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Reflections from the 4th Edition of the Royal Highland Festival

Last week, as a humble partner, UNDP Bhutan had the honor to participate in the 4th Edition of the Royal Highland Festival, held in Laya. This festival was started by His Majesty The King in 2016 to celebrate and preserve the rich cultural tradition of the highland communities in Bhutan. 

Apart from my obvious interest in the colorful display of beautiful performing arts and heritage, I was eager to learn more about highland livelihood as well as the challenges and opportunities that have arisen after decades of rapid social, environmental, and economic change in the country. 

My visit to Laya coincided with the United Nations (UN) Day. As I reminded myself of the UN Charter and responsibilities bestowed upon me as an international civil servant, my interactions with people at the festival helped me understand the Bhutanese spirit of service. 

Laya is situated at an altitude of 3,800 to 4,200 metres above sea level and has historical significance as the first village where Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal arrived after crossing into Bhutan from Tibet. Reaching Laya takes almost a full day of walking from the nearest vehicle road-head. In the capital city of Thimphu, we were starting to feel the beginning of winter. In Laya, I felt much colder and imagined how cold it could be during the winter.  

I have heard many say that the highland communities are well to do, thanks to harvesting of cordyceps. While it has brought economic benefits, I was struck by the high cost of essential products in shops in Laya.  With the arrival of the cold weather, the supply of fresh vegetables and fruits diminishes. Living in the highlands requires resilience and ability to adapt to harsh conditions, often with limited means and without the comforts of modern life. 

Yak Herders and Livestock Professionals 

During my visit, I was hosted by an elderly yak herder. He owns more than 150 yaks and is very proud to serve His Majesty by preserving this traditional lifestyle. 

It’s hard work. Another yak herder told me about her surprise encounter with a bear. She was mauled but escaped by punching the bear in its nose. This, she explained factually, was a bear’s sensitive spot and hitting it presented the only possibility of defense. Her courageous act notwithstanding, she was severely injured but had to walk a whole day to get back to Laya for help. Despite this life-threatening experience, she continues to be a herder. 

Many people help to preserve the yak herding tradition. Veterinarians from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests explained to me that one third of yaks in the affected communities suffer a disease called Gid. Livestock officials walk days to visit herders to check on their yaks’ health and to administer necessary treatment. All these services are provided for free by the Government.  

Let us not forget the climate risks and vulnerabilities confronting highland communities. Water sources are drying up, and the availability of firewood is dwindling. A herder whom I spoke with travels four hours on foot to find the firewood that her family needs throughout the year for cooking and heating. Life in Laya has changed substantially with the arrival of electricity some five years ago. She added that, with the electricity, nights now feel like days. Apparently electric lights have also reduced the frequency of nightly intrusions into houses by bears rummaging for food. 

Despite the availability of electricity, electronic heating is rarely available or used, and poorly insulated houses mean the heat generated by bukharis is often inadequate. Along with the introduction of energy-efficient heating options, more efficient insulation techniques, using traditional methods and materials, should be actively pursued.  

The yak herding tradition plays an important role in balancing the eco-system. In some areas, with decreasing yak herds, under-grazing is becoming a problem, disturbing the eco-systems and allowing intrusive species to thrive. All of this underlines the importance of supporting the preservation of the yak herding tradition, which requires innovation and targeted policy interventions, including promoting income generating options from yak milk. For the time-being, the products seem to be limited to cheese and butter. But the exceptionally high protein content of yak milk present great opportunities. Why not produce protein rich yak milk powder and delicious protein snacks at a time when high protein diet is the latest fad among health-conscious consumers all over the world? 

Educators and Health Professionals

Committed educators continue to work hard to ensure access to education for the children of the herding communities. The principal and two women teachers of Laya’s only school told me that the remoteness and hardships in the highlands make it difficult to attract teachers to serve in this community. The school in Lunana, which is an eight-day walk from Laya, has not had a principal for several years. These three educators come from other dzongkhags, leaving their families behind, and I asked them what drew them to Laya. I was humbled to learn that it was their commitment and motivation to serve the young population in this remote community – “I was born in this country and I want to stay here to serve my country”. Eighty-nine of the 154 students, aged 5 to 18 years, are boarders, living away from their herding parents during the school year, from mid-March to the end of November. Some parents choose not to send children to school. With the recent pay raise of teachers, coupled with monetized hardship and high altitude allowances they already receive, more of them might be persuaded to serve in remote communities. I feel teachers deserve due recognition for their services and commitments. 

One of the key challenges of the remote highland communities is the limited access to medical services. Previously, the Honorable Prime Minister served members of the community in His Majesty’s Kidu mobile clinic. Laya’s Basic Health Unit (BHU) is manned by a lone Health Assistant with support from the caretaker. Around 15 to 20 people visit the BHU every day. For major illnesses, the patients are referred to the Gasa District Hospital. Besides treating people of four nearby chiwogs, the Health Assistant walks for six hours, return trip, to the Outreach Clinic in Galza-Lungo Chiwog once a month to provide health services. 

Volunteering

The festival would not have been possible without people who volunteered their time and services. Throughout the festival, I saw orange-uniformed DeSuups (literally translated as “peace-keepers”) from other parts of the country, serving as information officers, security coordinators, guides and cooks. The DeSuung Programme started on His Majesty’s command in February 2011, and the current Member of Parliament of Khatoed Laya Constituency in Gasa, Hon. Tenzin is the first DeSuup from Laya. The participants of the festival thoroughly enjoyed live performances of dances, songs, and comedy shows by more than 50 volunteers from the Film Association of Bhutan. The faces of Layap girls and boys lit up with big smiles when they recognised faces from TV programmes and films. I also saw school students, as members of the Youth Development Fund’s volunteer network, and Scouts distributing drinking water to guests, serving lunches and picking up waste. The Royal Thimphu College students, who participated from Thimphu, also collected bags of waste along the path on their way back from Laya to Gasa. 

UNDP

So, what is UNDP’s service to the community? Through the GEF-UNDP small grants programme with partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan, we have supported several community-based micro-projects in Gasa including organic-farming, eco-tourism, and community schools in Laya and Lunana in the past. Currently, we are working with the Royal Government of Bhutan, with technical support from the Gasa District officials and Korean Gudeul masters, to introduce a floor-heating technology from Korea – Gudeul- in the Laya Central School. The smoke generated from the oven travels through channels under the floor and heats up the room. Six to seven pieces of wood can heat the room for 24 hours. This fuel-efficient technology can have a positive impact on students’ learning, health and hygiene, and enhance the overall quality of education.

Retrofitting is expensive. I hope, therefore, that this technology can be adopted in the design and construction stage of new school buildings in the community. Upfront investments seem high, but the long-term savings in terms of the firewood and environmental degradation outweigh the costs. 

The Bhutanese Spirit of “Service”  

During my two and a half days in Laya, I repeatedly encountered the Bhutanese spirit of serving the community and the nation. I thought this truly reflects the words of His Majesty – “putting common good above oneself”. It is about us, not about me.  This is the spirit which builds the nation and makes traditions and cultures come alive and thrive, no matter how remote the communities are and how challenging the conditions might be.  

In closing, I would like to congratulate His Majesty’s Office, the Dzongda and his team and the people of Laya, and the Tourism Council of Bhutan on a successful Royal Highland Festival. I sincerely thank you all for the wonderful hospitality extended to us. 

Contributed by   Azusa Kubota

UNDP Resident  Representative

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