Archive for ‘December, 2019’

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.