Our greatest national pride is that we were never colonised by a foreign power. Nonetheless, we have not been completely free from the influence and impacts of colonialism. Colonialism first found its way into our social fabric through The Bhutan Forest Act 1969 when the foreign idea of ‘scientific forest management’ (SFM) advocated nationalisation of forest which forced the local people to surrender their traditional forest rights. The British in India employed the SFM as a front for land grab from indigenous people in pursuit of their economic interest. The new Forest Bill 2021 shows that colonialism in forest has not receded but only gone more rogue. Here is how:
First, the Bill has been drafted with no consideration of the major political, economic, social and ecological changes that have taken place since the 1995 Forest Act. For instance, the country adopted the Constitution in 2008. Article 5, Section 1 entrusts that every Bhutanese is…
…a trustee of the Kingdom’s natural resources and environment for the benefit of the present and future generation and it is the fundamental duty of every citizen to contribute to the protection of the natural environment, conservation of the rich biodiversity of Bhutan…
Forests are to the Bhutanese the centre of their world and the source of their spiritual, social, cultural and material wealth. The Bill ignores our history, culture and indigenous natural resource management systems; instead, it looks upon farmers, the true custodians of environment, as forest destroyers, while framing Government foresters as forest protectors.
According to Government reports, forest cover increased from 72.5 to 83.9 % between 1995 and 2016. This huge forest expansion over the years has transformed our landscapes. The agricultural lands, for example, has been reduced from 7.7% in 1995 to 2.7 % today. The alpine pasturelands, the lifeline for yak herders, has declined from 3.9 to 2.5% because of the fire suppression policy that has resulted in pasturelands invaded by unpalatable scrubs. These outcomes and trends are a serious livelihood and food security issue. The Bill focuses on trees mostly.
The primary objective of the National Forest Inventory is to inform the country about forest area, composition, timber stock, carbon stock, annual growth, extraction rate, forest use and biodiversity. The Government spent the enormous sum of Nu. 118 million to undertake the National Forest Inventory 2016. According to NFI, timber stock has nearly doubled from 529 M m³ in 1981 to 1001 M m³ in 2016, with annual forest growth at 13.5 M m3. In 2016, total wood removed from the forest was a mere 2.9% of the annual growth or 0.04% of the total timber stock. Wood import was over six times the wood export. Bhutan’s negative balance of trade is a serious macro-economic issue. The Bill fails to incorporate the NFI data and other national forest statistics.
Our rural population made up 96% in 1960. Today it is 57%. The population density is 19 persons/km2 – compared to Bangladesh’s 1,265/km2, India’s 477, Switzerland’s 221 and Nepal’s 213. We are literally an empty country. The number of abandoned villages and houses in the rural areas is rising, and presents a multitude of social issues. In addition, our fertility rate is below the replacement rate. Without enough Bhutanese, we won’t be Bhutan. Instead of improving living conditions in rural areas, the Bill will make life impossibly difficult for the people.
The anti-people sentiment in the Bill is rooted in the history of the Forest Department. Bhutan’s Forest Department was set up following the colonial example in India where it is the owner, manager, policy makers and police all rolled into one. The mission of the colonial Forest Department in India was to protect and advance the Empire’s economic interests from timber and other forest produce. Colonial laws, policies, attitudes and actions served to dominate and exert control over local populations. A teak sapling on a private land, for example, belonged to the government, and the land owner was required to nurture it; a bullock cart was not to be seen in and around forests once evening had set in; even wood carried by a swollen river in summer belonged to the government. We adopted the Indian Forest Act 1927 as the Bhutan Forest Act 1969.
A new colonial sentiment, that of anti-development, came into force with the 1995 Forest Act. It was the direct influence of the World Wildlife Fund, an international conservation NGO from the US, which established a base in the country in 1980s. WWF brought with it the American idea of a National Park as a strategy for forest conservation. WWF has so far assisted the Government in declaring over half of Bhutan’s total land area as protected area.
