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.


‘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.


Haa Trek 2014-11

The landscape that a community perceives and lives in is more than just the physical environment, but entails elements of culture that affect the perceived environment. There is a cosmological and spiritual element to this way of understanding one’s surroundings and it affects their practices and actions (Johnson, 2010; Toledo 2002). Ethnoecology can be defined as “an interdisciplinary approach that explores how nature is viewed by human groups through a screen of beliefs and knowledge, and how humans use their images to acquire and manage natural resources” (Toledo, 2002, p. 514). Barrera-Bassols & Toledo (2005) adapt this definition to the following: “interdisciplinary study of how nature is perceived by humans through a screen of beliefs and knowledge, and how humans, through their symbolic meanings and representations, use and/or manage landscapes and natural resources” (p. 11).

Ruiz-Mallen et al (2011) categorize the study of ethnoecology in the following 4 categories:

  1. Belief systems & Worldviews
  2. Set of TEK used to manage natural resources
  3. Combination of productive practices to fulfil material and spiritual needs
  4. Local institutions (formal & informal) involved in natural resource management

The ethnoecological approach has been useful in exploring the intersections of these four areas. Barrera-Bassols & Toledo (2005) also reflect on these links, specifically highlighting beliefs, knowledge, and natural resource management as key realms to explore and understand Yucatec Maya communities in Central America. Their multiple use strategies for managing multiple landscapes for sustenance and market production has proven successful and sustainable (Barrera-Bassols, 2005; Toledo 2003). Toledo (1992) states that the starting point for ethnoecological research should be:

“to explore the connections between corpus (the whole repertory of symbols, concepts and perceptions on nature) and praxis (the set of practical operations through which take place the material appropriation of nature) in the concrete process of production” (p. 5).

Ethnoecology then focuses on the elements of corpus (knowledge system) and praxis (practice) and how they relate to the kosmos, or the belief system of the culture being examined (Barrera-Bassols & Toledo, 2005). This k-c-p complex, or the belief-knowledge-practice complex, seeks to understand the process in which societies interact in and use the environment.

kcp complex

Diagram 1: kcp complex (from Barrera-Bassols & Toledo, 2005)

The interaction between these three spheres (the k-c-p matrix) is dynamic and complex. Barrera-Bassols & Toledo (2005) note that in researching the Yucatec Maya culture and practices, these three spheres operated like ‘hinges’ as the relationships were interdependent on one another. For example: symbolic colours that had religious meanings were often used in plant nomenclature and classification; the spirit world was often associated with environmental elements such as rain, wind, caves, springs; agrarian ceremonies practiced throughout the year; sacred places on the landscape. All of these examples “illustrate reciprocal relations between the cosmological dimension, the cognitive body and the ensemble of practices” (Barrera-Bassols & Toledo, 2005, p. 28). The beliefs, knowledge, and practices (k-c-p) of a culture are interrelated and have spatio-temporal expressions that can be explored through the lens of ethnoecology.

Barrera-Bassols, N. & Toledo, V.M. (2005). Ethnoecology of the Yucatec Maya: Symbolism, Knowledge and Management of Natural Resources. Journal of Latin America Geography, 4(1), 9-41.

Johnson, L.M. (2010). Trail of Story, Traveller’s Path: Reflections on Ethnoecology and Landscape. Edmonton: AU Press, Athabasca University.

Ruiz-Mallen, I., Dominguez, P., Calvet-Mir, L., Orta-Martinez, M., & Reyes-Garcia, V. (2011). Applied research in ethnoecology: Fieldwork experiences. Revista de Antropologia Iberoamericana, 7(1), 9-30.

Toledo, V.M. (1992). What is ethnoecology?: orignins, scope and implications of a rising discipline. Etnoecologica 1, 5-21.

Toledo, V.M. (2002). Ethnoecology: a conceptual framework for the study of indigenous knowledge of nature (Pages 511-522) in J.R. Stepp, F.S. Wyndham, and R.K. Zarger (Eds.). Ethnobiology and Biocultural Diversity. International Society of Ethnobiology.

