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: Accessed on March 28, 2015.

RTC Bees

RTC Bees-5 RTC Bees-4 RTC Bees-2

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.

Haa Trek 2014-5 Haa Trek 2014-9

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?’

Haa Trek 2014 Haa Trek 2014-11

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.

Haa Trek 2014-10 Haa Trek 2014-8 Haa Trek 2014-7 Haa Trek 2014-3 Haa Trek 2014-6

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:

Cultural Erosion

Yak Milk

Nomadic life, I can’t say that its not good.  We have enough food and clothes, but nomadic life is tough.  Movement is inconvenient, we have to move around constantly.  But it’s also good, and our ancestors experience this way of life.  Local people always hope that their life condition can get better……..more sheep and yaks, more stout and strong.  We are the same.  The increase in our livestock determines the condition of our lives as nomadic people.  We hope that we can continue relying on our livestock and their products such as yak hair, cheese, milk, and so on.  This is the purpose of our lives and the source of our happiness.  We feel glad to continue herding.  We don’t want to move to town, we have no hope in that.  We want to live here and herd.”  (Tibetan Nomad, Qinghai, China)

These were the words from a Tibetan nomad in Qinghai, China on the eastern side of the Tibetan Plateau.  During this interview he expressed his desire to continue his nomadic way of life.  But there is also an echo of frustration that many his age are experiencing.  They see the next generation of Tibetans placing less value on traditional livelihoods, and ultimately traditional values.  Speaking Tibetan, living as a Tibetan, and thinking as a Tibetan have somehow become ‘backwards’.  More Tibetan youth are drawn to urban areas with the hopes of employment, modern living standards, and security.  All of which are offered by a Chinese agenda committed to development and increased living standards.

So who can blame them?  It’s difficult to find at fault the Tibetan Youth when they are seeking the very thing that many developing countries on a larger scale are trying to obtain.  They desire hope, a sense of ease in their day-to-day life, an escape from the all-consuming effort to meet basic needs.  Sadly, this has come at the expense of traditional cultures eroding into a globalized community, largely driven by economic development.  This has also led to an increase in numerous social problems characteristic of such situations including alcoholism, drug use, depression, and suicide.

But does it have to be this way?  One answer is ‘Yes’.  The traditional form of development based on the liberalization of economies tends to promote such a scenario where local peoples are either further displaced or become heavily integrated into a global market economy.  Rather than promoting traditional livelihoods, this integration demands a highly efficient and productive ‘assembly line’ type of manufacturing based in urban areas.

Alternatively, development practitioners must, and have begun to, shift their focus from pure economic indicators and recognize the social and cultural values that exist.  If development policy and practice are synced with promoting local livelihoods, then the young Tibetan will be in a position to choose, rather than despise, the way of life practiced by his/her ancestors.  I’m not saying that they should shun the comforts and the ease that economic progress offers, but rather our development efforts should seek to answer these issues in the local context, rather than fostering mass urban migration.  By promoting culture in development practice we all have something to gain as we are able to celebrate the diversity of cultures that exist around the world.

Yak Pair200_4628-Edit

Non-Timber Forest Products: Mushrooms in Bhutan

Mushroom-5A forest is more than trees.  We often have a hard time looking past the gold mine of timber products that are available in forests.  The very word ‘forestry’ has come to imply large-scale removal of forested areas on which the economies of numerous communities have been built.  Improved technology and increased demand have provided us with the ability and motivation to continue harvesting this resource at exponential rates.  While quite profitable, short term gains are often the norm and once thriving forestry communities find themselves starving for employment (for another resource example think of the Cod Fisheries in Eastern Canada).

As sustainable development becomes more engrained into our thinking and the way we operate, the forestry industry has fortunately adapted (although perhaps not to the scale that is yet required).  Selective logging, impact assessments, consideration of biodiversity and non-timber forest products often play into the decision making process.


Bhutan is such a country that has recognized the value of intact forests and the ecosystem services they provide (carbon sinks, erosion prevention, water retention, species habitat, air purification, recreation).  Estimates range from 60-80% of original forest coverage that remains in Bhutan, which is a staggering percentage!  As a result, many non-timber resources are thriving in Bhutan, such as mushrooms.