In the US, where it was born, the concept of a National Park has a sad, ugly and violent history. It is premised on the Western worldview of nature: a wilderness untouched by humans, and one in which wildlife and biodiversity are best protected when people are removed from the ecosystem. When the US Government established the first such park in the world, Yellowstone National Park in 1872, in the ancestral lands of Native American Indians, the Army was called in to forcibly remove the natives. In one massacre, the Army killed 200 natives; over the subsequent 32 years, from 1886 to 1918, the Army was stationed at the park to keep people out. A National Park basically was people’s land grab by the colonial administration as a pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. Here read ‘people’ as white people.
Bhutanese conservationists take pride in stating that we don’t evict people from our parks. But in reality, our people may have escaped eviction due to practical difficulties, not from kind-heartedness of the conservationists. On top of our stringent forest rules, people and communities in parks are subjected to additional prohibitions and denied development. In the Shingkhar-Gorgan Road case, the green activists stopped the Government in providing a motorable road to a remote region.
Second, one step forward and two steps back. The 1969 Forest Act nationalised all forests and trees belonging to communities and citizens.
Tropical deforestation was a raging international environmental issue in 1980s like the climate change today. One factor behind deforestation was the forest nationalisation policies in Asia and Africa, a colonial legacy. As forest property rights changed hands from local to national authority, people engaged in short-term exploitative behaviour, leading to deforestation. Research has shown that property rights, whether legally or tacitly recognized by the state, are important components of sustainable use of resources by rural communities. To course correct it, community forests, decentralization and devolution in forest decision making had become the dominant theme in sustainable forest development dialogues. Against this background, the 1995 Forest Act included a new chapter devoted to Community Forest. In the new Bill, the community forest is relegated to a section with a clause stating the people shall have no ownership over the land, water resources, soil, sand, stone, boulder and riverbed materials in the Community Forests. This is a backslide.
Third, the colonial mindset that Bhutanese foresters and conservationists inherited from British India and WWF has gone rogue in this new Bill. The Schedule of Species lists a total of 73 mammals, 147 plants, 227 birds, 8 amphibians, 20 fish, 15 reptiles, 7 tortoises and turtles and 3 insects requiring legal protection. Possessing, killing, injuring and moving these plant and animal species invite fines and imprisonment. These lists have been developed on the whims of conservationists, as we have not heard of a formal report assessing the threats to populations of these species.
The Bill is a Permit Raj. People require a permit from the DoFPS for anything and everything to do with forest and forest produce; felling a tree on a private land and moving it to another location, owning a power chainsaw, fishing in a river, conducting forest research, exporting and importing forest produce.
The Bill also dangerously formalizes military tactics with new clauses on uniform, rank insignia, arms and ammunition for Government foresters to protect wildlife for conservation. This is militarisation of conservation and we must question it.
Fourth, outdated science. According to the surveys conducted by DoFPS, water sources that dried up across the country represented 2% in 2019 and it rose to 25% in 2021. DoFPS’s traditional approach to water conservation has been to expand tree cover in the watersheds.
The understanding of forest–water relationship has grown significantly in recent decades. We know that trees suck up ground water and release it to the atmosphere through the evapo-transpiration process, and as tree cover changes in a landscape, so too does the hydrology. Unmanaged and overstocked forests use more water and therefore may produce less streamflow than managed forests. The Bill fails to mention the forest-water relationship and how to manage watersheds in the light of new research information.
Further, the Bill continues with the old fire suppression policy. This policy has led to dense forests and excessive accumulation of undergrowth and leaf-litter on forest floors. This forest condition is a time bomb in a warming world for a mega fire. The Bill does not take into account destruction caused by climate-change-induced megafires around the world, from arctic to temperate to tropical forests. We see these fire catastrophes play out live on TV. How real is this possibility for us and what can we do to prevent a natural disaster of such cataclysmic proportion happening to us in future?
Last but not the least, Bhutan’s forest law should be born out of the cutting-edge science, sacred relationship between people and nature, indigenous knowledge and the importance of forests to the national economy and people’s livelihoods, not based on the archaic colonial mindset of grabbing land from people, controlling and criminalizing people. The Bill appears to have been drafted in haste. This ill-informed piece of legislation needs to be sent back to the drawing board.
Phuntsho Namgyel (PhD)