Honey Harvest

Bees of RTC-6The beekeepers of RTC (myself included) are proud to announce that the initial three months of the apiary project have been a success. This last weekend the first batch of honey was harvested, yielding approximately 18 liters of honey from the three hives. Campus lecturers, staff, and a number of students gathered to take part in the harvest.

The bees first arrived to the campus in March of this year, from their origin in Bumthang. The beekeepers/researchers were unsure in regards to the yield of honey in the first year, positing that the colonies may need more time to adjust to the new surroundings. However, the hives have proven resilient to the change in environment and have been productive in both brood stock and honey production.

The campus community has been very energetic hearing the news of the honey harvest, many asking when they can purchase their own taste of the local production. However, making a business out of honey production was never the main goal of the project. The following are the primary objectives of the apiary project as detailed in the original proposal documents:

1. Improve Local Crop Yields

With Bhutan being largely dominated by the agricultural sector, and looking towards more organic avenues for sustaining crop yields, such a project has the potential to improve local yields by ensuring pollination. Thus, local landowners achieve benefits.

2. Education

The mutualistic relationship between pollinators and flora is a great example of co-evolution in which an animal and plant species have adapted not only to their surrounding environments but also to each other. Great educational value is found in this relationship in terms of ecology and creates many linkages to class material and could serve as an interactive lab component to a number of RTC courses.

3. Sustainable Development

In many countries, universities/colleges serve as important research institutions that directly link to improving local livelihoods. The Beehive operation could create institutional-community linkages between RTC and rural areas of Bhutan for sustainable development, specifically serving as an avenue for exploring agricultural alternatives and alleviating poverty.
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Sustainable Ecotourism Indicators

Yaqu Tent

Due to a history of failed community based ecotourism ventures, it is a necessity to evaluate sustainability (Mearns, 2011; Spenceley, 2008). Indicators serve as a tool for measuring current sustainability, offer recommendations for improvement and help avoid unsustainable decision-making (Mearns, 2011; UNCSD, 2007).   Measuring traditional indicators of tourism such as arrival numbers and tourist expenditures will not serve the purpose of measuring sustainability (Mearns, 2011; Roberts & Tribe, 2008), therefore it is necessary to adopt indicators that measure performance from the viewpoint of a triple bottom line, mainly economics, socio-cultural and environmental. Such an indicator system will help monitor a venture’s performance in meeting sustainable development goals (UNCSD, 2001).

12-24 indicators is a desirable number that has shown to be manageable by practitioners without causing unnecessary confusion (Mearns, 2011; WTO, 2004). Mearns (2011; 2012) adopted 12 baseline indicators developed by the World Tourism Organization (2004) for determining sustainability within tourism ventures. In addition, Mearns developed six specific indicators unique to community based ecotourism initiatives. These indicators produced by Mearns will be adopted and applied in future research initiated by the Royal Thimphu College to help determine the sustainability of ecotourism ventures in Bhutan.

However, Mearns’ research focused on community based ecotourism ventures in Lesotho, so his findings cannot be reapplied to the Bhutanese context without some modification. Ecotourism must be assessed, not in isolation, but in its larger socio-political context (Honey, 2008). With Mearns’ evaluation framework serving as a base, site-specific indicators to account for local conditions will be required and serve as a critical source of information for field research (Mearns, 2011; Roberts & Tribe, 2008). In research conducted by Gurung and Scholz (2008), they determined 6 impact factors for Bhutan which determined the success of various ecotourism ventures. These 6 impact factors will be modified for this research to provide site-specific indicators for ecotourism in Bhutan and combined with the 18 indicators provided by the WTO and Mearns.  The indicators that will be further refined are listed below.