The other day I had the opportunity to take a walk in my backyard, just south of the Royal Thimphu College campus.  What quickly became apparent is that there was an abundance of mushroom species with different sizes, shapes, and colors.  On my return a quick Internet search revealed that in fact Bhutan is quite renowned for its mushroom industry and there is even a Bhutan National Mushroom Center (will be visiting soon), which grows and conducts research on various species.  Foragers have found mushrooms quite profitable and a way to supplement/boost their agricultural income.  However, mushroom harvesting also comes with a number of threats.  Health concerns are widely recognized as many poisonous mushrooms exist leading to local fatalities each year.  As a result the government has initiated education campaigns to inform about such dangers and to help with mushroom recognition.


Environmentally speaking, overharvesting has also become a problem.  As with any resource, there exists an ability to ‘bounce back’, or a resilience.  If mushrooms are allowed to grow to a proper size and develop their intricate mycelium root system, future yields will continue to be prosperous.  However, harvesting has become competitive, leading to early harvesting and decreasing the resilience of various species.  So it seems that, like other resource industries, mushrooms are in danger of the human tendency to overexploit for these short-term economic gains.  I applaud Bhutan for their conservation of forest ecosystems and their recognition that a forest is more than just trees.  Yet moderation is still required as they foster a long term thriving industry for non-timber forest products.

Mushroom-3 Mushroom-2 Mushroom-6

Lessons from a Nomad

200_4491-EditFor the last 18 months I have been working with nomadic herding communities on the Tibetan plateau. It has been a great opportunity as I’ve seen the joys and difficulties of this way of life, which is drastically different from anything I have ever experienced. Weather, isolation, high altitude, and lacking the benefits of urbanization are a few of the difficulties. But there is something admirable and freeing about nomadism. It is not constrained by many of the distractions and problems of our urban landscapes which include environmental problems related to industrialization, loss of the community feel in large cities, marginalization of family farms, and so on. I don’t want to romanticize it too much, as I recognize there are benefits to how society has developed. I’m not ready to trade in my queen size bed and computer for a tent and a herd of yak. However, I feel compelled to support the preservation of this way of life for those who find it so important to their culture and identity.

Nomadism is a part of our human history that predates agriculture and has adopted a fluid perspective to nature and the ever-changing environment. It requires nomads to move according to the seasons, changing weather patterns and the availability of resources. In contrast, the agricultural age was a time of dominance for man, one in which we used our knowledge to adapt the natural world to create an abundance of food, thus minimizing our need for long distance movement. Hunting and gathering were the precursors of such nomadic movements, but eventually the domestication of animals provided more stability. Nomads, and pastoralists being a subset of this group, depend on the health of the environment for their sustenance. They need proper grazing lands for their herds, access to clean water, foodstuff provided by the landscape, etc. So it is in the nomad’s best interest to keep the land in a state that it is able to regenerate and ‘bounce back’ from human use. Thus, movement occurs to facilitate the natural regenerative processes and to stay within the carrying capacity of a particular ecosystem.

In this sense, nomadism is very much a sustainable livelihood that should be encouraged in indigenous people groups. However, it may require adaptation to survive in ever changing ecosystems impacted by urban sprawl, government policy and climate change. This is the difficulty facing nomads across the globe today. The way they used to live becomes more difficult as challenges never before faced are now having critical impacts. How will longer dry seasons as a result of climate change effect the movements of the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania? How will the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau be impacted by government policy restricting nomad movement? But also, how can policy protect resources from overuse (for which even the nomad is not immune from being a part of)?

The need for adaptation is critical, but equally important is the realization that there is something special about these cultures that should be preserved. Not for the sake of some cultural museum or tourism attraction, but to recognize that their way of life has gone on for thousands of years in a way that has adapted to nature. And we have much to gain from this perspective as we continue to rely on the Enlightenment and the conquest of science, which adapts nature to our needs. And as we have seen in this age of environmentalism, we are beginning to pay a high price for this mindset. We have a lot to learn from a nomad.

See more from nomadic communities of China at Zhiduo Revisited.
Yak Sunrise Head of the Household Nomad Family

Reliance on Tourism

200_5961In 2011 unrest in Egypt caused a dramatic decline of the tourism industry. Two years later, the impact on the industry has yet to recover. As I walked the streets of Cairo and passed through many of the sites I was bombarded by sellers of this-and-that and guides who claimed unique knowledge of famous landmarks. I couldn’t help but feel the strain on their economy through these street interactions and was very much reminded of Nepal in 2004. At that time Nepal was in the heat of a Maoist revolt that crippled their industry for a 10-year span. It was only in 2011 when tourism began to pick back up again and things returned back to ‘normal’.

To see such economies so reliant on tourism is a sad state of affairs. While tourism is a tool that can aid communities in finding alternative sources of income and rounding out their portfolio in terms of income generation, it can be harmful to throw all their eggs in one basket. Prioritizing the industry can also transform local culture, which solely caters to foreigners, and distracts from the indigenous culture that was so attractive in the first place.

What is the answer? I think a careful planning process can aid in avoiding the risk factors associated with the tourism industry. Establish limitations on development as to maintain a healthy vibrant industry. Ensure that local communities are exploring other options to stimulate their economy so that over-reliance on the industry is minimized. Create a quality control program that ensures local cultures stay in tact while unique experiences are provided for visitors. These are just a few examples of things that could be considered in tourism planning. By committing to a planning process you avoid unrestricted tourism, which has negative effects on the environmental, economic, and social capital of a site/region.


As Nepal did, I believe Egypt will also eventually recover from their tainted reputation of political instability, and the tourism industry will again prosper as it did before. However, this macro-view does not account for the individual shopkeepers, business owners and the like that lost so much during the hard times. Many lost their jobs, homes, were not able to provide for their families, etc. It is for their sake that planning is so important and that the extent of a country’s reliance on tourism should be carefully considered.

Motivations for Conservation

200_3633-Edit This last weekend I organized a one night camp-out to escape the ‘city-ness’ of Xining.  Driving an hour and a half south of the city brought us to a location known as the “Hitching Post”.  There we set up camp, explored, hiked, and just enjoyed being outside away from the business of the city.  I spent a fair bit of time reflecting on the outdoors and how spending time outside often gives one a sense of peace and rejuvenation.  It is this feeling that has brought me to the profession I find myself in, working in ways to improve my surroundings and promote sustainability.  Through my work with governments, organizations, and individuals I have found that there are essentially three underlying motivations for conservation.

1) Utilitarian.  People all have needs that can be met in certain ways, and often we like to choose the most effective and economical way to help meet these needs.  In turn, often the best choice of action ends up being one that recognizes long term sustainability and thus more utility gained for an individual.  In plain terms, if it brings me more value/utility, then I will choose that course of action.  While a Frontier Economy mindset (one that views resources as unlimited) has blinded many entities leading to poor environmental decision-making in the past, many have realized the consequences of such actions and are trying to regain ground in terms of strengthening ecosystems.  Such a reversal in decision-making has been motivated by seeing the value in sustainable policy/actions in which more utility can be gained.

2) Legislation.  When it comes down to it, sometimes people are just motivated towards certain actions to avoid negative consequences.  There certainly is a place for legislation in promoting such behavior so that certain entities/businesses do not take advantage of short term gains at the expense of the larger population and environment.  For example, my previous home on Vancouver Island, there was an issue of illegal dumping by those living in the countryside.  Laws are in place to restrict such actions, and once communities were forced to adopt the cost of cleanup they invested in watch programs, cameras, and other strategies for minimizing occurrences by holding individuals responsible.  As a result, illegal dumping is not as much of a problem as it was 10 years ago.  I should also note, that some legislation is put in place to promote actions through positive reinforcement rather than just consequences.  Various tax breaks and investment opportunities are but a few examples.

3) Worldview.  The final category that I have become aware of is that of worldview.  Often our underlying belief system guides our outward actions.  For example, myself as a Christian views the world as a creation of a single deity.  I therefore view the world as something that does not belong to me, but rather something that has been put in my care. I therefore take care of it just as if I borrowed something of extreme value from a friend and would not purposefully bring harm to it.  I also see the negative consequences of unsustainable actions on quality of life, especially in developing nations.  Therefore, motivated to ‘love my neighbor’ by using wisdom in resource management decisions.    Likewise, a Buddhist will view the world as something that provides nourishment to all beings.  Their belief in showing compassion to all will therefore motivate them to use resources wisely as not to directly/indirectly harm others.  No matter what our worldview is, it will certainly motivate us to certain types of actions/decision, some of which will provide motivation towards conservation.

While these are three motivators that I have seen and experienced, I doubt they are exhaustive.  I would very much like to hear from you in terms of additional motivators so please feel free to comment or email me using the contact link above.

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