ‘management’ as a primary task of humans.  Instead power differentials are inverted, humans are at the mercy of other natural and spiritual forces and they adopt a new ethic/moral towards their surroundings.  What this novel positionality promotes is a set of attitudes towards the environment that contrasts hegemonic perspectives placing humans over and rather places humans within the environment. 

Ingold, T. (1993). Temporality of the Landscape. World Archaeology, 25(2), 152-174. 

Montes, J., Tshering, S., and Phuntsho, T. (forthcoming). Cosmological Subjectivities: exploring ‘truth’ environmentalities in Haa Highlands. 

Bhutan, Carbon Neutrality, and SDG12

In 2009, at the 15th UNFCCC Conference in Denmark, Bhutan made a valiant commitment to carbon neutrality, which was then re-vocalized at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit.  Further, this commitment has evolved to claims of carbon neutrality, and even negativity (Tobgay, 2016), based upon rates of carbon sequestration and industrial production.  These claims are justified through unpublished figures that show a “potential to sequester 6.3 million tons (Mt) of CO2 annually, easily eclipsing the country’s estimated year 2013 emission total of 2.2 Mt of CO2 equivalent “(Munawar, 2016).  This is certainly good news for the small Himalayan kingdom that is sandwiched between two heavy hitters, India and China, in regards to carbon emissions.   However, the problem I foresee for Bhutan is that their current calculations only seem to account for production values of carbon within the country, and lack consideration of consumption that has broader international impacts. 

The notion of ecological footprint is important here, because this concept looks beyond one’s immediate impact on the local environment, and assumes that one’s consumption of materials, which may be produced from afar, must be calculated into one’s impact.  The products consumed within the country have broader impacts that go beyond the nation’s borders.  For example, Bhutan currently does not produce enough rice for the population, necessitating imports from India.  The rice grown in India requires various inputs such as land use, water, and fertilizers, but also incorporates transportation costs and emissions.  Therefore, as one consumes such rice in Bhutan, their ecological footprint extends to India.  The same situation applies to energy use.  While Bhutan produces ‘green’ energy through hydropower facilities, many Bhutanese are using fossil fuels for cooking, heating, and transportation.  Where are these fossil fuels coming from?  They come from India.  And these fossil fuel imports are on the rise (Jamtsho, 2015).  Therefore, despite Bhutan’s efforts to produce carbon neutral energy sources, their current imports of fossil fuels likely offset such efforts. 

With Bhutan’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), this may be a humbling experience as the country works to come under compliance with SDG 12, which promotes “Responsible Consumption and Production”.  Sustainability will require calculations of not only production, but also consumption.  While rural living is certainly a strength of the country which may attribute to low levels of consumption and carbon emissions, the number of urban residents rose from 5% in 1980 to 45% in 2016 (NEC, 2016).  Such a transition has most certainly put aspirations of carbon neutrality at risk as the growing urban population develops an appetite for foreign goods and increased consumption patterns.       

All this being said, I have not been able to find concrete calculations for claims of carbon neutrality.  Any such references so far seem to be ‘unpublished’.  Rather, we find numerous references that continue to popularize and reify such claims, all of which ignore consumption patterns in the country.  Therefore, while my assumptions may be proven false in the future, I remain cautious about claims to carbon neutrality, and especially carbon negativity.

Jamtsho, S. (2015). Sustainable Energy in Bhutan. Int. J. on Green Growth and Development, 1(2), 75-102.

Munawar, S. (2016). Bhutan Improves Economic Development as a Net Carbon Sink.  Washington, D.C.: Climate Institute. 

NEC (National Environment Commission). (2016). Bhutan State of the Environment Report 2016. Thimphu, Bhutan. 

Tobgay, T. (2016, February). This country isn’t just carbon neutral – its carbon negative. Retrieved from:

Buddhist Biopower

In a recently published article I proposed the concept of Buddhist Biopower to make sense of GNH/Bhutanese governance in light of Foucault’s governmentality & biopower discussions.  “While governmentality refers to an abstract rationality and techniques for how a state conducts the conduct of target populations, biopower is a state’s claim to promote life used to justify actions in exercising this governance” (Montes & Bhattarai, 2018, p.210).  Therefore, I make an argument that a Buddhist ethic are appealed to in order to legitimize policy & rule in Bhutan.  Primarily the ethic “diminishes the individual in favor of interdependence” (p.212) and conceptualizes happiness as a collective good.  Analyses of the GNH index and Bhutan’s 11th Five Year Plan are provided to reveal elements that portray such a governmentality and Buddhist Biopower at work.  While much of the work is theoretical and based on secondary document reviews, these conclusions are also based on interviews with governance practitioners as well as from those who have been governed in the country.    It is my hope that such work will lay a base for exploring Bhutanese environmental governance in particular.  The article is free on the Geoforum website for another couple of weeks, feel free to download and read it here.    

Montes, J. and Bhattarai, S.R. (2018). Buddhist Biopower? – Variegated governmentality in Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness agenda. Geoforum, 96, 207-216.

Struggling with GNH

One cannot come to Bhutan without hearing about Gross National Happiness (GNH). It is an idea birthed in the late 1970’s as an alternative to dominant development philosophies that prioritize economic criteria for proxies of well-being. The idea was to provide a more holistic way of viewing human nature and assessing development by recognizing spiritual, socio-cultural, and environmental values. While it originated as a philosophy, based on Buddhist ideals and cultural values, it was later transformed into a development index providing indicators to measure the country’s wellbeing and providing a basis for policy direction. While GNH has received a number of criticisms, especially regarding the measurement of happiness, it has continued to evolve providing a champion for alternative development models. For this, I applaud Bhutan’s contribution to global discourses surrounding development and well-being.

However, I have come to approach GNH with some skepticism. While the GNH philosophy seems to have local origins, the tools, strategies and discourses that have emerged in recent years seem to have external roots. Many international NGOs, donors, and researchers (even like myself) seem to have taken hold of the concept, in their eagerness to find alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, and have helped it progress to its current state. While global cooperation in maturing the concept is certainly not criteria for dismissing GNH, what has happened is that local involvement and understanding has eroded. Local residents are either confused or frustrated by GNH. With a history of state paternalism, many residents look to the government as being responsible for providing ‘happiness’, despite education efforts to promote personal responsibility. Other locals merely know GNH as something mentioned on TV or at school, but know nothing else of its purpose or how it is being used to impact their lives. Although this isn’t the case for all, it seems to be a common theme for rural residents as you get further from the hubs of Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing. However, even urban elites express concern about how GNH has become something other than a ‘home-grown’ philosophy. They feel that GNH has been appropriated by outsiders and no longer resembles their national identity.

I commend Bhutan for offering the gift of GNH, as it has challenged the global community to think beyond economic measures. However, more work needs to be done to ensure that GNH remains a localized concept that accounts for the experiences, understandings and values of the common Bhutanese.

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.