WTO Baseline Indicators: local satisfaction with tourism, effects of tourism on communities, sustain tourist satisfaction, tourism seasonality, economic benefits of tourism, energy management, water availability & conservation, drinking water quality, sewage treatment, solid waste management, development controls, controlling use intensity

Community Based Ecotourism Indicators: education, community decision making, community benefits, culture, biodiversity & conservation, networking & collaboration

Bhutan Impact Factors: Accessibility, pricing, tourism products, community empowerment, tourism facilities, marketing of tourism products

Gurung, D.B. & Scholz, R. (2008). Community-based ecotourism in Bhutan: Expert evaluation of stakeholder-based scenarios. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 15, 397-411.

Honey, M. (2008). Ecotourism and sustainable development: Who owns paradise? (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Mearns, K.F. (2011). Using sustainable tourism indicators to measure the sustainability of a community-based ecotourism venture: Malealea Lodge and Pony-trekking cenre, Lesotho. Tourism Review International, 15(1-2), 135-147.

Mearns, K.F. (2012). Lessons from the application of sustainability indicators to community-based ecotourism ventures in Southern Africa. African Journal of Business Management 6(26), 7851-7860.

Roberts, S. and Tribe, J. (2008). Sustainability Indicators for Small Tourism Enterprises – An Exploratory Perspective. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16(5), 575-594.

Spenceley, A. (2008). Local Impacts of Community-based Tourism in Southern Africa. In A. Spenceley (Ed.) Responsible Tourism: Critical Issues for Conservation and Development, 285-303. London, Earthscan.

United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD). (2001). From theory to practice: indicators for sustainable development. New York.

World Tourism Organization. (2004). Indicators of sustainable development for tourism destinations: a guidebook. Madrid: World Tourism Organization.



The Stakeholder’s Theory of Conservation

Vermillion Lakes_

A summary of Stakeholders Theory, from my point of view, posits that economic incentives can be used to promote conservation among those who have something to gain/lose from such efforts. This idea has often been used, especially in community-based initiatives, in which increased income is linked to the success of biodiversity protection or restrained resource use. This has been a popular train of thought in resource management and environmental conservation activities worldwide. However, some researchers are cynical of this method as it may be undermining alternative conservation frameworks already existing in indigenous communities, which are less economically motivated.

The problem with the Stakeholders Theory is that it is largely dominated by a neoliberalism mindset in which a market-based system is adopted to achieve desired results (Fletcher, 2009). Yet, many indigenous communities who are drawn into the promise of collaborative or community based management ventures do not necessarily operate with this mentality. As a result, the imposed framework of a largely western-based economically motivated conservation scheme, which masks itself as a grassroots endeavor, risks transforming indigenous culture and discounts the existing alternative motivations for conservation, which may be more successful if given the right avenues for implementation. Such motivations may be more reliant upon social capital, intrinsic values or religious beliefs.

There is an added concern that by integrating a scheme that alters ones interaction or understanding of the environment, and ultimately their underlying worldview, there may be additional socio-cultural elements that are transformed. Such transformations may include community interactions, traditional livelihoods, and resource management practices.

So the question is, how harmful is the Stakeholders Theory? Can it achieve more sustainable results as opposed to existing motivations for conversation? Or does it do a disservice in displacing these existing motivations? I must admit, I don’t have a firm answer to these questions, only suspicions. I naturally find economic incentives as very motivating towards conservation efforts as I’ve experienced in the west and other contexts, however I have not taken the time to explore alternative indigenous motivators. It is to this end that I hope to explore further in the future.

Fletcher, R. (2009). Ecotourism discourse: challenging the stakeholders theory. Journal of Ecotourism 8(3), 269-285.

Participatory Rural Appraisal


Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)1 is a method, or set of tools, that is used to promote interactive participation of rural communities in the generation of knowledge for planning and management decisions. PRA consists of a number tools including transect walks, semi-structured interviews, and participatory mapping, all of which aim at inclusive strategies targeting marginalized individuals, such as those who may be illiterate. This approach to data gathering has a number of benefits including capacity building, promotion of traditional ecological knowledge, and collaborative decision-making.

This last week I took the time to engage my students in a Participatory Mapping exercise to familiarize them with this data gathering methodology. This method involved getting them outside, splitting them into groups and posing the challenge of creating there home communities/villages using only things they could find such as sticks, stones, grass, and even garbage items. The results were fantastic. Students were enthusiastic to be involved and found creative ways to assemble the interactive maps of their homes. I could tell they were having fun.

After about 20 minutes they had completed their maps and we walked to each groups’ creation giving them time to report the various features they highlighted in their communities. In the short time they had generated a wealth of knowledge including the location of agriculture lands, forest resources, water supply, key religious sites, and even began to highlight some of the problems yet to be resolved such as waste management and irrigation. Such information, if applied to a live development case study, would serve as a wealth of material to help inform sustainable decision-making, regardless of the type of project being implemented.

It’s my hope that, in the short time, the students were inspired to see how such an easy exercise could be applied to the Bhutanese rural landscape to promote rural community participation. While I have yet to use it outside the classroom in Bhutan, I have used this method in Sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya & Tanzania) and experienced positive results.2

1Chambers, Robert. (1994). The origins and practice of participatory rural appraisal. World Development, 22(7), 953-969.

2Spaling, H., Montes, J., & Sinclair, J. (2011). Best Practices for Promoting Participation and Learning for Sustainability: Lessons from Community-Based Environmental Assessment in Kenya and Tanzania. Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 13(3), 343-366.





Bees at RTC

RTC Bees-3

About a year ago a work colleague and I decided we wanted to start a beekeeping project at the Royal Thimphu College (RTC). The purpose was three-fold; first we wanted to aid in Bhutan’s quest for organic farming and encourage a method to improve local crop yields, second we wanted to initiate an additional scientific component to the curriculum in a number of our courses at the RTC, and thirdly we hoped to create institutional-community linkages for sustainable development (exploring agricultural alternatives and poverty alleviation).

This last month (March 2015) our bees officially arrived on campus after a day’s journey from the center of Bhutan, Bumthang. Beekeeping is not new to Bhutan, the Apis cerana is an Asian bee that has native populations throughout Bhutan, mostly in the south. The Apis cerana has often been kept in hollowed out tree trunks or even in the outside walls of local homes. However, Apis cerana does not produce much honey and are prone to absconding behavior making it an unreliable source of income. In contrast, Apis millifera has seen much success in beekeeping operations and has shown promise in the Himalayas as well. Apis millifera was introduced to Bhutan in 1986 by Mr. Fritz Maurer.1 It was from Mr. Maurer’s operation that we purchased three starter hives for the RTC campus.

There is of course some concern that Apis millifera is not native to the region, and for sustainability purposes I would encourage native varieties for various agricultural development projects. However, Apis cerana has not shown itself to be a proper specimen for economic development, yet research has been done to make it more feasible.2 Apis millifera has not shown unacceptable environmental impacts, but it is not without it’s problems. Apis millifera requires more management effort as it has not adapted to the Himalayan environment and is prone to various illnesses.

I am not a beekeeping expert; I’ll leave that to my Bhutanese work colleague. However, I do hope to encourage educational opportunities at the RTC and create development opportunities for rural communities. It is with this aim that I take part in this project and will provide periodic updates on our progress in the future.

1 Gupta, R.K., W. Reybroeck, J vanVeen, and A. Gupta (Eds.). (2014). Beekeeping for Poverty Alleviation and Livelihood Security Volume 1: Technological Aspects of Beekeeping. Springer Publishing.

2 ICIMOD. (2002). Retreating Indigenous Bee Populations (Apis cerana) and Livelihoods and Himalayan Farmers. Website: http://www.icimod.org/?q=1509. Accessed on March 28, 2015.

