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The Green Life: Hope in the Himalayas: Bhutan's Conservation Ethic

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August 08, 2011

Hope in the Himalayas: Bhutan's Conservation Ethic

Bhutan monastery Do you despair that the developing world is starting to consume like we do? That our energy budget is spiralling out of control? Know, then, that Bhutan, the hidden kingdom of the Himalayas, is determined to develop sanely and sustainably.

While you wouldn’t want to visit — tourist visas cost hundreds of dollars per day, plus the flight leaves a big carbon print — four American college students did travel through Bhutan’s mountainous wonderland this summer. But not for play. By the end of their six weeks there, the students, who were with the School for Field Studies, submitted reports about conservation directly to the environmental arm of Bhutan's government.

A monarchy reigned until 2008, when Bhutan adopted a constitutional democracy, one that prioritizes "gross national happiness." One of the government's pillars for development is environmental conservation — always good, but even more so when you control one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Andrea White, one of the four Americans abroad, says this priority stems from the nation’s ties to Buddhism. “The land is sacred to the people,” she said. Subsistence farmers comprise much of the population — farmers who invited White and her peers for tea, who welcomed their research.

Bhutan’s largest globalizing influence lies just over the border: India’s thirst for the tiny nation’s potential for hydropower makes evaluating the environmental effects of dams a national priority. Bhutan's government has to constantly balance the pull to develop with the health of their land, White explained. But there is a balance. And if the field-studies program is anything to go by, Bhutan may prove to be an excellent model of respectful, sustainable development.

--Juliana Hanle

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