The vulnerability of expropriation of national natural resources for political promises

The Mines and Minerals Bill deliberations in the National Council reminds us of the vulnerabilities of our natural resources to political gain in the name of economic development. With a strong social welfare principle of the nation, state ownership of natural resources is necessary. This vision is encapsulated in our Constitution where “the rights over mineral resources, rivers, lakes, and forests” are vested in the sovereign right and state property”. This state right must be carefully exercised.

This is founded on the basis that Article 9(7)  of our constitution requires that it is the duty of the state to “minimize inequalities of income, the concentration of wealth, and promote equitable distribution of public facilities among individuals and people living in different parts of the Kingdom.” The current government’s promise of narrowing the gap is in line with the equitable distribution of public facilities. However, since political tenure is only for five years, the government may resort to the expropriation of our natural resources to generate revenue to fulfill their pledges.  Foreseeing such vulnerabilities, the constitution mandates the state with sixty percent forest coverage at all times.

 Explaining this mandate, His Majesty the Fourth King said “The main asset of Bhutan is our water resource. In order to have good water resources, forest is very important. Once democracy starts, there are chances that political parties will exploit our forest to the great extent by making various policies as they have only five years tenure if our government for maximizing the revenue and to convince the people to cut the forest and sell them, it will be a serious problem for our country.” Reiterating this vision, His Majesty said that in the “1950s, when conservation was not even a global issue, and we were inundated with advice to cash in on our forest resources, we chose to consider the future instead. We made strong laws to ensure that we would be able to pass on our wealth of natural resources to the future generations.”

His Majesty the Fourth King said, “the national wealth belongs to the people, and should be safeguarded for all generations of Bhutanese.” This noble vision is further cemented under Article 5 (1). This Article makes every Bhutanese is a custodian of the country’s natural resources and environment and imposes a duty on every Bhutanese to protect the natural resources and the environment. Article 5(4) mandates the legislatures to focus on sustainability and the need to pass the nation’s natural resources from one generation to another.  The involvement of state-owned enterprises (SOE) is the best alternative for the state to exercise this right. But under the pretext of exercising the constitutional rights, SOEs should not become the political machinery to generate revenue at the expense of future generations to fulfil political pledges.  

The legislature while deliberating issues such as mines and mineral or forest policies must first take cognizance of the wise wisdom from the throne which is now enshrined in the constitution. These constitutional mandates extend far beyond the political tenure or pledges. For example, recent news of thinning the forest to recuperate the economy is one such worrisome proposal of the state. At glance, the possible income from such activity looks tempting and may please the voters but long-term impacts of such plans deserve greater scrutiny.  The legislatures must not kill the goose that lays the golden egg. 

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.

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