RTC Bees

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Woochu Watershed


Over the last 2 years for which I’ve taught the Planning/EIA course at the Royal Thimphu College, I’ve been fortunate enough to partner with the Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MAF) to visit their research sites in the Woochu Watershed. The Woochu Watershed is a sub-watershed of the larger Pa-chu, which further unites with the Thimphu-chu to form the Wangchu Watershed.

On March 27th I took 68 students, with our host Dr. Purna of the MAF, to explore various research sites throughout the Woochu Watershed. This area, located near Bonday on the way to Paro town, has been a key pilot project for the MAF to distinguish how various land uses effect water quality and quantity in the larger system. The key driver for such a study is the economy as the Wangchu Watershed contains a number of hydropower plants. Hydropower is the primary economic driver in Bhutan and is exported to India, thus there is motivation on behalf of the Government to promote healthy watersheds.

As a class we were able to observe signs of the various land uses occurring in the watershed including agriculture, grazing, and illegal forestry. Data-loggers have been placed at strategic points in the system to measure stream flow and water quality; this data is used to compare sites of different uses and assess how each use positively or negatively impacts the watershed. There was a stark contrast between upstream monitoring stations and the outfall into the Pa-chu. Visually, students quickly recognized the decrease in water quality, with human settlements being the major culprit.

While Bhutan has a number of community-managed resources, mostly forest management units and a few watersheds, the Woochu is not one of them. Residents of Woochu have not yet linked the health of their watershed to their quality of life and socio-economic interests. Educational campaigns may help temporarily establish goals for watershed health, however empowerment and capacity building for a locally managed watershed could also meet such goals with the benefit of long-term sustainability.

A Payment for Environmental Services (PES) arrangement has also been discussed in the past to help establish economic motivators for the community. Such a scheme would involve reserving a percentage of hydropower profits for upstream communities who willingly restrain their free-use of the water to provide improved water quality and quantity downstream for hydro-plant use. However, this idea has remained within the discussion of government researchers.

Whether it is community-based management or a PES scheme, I believe that the Woochu Watershed would benefit from either, or a combination, of these strategies. Economic interests of the community need to be linked to the health of the watershed.



Ecotourism in Bhutan

Bhutan Rice PaddiesDespite being in the country for a year and a half, I have yet to see the bulk of tourist destinations that exist in Bhutan. In compliance with the ‘high value, low impact’ tourism policy, much of what is available is outside my price range including numerous high-end hotels, trekking destinations in the far north, and so on. These various tourism products however, are outside of the scope of what ecotourism tries to provide. In the past I have tried to differentiate between traditional tourism and ecotourism, please see “Ecotourism”.   Ecotourism products include tourism options that not only provide eco-friendly options to experience the outdoors, but also deliver economic and livelihood benefits to local communities. This often requires that local communities are involved in decision-making, management, and ownership of the ecotourism venture. However, in Bhutan’s case, such ecotourism options are difficult for rural communities to invest in due to policies that favor a specific type of tourism. Such policies target wealthier travellers that expect an increased level of accommodation and services, which are often not associated with the ‘raw’ style of ecotourism, which seeks to open a window into the lives of local peoples and their environment. Dhan Gurung and Klaus Seeland were correct in their estimation that a “prerequisite for a substantial promotion of ecotourism would be changes in the Bhutanese tourism policy to encourage the diversification of tourism products”. 1

Another interesting element of Gurung’s expanded research is that when various experts were polled to determine which tourism strategies should be employed to best meet community development goals, the current status quo ranked at the bottom of the list.2 The number one option ranked by experts was community based ecotourism, followed by community based socio-cultural tours and then trekking. Granted, this specific study was focused on scenarios inside Jigme Dorji National Park, however I think similar parallels exist outside Bhutan’s protected areas system.

Tourism in Bhutan began in 1974 with a mere 287 visitors. In 2013 there were 52,783 international visitors, which is apart from the 63,426 regional arrivals (India, Bangladesh, and Maldives).3   The question is, who is experiencing the benefits of such an increase? It seems that relatively few tourism companies/individuals are, leaving much of the rural population untouched. A demand for ecotourism is on the rise and may be the answer to proper distribution of tourism economic benefits.

