As custodians of the northern frontiers, representatives from the highlands of 10 dzongkhags are in the capital to attend their first meeting with the government.

The day-long consultative workshop, organised by the agriculture ministry on Highland Development was to take stock of development challenges of highlanders, give awareness on existing legislation on conservation and development programmes, to come up with holistic plans and strategies for an integrated highland development, and strengthen security in the region.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay addressing the representatives said that the highlanders living on the northern frontiers have a critical responsibility in the security of the borders.

“We thank you for taking care of the security in the area,” he said.

He said the consultation meeting should deliberate on the long-term programmes to develop the livelihoods, promote the thriving local culture, and sustenance of the highlanders.

More than 353 highlanders who gathered in Thimphu yesterday asked to upgrade schools and basic health units, sought compensation schemes for livestock, stringent laws for cordyceps collection, non-formal education instructors, and better lighting and dairy instruments, among others.

A representative from Talung in Haa, Lhapchu said that many have already left the mountains for better economic opportunities.

“The situation is people continue to rear livestock and live in our area because they have received support from the government, otherwise they would have disappeared a long time ago,”

Sakteng gup Sangay Dorji said that the urgent need for the highlanders of Merak and Sakteng was to upgrade basic health unit II to a grade I BHU.

“At times, pregnant women while going to deliver their children in the dzongkhag hospital in Trashigang, gave birth on the way,” he said.

Another priority of the highlanders he raised, which others also shared was the need for a hostel at the Gewog School.

When parents move around with livestock, children are left behind and they go to bed on empty stomach. “Our children could land up abusing substances when left unsupervised for long,” he said.

Lhaba from Laya, Gasa said children from Laya could not perform as good as other students when they go to study in other schools.

“Most teachers in Laya are fresh graduates from teaching colleges,” he said. “We need experienced teachers in enough numbers.”

A highlander from Beldro village in Kazhi, Wangdue, Phub Tashi said about a pack of wolves killed many yaks in the area. “If the government could allow us to kill them otherwise our livestock will continue to suffer every year,” he said.

Another highlander from Wangdue said that many people encroach their cordyceps collection area, which has seen declining harvests over the past three years.

“We need more stringent laws to punish those who are caught harvesting illegally,” he said.

Some said that the milk-churning machines were heavy and could not be moved easily as they migrate.

“The solar lighting equipment was helpful but only lasted for a week in my case,” another highlander from Haa said.

Agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji said that the ministry will review the assistance and supply better ones in future.

Director general of school education department Karma Tshering said talks are underway in the ministry to upgrade schools in the highlands and could come through in the next Plan.

“Schools in the highlands will always be a priority,” he said. “The 16 schools in the highlands will receive all facilities that are given to central schools.”

He said the ministry would also offer NFE programmes wherever necessary.

A representative of the public health department said health services coverage has reached 95 percent. “The remaining five percent is in the highlands. The 12th Plan will attempt to cover them all,” he said.

He said that the ministry will discuss other issues on health service and direct the dzongkhags accordingly.

Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji said that while the ministry focused on preserving the environment, it continued to support the communities through numerous measures.

The livestock department distributed more than 700 milk-churners, 321 butter-making units, 22 milk cans, 100 tents, 221 units of solar power, 186 zholaay (seed bull), 225 sheep and a power tiller to each of the 29 highland gewogs in 11 dzongkhags.

The ministry also established 29 farm shops and distributed more than 100 units of poly house.

Lyonpo said that the ministry will soon launch compensation for livestock claimed by iconic species such as Tiger and Snow Leopard.

“The compensation system is underway after the National Assembly approved the system and the government has allocated funds,” Lyonpo said. “It’ll be established soon.”

There are 1,159 households in the 11 dzongkhags’s 29 gewogs rearing yaks. Of that, 96 households depend solely on rearing yaks. Thimphu has the highest number of yaks at more than 10,000, followed by Trashigang with 7,000, and Gasa with 6,500 yaks.

The highlands are bestowed with rich biodiversity and are home to four national parks, two wildlife sanctuaries and the country’s only nature reserve that covers Haa.

“It hosts most of the country’s protected areas and many globally endangered flora and fauna. Some of the rare faunal species seen in the highlands of Bhutan are the tiger, snow leopard, takin, blue sheep, Tibetan wolf and several species of birds,” agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji said.

The origin of almost all the river systems of Bhutan is from these areas. The huge yak population keeps Bhutan in the third position after China and Mongolia in the world, which is supported by 1.3 million acres of Tsamdro.

An important aspect of the highlands of Bhutan is the harmonious co-existence of Transhumant Yak herding system and protected areas. As of today, there are 1,156 yak-herding households with 40,438 number of yaks spread across 11 dzongkhags. The yak population remained almost constant over the last decade, the minister said.

“However, the number of yak herders have decreased mainly due to access to other livelihood opportunities in lowlands,” he said.

Since legalising its collection in 2004, cordyceps has become the major source of income. Lyonpo said that there are about 3,433 collectors from 17 gewogs spread across seven dzongkhags. The annual average income from cordyceps was about Nu 145 million between 2004 and 2015. The community also generates some subsidiary income from porter services to tourists.

“Considering the richness, socio-cultural, economic and environmental importance of highlands, Highland Development is proposed as one of the flagship programmes in the 12th Plan,” the minister said.

His Majesty The King granted an Audience to the participants in the afternoon. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay also addressed the gathering.

The workshop is expected to serve as an important basis of consultation for various stakeholders for a comprehensive planning process. Officials from Gross National Happiness Commission Secretariat, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, National Land Commission and Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs attended the workshop.

On the sidelines of the workshop, the highlanders received health checkups and a chance to offer Ku-Sung-Thug Mendrel to His Holiness the Jekhenpo at Kuenselphodrang.

Tshering Palden