The balance between conservation and development is challenging, particularly for developing countries where resources are scarce. Bhutan is no exception, but we have always revered forests and depended on them for food and timber.
Recently, discussions are emerging around forests and their potential to generate revenue for the country. We are blessed with a vast forest resource that could generate substantial economic benefits. Several people feel that we are not making enough use of it. Another view is that assumptions about the economic potential of our forests are generalized from advanced countries and not on our field conditions and data. They argue for the need to consider economic and environmental risks associated with large-scale timber harvest.
The forest cover debate
Forest cover is defined in the National Forest Policy, 2011 as “any land with trees spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10%”. The definition is consistent with the Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As per the definition, 70.77% of Bhutan is currently under forest cover and was estimated by the recent National Forest Inventory (NFI) carried out by the Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS). Since 2016, 70.77% has been declared as the official figure.
The forest cover definition does not include shrubs as shrubs are generally less than 5m in height, and the exclusion does not undermine the importance of the scrub ecosystem. However, from a timber perspective, they are less valuable.
Many claim that Bhutan has experienced an unprecedented increase in forest cover over the last six decades based on comparisons of forest cover estimates provided by the Pre-investment Survey of Forest Resources (1974-81), Land Use Planning Project (LUPP 1997), Land Cover Mapping Project (LCMP 2010) and Land Use and Land Cover of Bhutan (2016). However, we should be mindful of the methodological advances with each land cover mapping exercise. The data sources, classifications, and methods differ between the data collected in 1981, 1995, 2010, and 2016 making forest cover change inferences based on these estimates less reliable.
We see a lot of greenery around, but we must also acknowledge the pressure forests face from anthropogenic activities. Between 2000-2017, state reserve forests were allotted for various purposes (12,674 hectares), hydropower projects (2,276 hectares), roads (5,770 hectares), agriculture (36,298 hectares), mines and quarries (3,800 hectares), and powerlines (3,791 hectares). Some 667,680 hectares of forests were also degraded during the same period due to timber harvest, firewood allotment, forest fires, and livestock. 19,992 hectares of forests were lost to forest fires.
Several remote sensing studies indicate minimal gross and net changes at the country level between 1990-2011. From 2010-2016, Bhutan’s Forest Resources Potential Assessment (FRPA) estimates an increase of just 0.31%, suggesting a stable forest cover over the years.
Timber reserve, extraction, and import
The total growing stock in our forest is estimated at 1001 million m3. However, the entire growing stock and the annual increment don’t translate into economically viable timber and aren’t stacked up in one place- it is distributed throughout the country. The NFI survey found that 60% of the trees in our forests are less than 16m in height and have a diameter of less than 31cm, suggesting we have relatively fewer large-sized trees. A cost-benefit analysis by the DoFPS estimated that 11.27% of the total geographical area (16% of forests outside protected areas) has the potential for sustainable forest management. Only 5.8% is suitable for sustainable commercial harvesting. Expanding beyond this area will require massive investment and compromises, which include safety and environmental health. About 77% of our country has more than 35 o slopes making our landscape highly vulnerable to landslides, further worsened by slope disturbances such as logging, road, and other forest conversions. We are also limited by poor and old equipment (that frequently breaks down), frequent changes in weather conditions, lack of skilled labor, and rugged terrain. As a result, the World Bank notes that we cannot harvest even the Annual Allowable Cut from most Forest Management Units (FMU) which are the designated commercial timber production sites. Also, with the current timber recovery rate at 55-69%, we can salvage only about half of the total volume of timber harvested. As of 2018, 21 FMUs corresponding to 5.17% of the total geographical area caters to commercial needs. Another 2.5% under the community forestry program benefit 33% of the rural population.
Similarly, on the timber industry side, one prominent limiting factor includes people’s preference for certain species and the lack of capacity of our wood-based industries to utilize trees of all species and sizes. There is a higher preference for mixed conifer species, comprising 20% of Bhutan’s forests, and is under immense pressure. Meanwhile, broadleaved species, which include 50% of Bhutan’s forests, and 60% of our total growing stock, are often less preferred by people and usually end up as fuelwood, e.g., Oak species. Operation costs combined with rural timber subsidies are also known to affect the sale of commercial timber. Hence logs are often seen rotting in the depots. So, bringing more areas under timber harvest is not the only solution to wood shortages, but addressing the above challenges can be.
We should also be aware that it is not wood as raw material but charcoal which accounts for a substantial portion of the billion’s worth of wood and wood-based products we import each year (>50%). Charcoal is causing trade deficits. Charcoal is heavily used in our metallurgical industries, with the demand surpassing domestic production. DoFPS looked into the feasibility of expanding domestic production but didn’t find it economically feasible. Besides, charcoal production is a significant source of deforestation in many countries. Its effect on global warming, health, and the environment is also immense.
Ecosystem services and carbon sequestration
Although deforestation may bring in quick money in the immediate future, standing forests are far more valuable in the long run. Between 2013 to 2017, forestry contributed between 2.9 percent and 2.4 percent to the GDP. However, the small contribution of forests to GDP is due to the non-valuation of other ecosystem services provided by the forests. A study across five river basins in Bhutan highlighted “ minimum destruction to forests” to derive maximum benefit from hydropower, our golden goose. An initial estimate values the ecosystem services from our forests at approximately US $15.5 billion /year (Nu. 760 billion/year).
Having a good forest cover ensures a lot of carbon sequestration. It also exerts a strong, thermally insulating influence on local scale climates, providing refugia to many plants and animals, especially temperature-sensitive ones. Even the old trees not only act “simply as senescent carbon reservoirs but actively fix large amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees,” in contrast to the popular belief that trees become unproductive as they age. Cutting down old trees also does little to maintain forest health. The key to thinning is doing it early before the competition starts to kick in and the young thinned trees, mostly pole size and those dead and dying, carry little economic value for timber purposes. A good forest cover will also mean less surface runoff and more infiltration, and in cool temperate and sub-alpine regions, water loss from evapotranspiration is generally tiny. So, the concern that an extensive forest cover might dry up water sources should not worry us as much.
Bhutan can also benefit from REDD+( reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries). The REDD mechanism is developed by the Parties to the UNFCCC to enhance forest carbon stocks, which carries a financial value. In 2014, Norway offered US $40 million to Liberia for six years to preserve its forests. Recently, Gabon struck a similar agreement with Norway for $150 million over ten years with a price of US $10 per ton of carbon sequestered. At this rate, our forests, which offset about 4 million tons of CO2 per year, can generate US $40 million annually. A similar deal will mean a massive and sustainable revenue for Bhutan. Likewise, nature-based tourism can also create many new jobs and millions of dollars in wages and infrastructure.
For Bhutan and everywhere else, decisions regarding forest utilization must ensure sustainability and be based on data and not on assumptions. Once cut, a forest will take several decades to grow, but we may not have that much time.