1 Gurung, D.B. & Seeland, K. (2008). Ecotourism in Bhutan: Extending its Benefits to Rural Communities. Annals of Tourism Research 35(2), 489-508.

2 Gurung, D.B. & Scholz, R. (2008). Community-based ecotourism in Bhutan: Expert evaluation of stakeholder-based scenarios. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 15, 397-411.

3 Tourism Council of Bhutan. (2014). Bhutan Tourism Monitor: Annual Report 2013. Thimphu, Bhutan.

4 Days in Haa

Haa Trek 2014-4

In the peak of the monsoon season I planned a 4-day trek into the highlands of Haa, a western Dzongkhag of Bhutan. Many epic stories are told of this area, which boasts high altitude grasslands, alpine lakes, herdsmen and their yak, unique flora/fauna, and a remoteness that seems far even to the local Bhutanese. The end destination was Nub Tsho Na Pata, literally translated as ‘the great lake to the west’.

The 4-day trek started off with a breezy 12-hour hike to an abandoned herders shelter, which my companions (an uncle and nephew duo from Haa) swiftly converted into our home for the evening. After 12 hours of hiking I surprisingly felt strong and full of energy, but as I realized the next day, the altitude being above 4000 meters, soon had an effect on me. The next day’s trek consisted of a mere 4 hours, but taxed my body heavily and I felt as if I had completed something superhuman.

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The uncle in our small caravan was a native to the area and had kept yak on these highlands for many years. He was full of knowledge about the land, the weather, and the folklore of the area. While my primary interest was to catch rumored trout that existed in the remote lakes, one of my favorite past times came to be listening and learning from the depth of knowledge that he had. He collected various plants along the way sharing the medicinal qualities that each had. After trying the root of one, which was supposed to suppress cold symptoms, the bitterness produced a reflexive exiting of all that was in my mouth. It made me wonder, ‘how did anyone figure out that there was benefit in consuming such a root?’

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TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge), as defined in my previous post, is something that develops over many generations. And this knowledge is transferred verbally and experientially. Meaning that the new knowledge holders need to be in the field learning from previous knowledge holders. Such opportunities are few these days as Bhutanese youth are exposed to higher education that was not available in previous generations, and they spend more time in the classroom, and less time in the forests/highlands/fields. While the benefits of education are of course encouraged and eagerly accepted, it has also come at a cost of losing a distinct form of knowledge and an intimate connection to the land.

Haa Trek 2014-2

The Chukha Metho was yet another plant I experienced for the first time on this journey. This high altitude flowering plant is a unique site with its yellow umbrella flowers that shade its core stem that is sought by highlanders. Rather than a bitterness to cure my cold, I was delighted by a fresh tartness that left me wanting more. Another rare siting was that of the Himalayan Blue Poppy, the national flower of Bhutan. This flower, while lacking medicinal properties, blessed us with a display of beauty that we left for future onlookers.

After 16 hours of hiking we made it to the famed Nub Tsho Na Pata. The great lake was adorned with two waterfalls on the south end and opened to views of Tibet in the north. We were greeted with monsoon rains for most of our visit as well as a number of brown trout that I can now confirm exist. The return trip continued with the same theme, full of stories and lessons from the land. On the last day I interviewed the uncle who had served as our guide and teacher and asked him about the difficulties and joys he has experienced herding this region. More on this interview will come, but I was impressed by the pride he had in the area and the way of life. While it is not something he would necessarily wish upon his nephew or his own children, this semi-nomadic livelihood was something that he identified with and recognized was fading away. While vastly different than the Tibetan context, in which herders are encouraged to abandon such a lifestyle, the Bhutanese are freely leaving it due to other socio-economic changes.

What’s to be done? Well, not a lot. Change is a natural part of society, and with it will come both benefits and drawbacks. However, with the current generation of Bhutanese benefiting from better education and avoiding the harsh nomadic lifestyle, the society as a whole will need to find ways to preserve the TEK that exists.

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Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Bumthang Dzong

Over the last week I had the opportunity to attend the International Society of Ethnobiology’s (ISE) 14th Congress held in Bumthang, Bhutan (Bumthang Dzong pictured above).  Ethnobiology is the study of human cultures and how they relate to their environments including flora, fauna, and ecosystems as a whole.  There is a large emphasis on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which is the cumulative knowledge that a people group holds about their environment and is transmitted orally from one generation to the next, and largely dependent on in-situ learning experiences.  Often TEK is seen in opposition to contemporary scientific knowledge, however more often we find NGOs, international organizations and even governments recognizing the value that indigenous people hold and how it can positively influence decision-making.

I recently included a TEK component in my lecture series at the Royal Thimphu College, so it was inspiring to see new research on the topic and how it has been used in environmental protection and conservation.   A few conference highlights:

  1. Jaap Kuper from the Netherlands delivered a paper on ecological restoration of forests.  The context dealt with degraded forests in developing nations, which means there is often a lack of funds and expertise to conduct conventional tree planting.  The locals are the experts, they have the knowledge to identify saplings at an early age, and they are aware of where the saplings exist and at what time in the forest.  The locals then are able to avoid the sapling and nursery costs by collecting saplings and caring for them on their own, and then planting them in key areas in need of restoration.  It is then the indigenous people that benefit from the restored forest and the increased products that are made available from a thriving forest ecosystem.
  2. Andrea Pieroni from Italy delivered a paper on Plant Knowledge in the Gollobordo Mountains (Albania), which sparked a magnificent discussion on indigenous gathering of medicinal plants for export.  Currently the export market demands certain varieties of medicinal plants that the local Macedonians and Albanians are not familiar with, yet are available in the area.  This has led to concern that there is not a healthy TEK in place that can foster a sustainable harvest.  Therefore, suggestions are being made to modify market demands that are inline with local TEK so that locals can make better management decisions about plants they are familiar with.  Such knowledge will inform the best time to harvest, when to stop harvesting to allow for regeneration, where to harvest (and thus avoid unnecessary exploration and save time for other activities) and so on.
  3. Alvaro Fernandez of Spain shared his research on Climate Change perceptions of remote indigenous groups in Bolivia.  With a control and test communities he was able to show that the existing climate knowledge was unaffected by the global Climate Change dialogue, which revealed a genuine ethno-climactic body of knowledge that was being used to adapt to changes in their environment.  The research showed how TEK was just as useful as a scientific approach in gaining useful knowledge for decision-making and suggests that further action is needed to incorporate such knowledge into global discussions.  Doing so would not only improve global effort to minimize and adapt to climate change, but would also produce more culturally appropriate and acceptable options for indigenous groups.

Unfortunately, TEK is quickly disappearing.  As indigenous groups around the globe modernize and are drawn to urban areas in promise of diversified economies, the younger generations are failing to collect and pass on the learning that their people have collected.  Yet it is encouraging to see a growing body of research pointing to its importance, which is also motivating the creation of national and international policies that recognize and utilize TEK in decision-making.

Voices from the Plateau

Here is a brief video compilation of footage from the Tibetan Plateau, as well as a few interviews with nomadic herders.  I quoted one of the interviews in a previous post regarding Cultural Erosion.  I believe these interviews point to the importance of preserving traditional livelihoods, calling for a re-shaping in how we conduct development.  It’s not just about making sure everyone has the comforts of an urban lifestyle, but addressing the hopes and dreams of rural people.

Note: I can’t confirm the accuracy of the translation yet as it is still in draft form.

Punakha Dzong


Dzongs are unique mountain fortresses found throughout Bhutan.  Originally they were meant to act as protective measures against invading armies, such as the Tibetans in the 17th century.  However, now they act primarily as administrative centers and accommodate monk bodies.  They are also the locations used for annual festivals such as Tshechus (Masked Festivals) and Drubchens (reenactment of Bhutan’s victory over Tibetan invaders).

The Punakha Dzong is the 2nd largest Dzong in the country (biggest being Trongsa) and viewed by many locals as the most picturesque.  Found at the confluence of Pho Chhu (river) and Mo Chhu this ionic image dominates the landscape, which is otherwise dotted with small homesteads, pine forests, and the foothills of the Himalayas.

My family and I have had the opportunity to visit the Punakha valley a number of times, with much to explore we have enjoyed the hospitality of the locals, set up camp on the riverside, walked the longest suspension bridge in the country, river rafted the Mo Chhu, and enjoyed the silence the valley has to offer.  In fact, I’m surprised to see such a massive structure and to see it accompanied by such quietness.  Driving through the valley for the first time and seeing the Dzong in the distance, I expected to see a busyness associated with such large structures in other countries.  But when I arrived, the rural nature of the valley hit me.  Some peace and quiet that is hard to find in Thimphu, or even a college campus of 1,000 students (Royal Thimphu College).

Punakha- Punakha-1


Institutions and Development

Many Tibetan families send their children to live at and attend this school.  Although, many herding families see education as unnecessary and keep children at home to answer more immediate needs.

School children in rural China memorizing homework as they walk around their school before classes begin.

Institutions are essentially societal standards for governing a particular realm. For example ‘banking’ is an institute in which we have put in place to govern the exchange of monetary funds. ‘Education’ is another institute that we have in place to, well, educate. But both are administered in a way that it is in line with the values and expectations of a particular society. So education may look very different from one country to another.

Banking and Education are good examples of what are called ‘formal institutions’ as they have specific processes that are followed and agreed upon by those who take part, usually through some type of contract or agreement. However, a very important role is also to be played by ‘informal institutions’. Such institutions are not spelled out in laws or agreements and rather evolve/emerge from societal norms of behavior. For example, land rights or land use is an institution that has been heavily formalized in many countries, however there are many nomadic communities that have little use for a formalized contract to partition land. Rather, such communities have unspoken rules and ‘laws’ that guide how they conduct their movements, how they share grazing land, how they share water sources, etc. Granted, these informal institutions may not always work and there is sure to be conflict at some point, but we have the same conflicts with formal institutions as well. So it is important not to view formal institutions as ‘good’ and informal as ‘bad’.

The institution of marriage, in the west, is very much a formal institution. However, in many cultures around the world such a formal institution does not exist. There is no paper work or lawful recognition that a couple is married, rather, if the couple lives together, shares in the managing of the home, have kids together, then they are married. There is an understanding in such a community that the couple is married, not due to a contractual agreement, but due to how they have conducted themselves. And one can propose that such an informal institution likely gives rise to a more recognized formal institution in time.

This transition is of great interest as it shows that formal institutions are likely the outcome of support from successful informal institutions that have been sustained for many generations. This understanding has much to offer in terms of shaping our development approach to developing nations. Most development efforts have largely tried to mimic formal institutions from the West because they have had a successful track record in the West. Banking, the Market Economy, Land Rights, and Education are all examples of institutions that we have tried to transplant to the developing world. Sadly, there has been limited success in some of these areas. So what’s wrong? Partially, I think it has to do with a lack of recognition for how the established informal institutions play a role in guiding the actions of a society. By ignoring these values and practices that have promoted the survival of a society for many generations we prove ourselves ignorant by thinking we can find a one-solution-fits-all sort of approach.

I’m not saying that Education or Banking is a bad thing; in fact they offer a great opportunity for developing nations. But in order for such formal institutions to be successful in a new context, we need to account for the underlying informal institutions already in place and adapt as necessary. And we need to be okay with the fact that the newly established formal institution may look different than the one we are used to.

For more info see the following Cambridge podcast which inspired my thoughts on the topic: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/development-institutions-institutions/id380452650?i=84523118&mt=2