Getting down to business in Bhutan
By Jane Lawton, Head of Communications and Business & Biodiversity, IUCN Asia
Even as the Druk Air pilots weave in to land at Paro and the wing-tips of the plane appear to almost skim the surrounding mountain peaks you know you are arriving somewhere special.
As you exit the airport into the fresh mountain air, it’s hard not to feel as if you have stepped back in time. At least 90% of the people around you are immaculately turned out in traditional dress – the knee-length, kimono-like garment called the ‘gho’ in the case of the men, and the ankle-length ‘kera’ in the case of the women. And this is not just for show for the tourists – this is what people wear to the office every day. The road from Thimphu to Paro is just what one would expect – steep mountain sides, rushing rivers, distant monasteries, fluttering prayer flags, even buses emblazoned with the country’s slogan: “Be Happy!”
To the visitor, Bhutan exudes an air of serenity which seems almost to be built into the fabric of the place. But if you scratch the surface the story is a little different and the contradictions begin to emerge. I was in Bhutan recently to attend the country’s first Better Business Summit, together with a host of international experts on everything from sustainable development and Corporate Social Responsibility to competitiveness, resource extraction and tourism.
he conference was focused on exploring how Bhutan can do a better job of developing private sector engagement in the country and expanding its economy while not losing sight of its extraordinary vision of Gross National Happiness, and a society that values more than money.
The contradictions inherent in this task have not been lost on the country’s leaders.
The Prime Minister of Bhutan – Tshering Tobgay – opened the conference with the words: “You have come to our country. The least we can do is be honest with you. Everything is not hunky-dory in Bhutan.” He went on to outline the growing issues they are facing, from a major trade deficit (Bhutan imports a wide array of goods from the region but has very limited exports to generate the foreign currency it need to pay for them) to growing unemployment, rapid development of urban centres and increasing levels of human wildlife conflict.
Bhutan has recognized that it needs to become more competitive and to encourage both home-grown private sector development and direct foreign investment if it is to survive. At the same time, the country is struggling to ensure that these changes are consistent with its Gross National Happiness philosophy, and with what was referred to several times during the summit as “Brand Bhutan”.
From the perspective of a conservationist, it seems there is an incredible opportunity here. The principle of protecting the environment and ecological systems is enshrined in the idea of Gross National Happiness. A ‘New Development Paradigm’ recently put forward by the country goes further to explicitly recognize the interconnectedness of human and environmental wellbeing, and the dependence of both economy and society on the health of underlying ecosystems.
With more than 72% forest cover and the highest percentage of land in protected areas of any Asian country, Bhutan has an amazing window, unlike most of the rest of the world, to protect much of its extraordinary biodiversity largely intact. In an effort to ensure we know just what that biodiversity comprises, IUCN is currently engaged in a project to assess the status of Bhutan’s endemic plants with the ultimate goal of publishing a National Red List of Bhutan’s Endemic Flora.
The main area of direct foreign investment has been in hydropower – providing cheap, clean energy to the country and making up the bulk of its exports to neighbouring India. During the summit, the Prime Minister announced that he has ordered a number of electric cars with a vision that the streets of Thimphu will soon contain only green vehicles.
Achieving a balance between economic development and Bhutan’s new development paradigm will not be straightforward or easy. But Bhutan has never followed what the rest of the world would consider to be the straight or the narrow. There is promise here that with the private sector just beginning to develop, standards can be put in place to ensure that new investments will be made in the right way – creating a new vision not just for a country that is happy, but for one that is truly sustainable.