India this year, for the first time exported more electricity than it imported and will be a power surplus nation by 2018. It has added 8.6 GW of solar capacity in the past two years, and its target is to generate 100 GW of solar power by 2022. Since 2010 the solar power tariff has fallen by 80% from Rs. 12.76/unit to Rs. 2.44/unit. Installing solar panels is now quick and simple and takes one to two days for rooftops units to a few months or years for solar parks. Hydropower development on the other hand involves a high capital cost and a long gestation period.

The changed energy situation in India calls into question the future of hydropower development in Bhutan. What can now replace hydropower? As people hunt for the next big economic idea, forest development will be the last thing on anybody’s mind because Bhutanese people from students to policy-makers consider forest protection a sacrosanct duty. Whilst laudable, the motive is driven by forestry beliefs which are over-simplified or no longer true and accurate. Preserving these myths cause underdevelopment in forestry and distract us from making the political and economic shifts needed for forestry to become a growth driver for the country. If fresh ideas are to emerge, it is important to dispel the following three forest myths:

Myth 1: Fear of breaching the minimum 60% forest cover. Bhutan’s current forest cover is 80.9% i.e. way above the 60% minimum threshold. With such a huge safety margin, the Constitutional provision is never likely to be breached. However, different people comprehend forests differently giving rise to confusion and contention. Under the Department of Forest’s definition, forest is land covered with trees. This is unhelpful in the context of the Constitutional provision because it does not clarify the roles of other ecosystems in soil, water and biodiversity conservation nor gives an idea of what forest should actually look like on the ground. There is thus an urgent need to define forest cover more fully in a way that will help elaborate the scientific rationale for having minimum 60% forest cover.

Thanks to strict forest protection measures, forest cover over the past 50 years increased significantly from 57.1 to 80.9% while during the same period, agricultural land has decreased from 6.5 to 2.9%. High forest cover is a good thing but as a Bhutanese saying goes “If taken in excess, even mother’s milk is poison”. Firstly, there is the loss of biodiversity as trees take over other ecosystems viz. grassland, shrub/scrub, woodland and wetland. There is also the loss of cultural landscapes as farmlands give way to forest and when farmers desert their villages. Secondly, national forest is, in most instances, over-crowded making it susceptible to wild-fire, pests and diseases and providing poorer habitat for wildlife, birds and plant diversity. Thirdly, contrary to the popular belief that more trees mean more water, tall trees lose more water through evapo-transpiration than other vegetation. A large Douglas Fir tree is said to consume 3,000 litres of water in a day and a mature oak tree 189 litres. In UK, for every 10% of an upland catchment that was covered by conifer forest, there was 1.5 to 2.0% reduction in water yield. Villages in Bhutan, otherwise located in forested watersheds, are complaining that their water sources for drinking and irrigation are drying up and local water shortage is becoming one of the more serious environmental issues in the country.

Myth 2: Logging and conservation are polar opposites. The word logging carries a bad public image of forest destruction. However, this is an unfair and inaccurate view. In Bhutan, commercial harvesting for timber requires the preparation of a management plan which ensures harvesting is carried out in an ecologically appropriate way. Harvested trees will be replaced by new trees. Young trees absorb more carbon and wood acts as storage for carbon. Forest protection and management require funds and must meet the aspirations of people. Timber production can provide income and employment whilst retaining the land under forest.

The national forest inventory in 1981 estimated the total timber growing stock at 529 million m3. By the time of the 2016 inventory, this had grown by 89% to 1,001 million m3. Over the last 35 years more timber has been added to national forest than has been lost through felling, fire, pests and diseases as well as through conversion of forest land to other uses.

The Forestry Master Plan in 1991 determined a safe operational harvesting area of 902,000 ha from which an annual allowable cut (AAC) of 1.2 million m3 would take place. The AAC is defined as the volume of timber that can be harvested sustainably i.e. for the harvested trees to be replaced by new growth. In 2015, the total wood volume extracted from the national forest was only 0.40 million m3 – far below the sustainable harvest level. In the same year, Bhutan imported wood related products worth Nu. 2.6 billion, however only exporting products worth Nu. 0.35 billion.

Myth 3: Extreme regulation is necessary for forest conservation. Timber production, its transport, processing and sale are subject to extreme regulations with the intention of protecting forest and preventing illegal felling. However, this discourages private sector investment and innovation, and is responsible for high levels of wood wastage. For instance, a public corporation with sole rights to sell wood to the commercial sector creates a monopoly with little incentive to improve operations and minimize costs. The present system of supplying logs mainly through auctions makes it difficult for manufacturers to plan a steady and consistent production based on predictable prices and quantities. The ban on export of semi-finished forest products is also a disincentive for entrepreneurs with ambitions to reach export markets, since the export of semi-finished products often is the first step. Timber recovery from logs by traditional methods is 40% (meaning that 60% of the log is wasted) and even in sawmills it is only 60% – below normal commercial recovery levels in other countries.

The forestry share of GDP was 2.6% in 2015, compared to 16% in 1981. A revived forest sector, more oriented towards free markets can lead to development of a robust wood-based industry which will spur innovation and bring wood prices down. Today’s timber technology even enables skyscrapers to be built from wood and has potential to transform the 21st century city from a carbon source into a carbon sink. To construct a 20 storey building with cement and concrete emits 1,200 tons of carbon whilst making it with wood would sequester 3,100 tons of carbon. A source of cheap and readily available timber can make the dreams of young Bhutanese families to own their own homes come true. Notwithstanding wood for construction, advancement in woodstove technology has made wood a clean source of energy for cooking and heating.

The biggest beneficiaries of forest reform will be the community forest schemes because this will stimulate the growth of small-scale community-level wood processing units spread across the country luring school/college drop-outs/graduates, and the unemployed to return to their villages for jobs. Small timber enterprises will provide local communities with a revenue source, and will enable them to take more responsibility for financing their own local development works, thus not depending wholly on central government hand-outs for the smallest of local needs.

In Bhutan, these three forest myths act as barriers to more effectively exploiting the sustainable economic potential of forests and to getting the balance between forest conservation and economic exploitation right.

Contributed by

Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel