Very few in the climate change sector in Bhutan may have heard of the word Anthropocene.

Anthropocene literally means the Age of Man – A period where human activities are irrevocably changing the planet as a whole. The ancients talked about “Kali Yuga”.  The predictions also talked about the age of fire. If we go by the industrial revolution and the onset of “development” unleashed for the last 400 years on this planet, it is clear that fire energy has definitely been centre stage.  Large-scale mining and large scale agriculture have lead to the disappearance of billions of hectares of forests world wide. Along with forests,  global waters have disappeared, many rivers and lakes gone dry. Dams and hydro-power and water intensive farming has created barren lands and arid deserts.

Glaciers have begun to melt from the Himalayas to the Andes. Global warming induced climate catastrophes and unpredictable weather patterns bring floods to the driest deserts on this planet like the Attacama in Chile. Closer home, in Bhutan  many provinces are struggling to keep up with local farming activities. Faced with acute water shortage and unpredictable monsoon, rural people are beginning to see the devastating side of developments that do not work for them or for their eco-system as a whole.

Amidst all of these upheavals, ushering in the Age of Antrhopocene, global North is upbeat and buoyant. A turn around from the goom-doom scenario of climate change means re-positioning to appropriate the Age of the Anthropocene.

New alliances are formed, new deals are made. And the old agenda of conservation fast disappearing.

Antropocene as a concept is currently shaping, influencing the global policies on conservation and development. It is a powerful word coined by powerful scientists, emerging from the Earth Sciences discipline. Eugene Stoermer – an American diatom specialist and the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen are credited with the word, though Paul Crutzen is known to have popularised it as a concept, which is now widely accepted in the climate change sector.

Powerful words that have the power to change our forests, and our eco-systems need to be studied closely, especially if the word can be twisted to suit the agents of powerful funding lobbies sitting in America or Europe, shaping the fate of our forest and our planet.

Bhutan is known for stringent regulations when it comes to ecosystems amongst the global south countries. Bhutan perhaps is the only country that continually ensures 60 percent of forest cover. Of course a combination of 60% forest cover and GNH (Gross National Happiness) might not go down well with global forces that want to manipulate ecosystems to suit the greater interests of Northern countries’ well-being.

Conservation NGO’s like WWF (World Wide Fund), CI (Conservation International) and TNC  (The Nature Conservation) are well entrenched in the “age of Anthropocene” promoting sustainable use of natural resources, sustainable farming and sustainable forestry.  Catch phrases like “responsible farming”, “climate smart farming” pop up in project documents. When these terminologies are unpacked and viewed under a critical lens, it is clear that this is a new licence for business–as-usual. Alliance with global corporations to run large scale monocultures of agri-business practices are now attractively termed as “responsible” and “Sustainable” agriculture for “Sustainable Livelihoods”.

Under these new packages, GM crops, Round-Up Ready seeds and improved hybrid varieties along with agricultural technologies are promoted through new development aid packages for the Southern countries. Climate change fever is running high, large scale developments have unleashed an unstoppable appetite for global consumerism across the world.

There is ample proof that development for development’s sake is not working. Yet the proponents of the age of Anthorpocene is twisting the sustainable development agenda, further enforcing the need for technological advancement through cooperation with large agri-businesses such as Dow, Cargil, Nestle, Monstanto and Syngenta in the name of combatting global poverty and food security issues .

Agents of Anthropocene seem to have conveniently forgotten a key report that came out in 2009 commissioned by UNEP (United Nations Environmental programme). Widely known as the IAASTD, (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) the report stated categorically that:

“Chemical-intensive industrial agriculture has degraded the natural resource base on which human survival depends and now threatens water, energy and climate security….” that  “continued reliance on simplistic and often expensive technological fixes—including transgenic crops—is not a solution to reducing persistent hunger and poverty and could exacerbate environmental problems and worsen social inequity. 

Technologies such as high-yielding crop varieties, agrochemicals and mechanization, for example, have primarily benefited transnational corporations and the wealthy, rather than the poor and hungry of the world.”  

The report concluded that:

“Heavy reliance on environmentally destructive industrial agricultural practices, have destroyed rural farm communities around the world, undermining their ability to produce or buy food and contributing to environmental pollution, water scarcity, increasing poverty and hunger. Rather than a food crisis, we now have a food system in crisis.”

For countries like Bhutan it is imperative to uphold the findings of IAASTD report as a yardstick against any new proposed agendas on conservation, forestry and agri-business. Bhutan is working on the food sovereignty through encouraging local farmers to produce locally viable crops with an aim to be self sufficient in 100% locally produced organic food by the year 2020.  With a small population of 700,000 and a very enlightened group of government policy makers, committed citizenry and other change agency groups this should be an easily achievable task for a country of this scale.

When it comes to connections with nature, Bhutan has not lost the sense of oneness with nature – Bhutan has not really entered the Age of Anthropocene – at least not yet.

All around in Bhutan, one can witness the reverence for Nature. The rituals and traditions embrace a humble –“living in harmony with Nature” approach.  Tree planting in Bhutan is a serious affair, not driven by political agendas combined with the greed of the wrong kind of greening – monoculture forests for timber and pulp.

Bhutan is  not only the most carbon neutral but also one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. Total emission of Bhutan is somewhere around 1 million tonnes while Bhutan’s forests absorb 6 million tonnes. As a carbon neutral country Bhutan is a cooling engine for  this planet that is being devoured metaphorically by the fire of development, and now being blessed to continue this maldevelopment in the guise of the anthropocene

But how long before the “Age of Anthropocene” is flexing its muscles in Bhutan? How long before the “climate smart” agriculture start pushing for hybrid, improved seeds and high technology in rural areas? In the new parlance this package can mean GM crops. Bhutan has a policy of No-GM, but that does not stop the funding agencies to lure the Bhutanese government to such programmes.

Unless there is a vigilant approach to promote a culture of critical thinking especially amongst the government policy makers, NGOS and other professionals engaging with the funding agencies, Bhutan will face a major crisis, worsened by the already changing climate scenarios impacting the wellbeing of Bhutanese people and her eco-system.

Already the capital city of Thimphu is witnessing the tell-tale signs of “development going wrong”. – This is a classic sign that the  “age of Anthropocene” is creeping in.  Increasing number of cars, high rise-concrete buildings, overflowing open drains,  menace of plastic littering, open dumps scarring the hillsides, mushrooming of small shanty settlements across the borders of Thimphu and even in the midst of the city and encroachment of land closer to the mountains, with buildings nestling dangerously close to the range of forest fires.

The new paradigm is creeping in, unbeknown to many Bhutanese, even the most passionate conservationists, foresters and ecologists probably are not aware of the looming danger that the age of anthropocene poses for Bhutan.

Contributed by 

Nirmala Nair 

Nirmala Nair is a climate change consultant for Tarayana Foundation working on NAPA II. She set up School of Practical Sustainability to promote local, self-reliant , practical, solutions oriented development.