Experts feel that Bhutan would gain by conserving forests than extracting them

With the country’s economy hit hard by the pandemic, the government is in discussion on the potential of timber extraction for export to India and Bangladesh, possible import substitution and starting of mega-wood processing units.

The Royal Monetary Authority projected Bhutan’s economy to contract by 1.1% this year. However, environmentalists point out that Bhutan can gain more by protecting and conserving forests rather than extracting the resources.

A report titled “Report on Export Potential for Wood Products, Establishment of Mega Wood Processing Unit and Possible Import Substitution in Bhutan” was submitted to the cabinet and would be presented on November 4 in the Densa meet to come to a consensus on the matter.

Forest Reserve and management

Bhutan has 71% forest cover with 46% of broadleaved forests and 25% conifer forests. Moreover, 33.29% falls within National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Strict Nature Reserve where commercial harvesting or logging is restricted and about 19.96% is managed as Forest Management Units (FMUs), 7.30%, Community Forests (CFs), 3.30%, Local Forest Management Areas (LFMAs), 6.98% and Private Registered Land (PRL), 2.37%, according to Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS).

Potential timber production

The total growing stock of Bhutan’s forests is estimated at 1,001mn m3 and average growing stock per ha is 261 m3 as per the National Forest Inventory Report, 2016.

A forest analyst, Dr Phuntsho Namgyal reported an annual increment of 13.5mn m3 for the entire forests of Bhutan estimated by comparing the total growing stock of 1981 and 2016 for a 35-year period.

Moreover, the report stated that 5.79mn m3 of timber could be extracted from the entire forests annually on a sustainable basis.

On an average about 0.62mn m3 of timber is harvested annually from FMUs, LFMAs, CFs, ad hoc areas, PA and PRL accounting for 10.50% of the total annual increment of 5.79mn m3 that could be harvested annually, according to DoFPs.

Therefore, an additional volume of about 5.17mn m3 of timber could be harvested annually on a sustainable basis through thinning and or other management regimes.

According to the Forest Resources Potential Assessment of Bhutan, 2013, about 16% of the total forest area is estimated to be suitable for sustainable management.

Timber production can be increased by carrying out thinning of existing stands or forests especially in blue pine forests, according to DoFPS. Additionally, the production has to be limited within the total annual increment of 5.79mn m3.

Economic Benefits

Bhutan exported wood products worth Nu 0.28bn in 2019 of which the majority of exports was wood and articles of wood. Wood charcoal accounted for 95% of the total export, according to the Bhutan Trade Statistics, 2019.

On the other hand, Bhutan imported Nu 3.2bn worth of wood and wood products from India and other countries in 2019 resulting in a trade deficit of Nu 2.9bn for wood and wood products.

Wood charcoal accounted for 93% of the total export worth Nu 1.88bn which is 2.7% of the total imports and 58.8% of wood-based imports.

“Bhutan is importing Nu 3.2bn worth of wood and wood products and if we can substitute import, it would be huge money for us, although we are not able to value add to the products and export at higher prices,” said agriculture and forests minister Yeshey Penjor.

Additionally, he said we cannot make profit without investment and if there is no profit margin there is no point of doing business. “The returns should overtake the investment,” Lyonpo added.

Moreover, Dr Phuntsho Namgyel said wood as a renewable resource can substitute steel and concrete in buildings.

“The timber resource represents a low hanging fruit which requires relatively a minimum capital compared to other economic sectors such as mining and hydropower development,” said Dr Phuntsho Namgyel.

Environment benefits and losses

An overstocked forest means trees in a stand are crowded and stand too close together, and they compete for light, water and nutrients. They provide a poorer habitat for wildlife, birds and plant diversity, said Dr Phuntsho Namgyel.

He argued that trees consume more water and lose through eva-transpiration and the sponge theory that trees absorb and store water in the rainy season, and then release it gradually in the dry season, is only true to some extent as it depends on the local geology and rainfall, he said.

Additionally, he said overstocked forests could lead to disaster forest fires and increased forest could shrink the agricultural lands and grasslands.

“The overcrowded forest is not a healthy forest. To prepare our forest for consequences of climate change and to maintain the health of the forest, we sometimes need to cut down some trees. Sustainable harvesting of trees is not deforestation,” said Dr Phuntsho Namgyel.

Additionally, he said timber is a traditional raw material in our house construction and need to encourage the use of wood in construction as 1 m3 of wood used in construction will store 1 ton of Carbon.

Countering Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel’s hypothesis, Executive Director of Bhutan For Life, Dr Pema Wangda said to harvest the overstocked trees without assessing the sites is not worth it given the inaccessibility due to country’s topography of mountainous terrain and steep.

Moreover, he said the overstocked trees are located in inaccessible areas that serve as critical water sources.

“Extracting timber from the watersheds would result in erratic rainfall that would affect the people’s livelihood, he added.

Moreover, Dr Pema Wangda said the monsoon rain in Bhutan is mostly concentrated in three months of June, July and August and during September.

“With limited forest cover, the heavy monsoon rain would wash away everything from the steep terrain and good forest cover conserves the soil and can regulate the hydrological cycle by recharging the critical water sources,” said Dr Pema Wangda.

Moreover, he said all the perennial springs and streams originate from the watersheds and during lean season without rainfall there is good flow of water and intervention in the critical water resources above would have impact on the lower communities.

The pines are mostly concentrated in the bottom of the valleys and slopes and watersheds are in the uplands, and there is no evidence that pine consuming more water results in the drying of the water sources. Moreover, pine conserves more water, said Dr Pema Wangda.

On overstocked forest, he said certain disturbances are required in ecosystem, and nature has its own natural selection and disturbances like old tree falling on the forest floor creates a huge gap and diversity of plants would regenerate. Additionally, wind and forest fire also create certain disturbances, he added.

Challenges of timber production

For timber extraction, there are huge investments that would incur given the wide distribution of trees in the mountainous country, poor accessibility, poor infrastructure, fragile ecosystem that could result in huge investments for extraction of timber, according to DoFPS.

An environment consultant, Thinley Namgyel, said the harvesting timber should be within sustainable limits with proper management plans however, if overharvested, it would be a problem, the repercussions of which would be felt by the future generations.

He said Bhutan is in a difficult situation whether to harvest the trees to sell them or keep the carbon sink given the challenges of climate change growing globally.

Dr Pema Wangda said the government would not totally go for cutting down the trees haphazardly and it intends to extract from the existing forest management units for developmental activities like construction of transmission power lines, roads and so on.

Dr Phuntsho Namgyel however said that Bhutan since 1970s has adopted cable crane technology for commercial harvesting of trees, the most environmentally friendly timber harvesting method in a mountainous terrain.

Further, he said Bhutan has over the years gained a lot of valuable experiences in sustainable harvesting of trees.

The harvesting system practiced are single tree selection and small group openings which maintain the original structure of the forest stand and encourage natural regeneration, said Dr Phuntsho Namgyel.

“Bhutan has many years of environmentally friendly timber harvesting experience. It is not a forestry practice to worry about,” he added.

But Dr Pema Wangda said lots of wastes are produced while harvesting timber and there is no efficiency and proper utilization. However, it would be fine if there is clear cutting within the management plan.

He added that there would be over-exploitation of forest resources if there is privatization of logging activities.

“If the government goes for harvesting large scale, there needs to be plantations mostly in the southern foothills as they have to be protected,” he added.

“Bhutan can definitely benefit more by protecting and conserving nature because we are situated in a fragile steep terrain mountainous ecosystem,” said Dr Pema Wangda.

Thinley Namgyel also said there could be challenges if we export wood products as in Nepal, locals will not be able to afford to buy them owing to competing export prices for construction and local consumption.

Carbon neutrality and international donors

“Bhutan has committed to stay carbon neutral for all times. If we can keep the carbon sink intact, we can get the funding to keep instead of selling tress as wood, however, if we do not maintain the status quo, who is going to pay?” asked Thinley Namgyel adding that he has asked the government to look for funds internationally to meet the revenue demand for developmental activities.

“Carbon sink is for global benefit and that would be best,” he added.

Moreover, Dr Pema Wangda said more than carbon trade, Bhutan can benefit from conserving because most international organizations and donors give funds for conservation and livelihood aspects.

“The potential gains from the carbon trading would not be huge given the small scale of forest coverage,” he added.

In its conservation efforts, Bhutan is receiving funds through Green Climate Fund, UNDP, World Wildlife Fund, Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Bhutan Foundation, Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation, and Bhutan For Life.

Existing law on export of timber

Section 6 article 217 (2) of the Forest And Nature Conservation Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2017 states: “Export of timber either in log or sawn form, or as firewood is banned.” However finished forest products can be exported.”

If forest produce is illegally transported, imported or exported, or both the offence as stated in section 5 article 19 (b) of the Forest and Nature Conservation Act 1995 is punishable with imprisonment which may extend to 3 months or a fine equal to the fair market value of the forest produce illegally transported, imported or exported, or both.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu