Tucked between the Tibetan Plateau to the north and India to the south, west and east, Bhutan lies entirely within the Eastern Himalayas. Slightly smaller than Switzerland, 51% of its land is protected, the highest percentage of any nation in Asia. Equally striking, the Bhutanese constitution requires at that at least 60% of the country's forest be permanently maintained. Currently, over 70% of the country is covered in trees. These percentages reflect the value of protected areas—and more broadly, nature—to multiple facets of Bhutanese society. One is spiritual: Bhutan's culture is rooted in Buddhism, which emphasises the interdependence between humans and nature. The protected areas are also vital to Bhutan's economy. In addition to supporting biodiversity, drinking water and irrigation, the country's many rivers generate hydropower. which is exported to India after meeting domestic needs – a major source of national revenue. The country's mountains shelter more than 5,600 species of vascular plant and 200 species of mammal as well as tigers, snow leopards and Asian elephants. Tourism showcasing Bhutan's biodiversity and nature-inspired culture is one of the fastest growing sectors of the country's economy.
Bhutan is a relative newcomer to modernity: the country's first paved road was completed in 1962, and the Internet and TV were not introduced until 1999. Since 2000, however, the pace of its development has accelerated. This is particularly evident in the shifting demographics. 60 % of the population is below the age of 34 and while some people work on farms, more and more prefer to live and work in cities such as Thimphu, the capital. It's easier than ever to move to those cities, but difficult to find jobs once there.
This demographical shift has resulted in a growing disconnect from nature. There are fewer stewards of the land with a deep connection to, and respect for, the landscapes tourists come to see. This is one reason the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Bhutanese government and other partners are searching for new strategies to keep the youth interested in Bhutan's environment and natural resources. One way is to create jobs in rural areas. Some farmers' markets are offering young people the chance to find stable agricultural work in the countryside.
People aren't the only element of Bhutan that is in transition. The country is also investing in infrastructure—despite a decline in foreign aid—and dams are becoming a common feature. Renewable hydropower sold to India currently generates more than 45% of national revenue, and the country must diversify its economy to address its evolving needs. At the same time, Bhutan's leaders are keeping a close eye on Gross National Happiness—the country's holistic approach to prosperity that includes social, environmental and political priorities alongside economic ones.
'Bhutan for Life', an initiative by the Bhutanese government working with WWF, the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank, the Bhutan-based Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, and a variety of other partners has been working to harmonise Bhutan's development and conservation goals. In the face of intensifying challenges, some of those partners are creating a new strategy that seeks to raise the money needed to make Bhutan's incredible protected areas system fully functional and maintain it forever.
Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay says the initiative is ultimately 'about a balance. A Balance between economic growth and social progress. Material progress balanced with spirituality.' And, he explains, a balance between the needs of two different Bhutans: the Bhutan of the future, and the Bhutan that's working and eating and praying right now.
A full text by Jill Schwartz & Sarah Wade available on request.