Choki Wangmo

The forest department has submitted a proposal and a study on additional timber harvesting to the Cabinet. While the Cabinet is yet to deliberate on the proposal, conservation experts have started a dialogue on the social media group ‘Bhutan Conservation Forum’.

The group, however, focuses on sustainable timber harvesting, as the government announced export of wood products to substitute import and recuperate about Nu 3 billion (B).

Forest analyst, Phuntsho Namgyel (PhD) started the conversation, proposing the need for change in Bhutan’s forest conservation policy through forest thinning programmes and reaping socioeconomic and ecological benefits from the overstocked forest resources in the country.

He said that it was a paradox to import a huge number of wood products and maintain high forest cover where timber is the most protected commodity, scarce, and expensive beyond the reach of the common people. Phuntsho Namgyel, in a previous interview said that to prepare overstocked forest for climate change-induced trees dying and big mega-fires, the country without further loss of time must undertake a forest-thinning programme.

Last year, Bhutan exported wood products worth Nu 0.28B of which the majority of exports was wood and wood products. Wood charcoal accounted for 95 percent of the total export, according to the Bhutan Trade Statistics, 2019.

But Bhutan also imported Nu 3.2B worth of wood and wood products from India and other countries in 2019 resulting in a trade deficit of Nu 2.9B.

On the presence of ‘overstocked forest resources’ in the country, an ecologist and the Executive Director of Bhutan for Life, Pema Wangda (PhD), said that such general statements might confuse the public.

When talking about forest thinning programmes, he said there was a need to specify the forest type that drains ground water. For example, certain forest types like blue pine or chir pine might require medium thinning but these forests cannot be compared with humid mixed conifer forest or broad-leaved forest.

According to records with the forest department, Bhutan has 71 percent of land under forest cover—46 percent broad-leaved and 25 percent coniferous—33.209 percent falls within national parks, sanctuaries and strict nature reserve where commercial harvesting or logging is restricted.

A forester said that Bhutan has a capacity to harvest 13 million (M) cft annually but most of them are not extractable. Excluding restricted harvest in protected areas constituting 51 percent of the total forest cover, he said the remaining includes more than 800 community forests which are harvested due to its accessibility to road and proximity to settlements.

“It leaves us with limited areas available for exploitation. So production capacity of 13M cft a year is not practically available.”

Most forest areas which are accessible have been exploited and in reality most accessible areas have less timber-sized trees.

A member said that people had difficulties finding timber for house construction. “We have adequate forest cover but lack trees to harvest for building houses.”

He said that broad-leaved forest management is complicated with poor regeneration of timber species. Large scale harvesting of trees would compromise other ecosystem services and trigger natural disasters such as landslides and flashfloods in the fragile mountain ecosystem.

Former Chief Executive of the Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited (NRDCL), Sonam Wangchuk, said that overstocked resources should be derived after deducting the non- negotiable areas like protected areas, biological corridors, and critical watersheds.

The production target achievements for NRDCL in the last two years reported timber production of 2.043M cft against the target of 1.862M cft in 2018 and 2.509M cft against 2.252M cft. in 2019.

One concern among many is the difficulty involved in extracting timber because of the geographical terrain.

A participant, Doley Tshering said that the current drive towards greater involvement of local communities in managing forests including sustainable harvest is a step in the right direction. “More areas should be community managed and used rather than propose large scale state forestry operations.”

A wildlife biologist Phuntsho Thinley (PhD), said the agencies should look into feasibility of extraction considering factors like terrain, distance from road point, water sources, wildlife breeding areas, animal migration areas, sacred and heritage sites, core zones, landslide prone areas among others.

“We certainly need to create landscape mosaics and heterogeneity for wildlife but it should depend on forest types and landscapes. We may not like to pursue massive tree removal from water recharge zones and slide or erosion prone areas.”

“Value of forests certainly shouldn’t be calculated solely as timber-based. Ecosystem and other values surpass timber values manifold any time,” he added.

Earlier, the agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor, said that the export of wood-based products would save more than 3B revenue losses from import of these products. The timber, according to him, would be extracted from the annual allowable cut.