YK Poudel    

Poor planning and consultation among agencies have led to mounting land use conflicts among them with over 436,560.588 acres of land under conflict.

Bayling Central School in Trashiyangtse is constructed entirely on protected Chhuzhing, as well as it has disturbed a portion of roosting ground for endangered black-necked cranes.

Pasakha school within the industrial estate has been relocated due to emission standards and health hazards. There were numerous social inconveniences associated with the relocation besides the huge cost to the nation.

Rangjung Technical Training Institute in Trashigang was constructed within the river buffer not determining flood risk, half of its campus was washed away by the 2004 flooding. It still is under hazard or risk-prone area.

These are a few examples out of a long list with the National Land Commission Secretariat (NLCS) of land usage conflicts among agencies in the absence of baseline data to guide the planning process.

To end such conflicts and assist the policy formulation process, the NLCS produced the National Land Use Zoning Baseline Report 2023 (NLUZ 2023).

The Prime Minister, Dr Lotay Tshering launched the report yesterday celebrating the birth of Her Royal Highness, The Gyalsem at Semtokha Dzong.


National Land Use Zoning

The Economic Development Policy (EDP) 2016 asked for all relevant sectors to submit sectoral parameters to the NLCS by 2017, and by 2018, a national land use plan for State Reserve Forest Land was prepared to describe the usage of land for optimal utilisation.

As per Bhutan’s National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) 2006, susceptible areas to natural hazards must be clearly zoned.

The 2017 Bhutan National Human Settlement Strategy seeks to achieve a balanced, integrated growth of settlements, both rural and urban, including environmental protection, cultural preservation, and decentralisation to encourage participatory development.

The registry or thram database shows that there are over 23 conventional land types recorded for administrative purposes in the country. However, most of them on the ground do not have land uses complying with the registration leading to uncertainties regarding the land’s value, use, tenure, and development.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that developmental activities and urbanisation have led to radical changes in the land use pattern of the country. “The land use zoning report will help the government and relevant agencies in planning and implementing developmental projects at locations that are appropriate and feasible.”

Of the total land area in Bhutan, only 664,000 acres or 6.59 percent is arable. As of now, about 500,000 acres have been used and registered on freehold with a balance of approximately 164,000 acres.

About 13,776 acres of State land have been leased out for socio-economic developmental activities, such as mining, commercial, business, and pasture.

There is increasing pressure on limited land from accelerated socio-economic development activities taking place in the country—the construction of farm roads, electricity transmission or distribution lines, industries and urbanization.

NLCS Chief Planning Officer Gonpo Tenzin said that the report as a baseline shall work as a guide ensuring all agencies work together and in cases of conflicts, it will help in re-prioritisation of the plan and make objective decisions based on the needs of the country during the intervention.

He said: “Specifically, the NLUZ aims to establish a harmonized national land use system in the country. The land conflicts will be solved through comprehensive field validation and ground truthing helping the agencies and government make optimum, rational and sustainable use of limited arable land.”

The report, he said, will serve as a basis for any developmental planning process as it allows the creation of land stock—meaning looking at the “unzoned areas” that are feasible for various developmental activities based on capability and suitability.

The report has found 35.07 percent of the area under unzoned area potential for future uses and expropriations through scientific ways to confirm the alienability for right uses.


Cause of the land use conflicts

The first-come-first-serve basis land use without a well-planned approach has led to conflict in land use, according to the NLCS. The scarcity of arable land and the lack of an efficient system to support the coordination of these competing demands are the key contributors to land use challenges in the country.

There is no nationwide land use map to serve as the basis for the coordination of holistic land use, nor a policy to facilitate the consolidation process. For instance, insufficient land use optimisation, a lack of integration of geospatial data, and a weak institutional framework for spatial governance are escalating the issues.

The Constitution mandates the government to maintain 60 percent of the country under forest cover for all time. The Land Act 2007 stipulates that the declaration of Thromde, industrial, and protected agricultural areas shall aim at the best use of land.

As per the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plan 2018, the incomplete physical zoning of the protected areas has resulted in ad hoc zoning of services and resource extraction, often challenging the conservation objectives and policies.

The report has projected nine macro, 23 micro, and 23 nano zones, including high conservation value zones based on the land use genre and relevance.

The nine macro land uses are agricultural land, cultural heritage, industrial, nature conservation area, rangeland, rural settlement, sustainable forest management area, and urban and strategic development zones.

The report outlines that over 65 percent of the country’s total land area is under nature conservation.

Nature conservation division of DoFPS, Chief Forestry Officer Sonam Wangdi said that all relevant agencies with access to the report will recognise the land under various sectors during the planning process. “Earlier, the data was within the department levels — now, with the nationwide land use zonation, it will help in setting up national importance, solving the conflicts among the agencies.”

To ensure a comprehensive determination of land use conflicts, about 16 fundamental geospatial layers were identified.

The nature conservation area as macro zonation in land use stands highest with 42.29 percent conflict, followed by the sustainable forest management area zone with 24.70 percent, and rangeland and agricultural zones with 15.31 percent and 12.78 percent respectively.

The report was supported by WWF Bhutan, the International Climate Initiative, the REDD+ framework and other agencies.