With more than 70% of its total land area under forest cover and rich forest biodiversity, Bhutan is probably one of the few countries in the world to come under the spotlight for its stringent environment conservation.
Bhutan’s Constitution mandates that 60% of the country must remain under forest cover for all times to come but can Bhutan maintain this clause with increasing modernization and development?
For years humans have been deforesting small areas of woodland to build their own houses, grow crops to feed their families. However, in recent years the increase in the human population and increase in the developmental activities meant that much larger areas have been cleared
In Bhutan, there are a number of human activities or immediate actions that directly impact forest cover and loss of forest carbon according to the report titled ‘Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Bhutan published by Watershed Management Division Department of Forests and Park Services Ministry of Agriculture and Forests Bhutan in March 2017.
Deforestation and degradation has been attributed for the loss of forest cover. With increase in the forest exploitation the constitutional mandate of maintaining 60% forest cover is at risk.
Deforestation and its drivers
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) statistics, a total of 12,674 ha of State Reserve Forest Land (SRFL) has been allotted for various purposes between 2008 and 2014, translating into an annual average of 1,923 ha. Assuming the historical average of forest area lost due to all allotments between 2008-14, the average deforestation predicted to occur between now and 2030 due to government allotments of SRFL for various purposes is roughly 28,800 ha, the report stated.
The report also mentions that about 99.5% of electricity in Bhutan is estimated to be generated from hydropower and roughly 75% of electricity generated in Bhutan is exported to India, and this is expected to increase given the hydropower sector development plans. Based on the hydropower projects developed so far 2,276 ha of forest were affected, which averages out to around 272 ha per hydropower project. Based on those estimates, 1 to 3 hectares of forest are lost for every megawatt (MW) generation capacity or on average, 2 ha of forest for every MW generation capacity. Ten projects are scheduled to be completed by 2020, to generate 10,800 MW of power out of an estimated 23,760 MW that Bhutan could produce.
Associated use of SRFL for transmission lines and road access related to hydropower development is related, and covered in the next two driver categories. Extrapolating into the future based on known development plans, and assuming an average of 2 ha of deforestation for every MW generation capacity developed, it is estimated that 18,380 MW may generally impact about 39,760 hectares of forest or an annual average of 1,880 ha. Actual impacts will vary based on hydropower development plans.
Also assuming the average forest area lost due to road construction in the period 2008-14, the average deforestation due to roads is predicted to be about 4,100 ha between now and 2020, and up to 12,300 ha by 2030. Increased road development in remote and forested areas may increase access for illegal resource extraction.
Agricultural projection is changing, given increasing interest in leasing for cardamom and other uses and there are also increasing concerns over urbanization spreading into paddy lands, given their suitability for development with so few flat areas in the country. Assuming the average forest area lost due to conversion to agriculture assessed with the spatial analysis 2000-15 (as well as taking into account the area converted back to forests), the average deforestation would be predicted at about 3,890 ha between now and 2020, and up to 11,670 ha by 2030.
Mining has expanded dramatically over the years. In 2008-12 there were 33 mines and 48 quarries either leased or operating in Bhutan. Mines and quarries roughly 3,800 ha were leased for mining between 2008-2014 and the future trends/projections assuming an average annual forest area loss of 633 ha due to mines and quarries in the period 2008-2014, the average deforestation would be predicted at about 3,165 ha between now and 2020, and up to 9,495 ha by 2030. Mining is one of the fastest growing industries of the country (revenues in mining and quarrying increased 20.86% in 2014 compared to the year before) and mining is a strong priority for the government to pursue economic development.
Meanwhile drivers for environmental degradation include timber harvesting and the national statistics indicate 72% of the timber extracted in the period between of 2009 to 2015 has been supplied as subsidized timber, followed by commercial timber (27%), and Royalty free timber (1%). However, these figures do not include unauthorized/illegal extraction. The concentration of timber extraction in the few feasible areas might result in further forest degradation.
Firewood accounted for 90% of Bhutan’s energy demand in 2005 (MoEA, 2016), and yet the efficiency of firewood devices is only 10%–15%. However, increasingly, other types of firewood consumers become significant such as residents in urban areas; institutions such as hotels, restaurants, schools, monasteries; industries; and agriculture.
Each year, significant forest areas burn in Bhutan and records compiled with forest department states that 31 forest fires were recorded in 2017 with 3,549 ha of forest cover burnt while in 2018 there were 39 cases of forest fires with Wangduephodrang district seeing the highest number of fire outbreak. Last year saw 40 forest fires with 35, 2472 hectors of area brunt. Assuming a continuation of previous trends, one could predict that between now and 2030, about 93,800 ha of forest would be subject to fire across the country.
Even after a forest has been razed and cleared, it can return according to Chief Forestry Officer, Kinley Tshering, for forest fire management program (FPED) at the department of forest and park services. “Forest fire is a temporary loss of forest cover. Forest fire is not a huge problem and forests are regenerative in nature,” he said.
The impact of livestock grazing on forest degradation is localized, and varies from place to place depending on the forest types and grazing intensities. Grazing is generally acknowledged to contribute to forest degradation, although insufficient data exists to accurately assess its impact. With a cattle population of over 500,000, the grazing density is about one cow for every five ha of forest.
Yeshey Dorji a blogger and environmentalist said the question is not of whether Bhutan can perpetuate the maintenance of 60% forest cover for all times. The more important question is whether it is productive to do so. “In my thinking we can maintain 60% forest cover in perpetuity without a problem – not out of choice but out of compulsion. Given our topography and ruggedness of geography, and due to reduced farming and agriculture production, we should have no problem in maintaining bountiful forest cover. Forest fires are not such a huge problem – forests are regenerative in nature. In fact in some cases forest fires are essential to reinvigorate the forest stand, he said.
Further he said one need to understand the purpose and intent behind the Constitutional requirement to maintain 60% forest cover. “Is it for carbon sequestration? Is it to protect our water catchment areas? In Bhutan’s context, forests represent a huge economic opportunity. It can be a source of revenue. Thus we must find a balance between conservation and its exploitation for economic gains. Tying up the forests and trees under a limitation imposed by the Constitution will prove to be counter-productive. In fact Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel hints that the reason behind our water sources drying up is caused by excessive forest stand. Too many unproductive trees are drinking up too much of our ground water, resulting in reduced water output,” he added.
He also pointed out that Bhutan may be able to maintain 60% forest cover but the question is what is the quality of our forests as of now? “We should be able to harvest millions of trees for economic gains, while at the same time improving the forest stock. Overstocking the forests with sick and diseased trees does not help. Harvesting some sections of the forests is essential for a healthy growth of the standing stock. What it means is that we need 60% of our landmass to be covered in healthy trees. Silvitultural practice of thinning the forest does not reduce coverage – it improves the quality of the forest cover,” he concluded.
Bhutan has done a lot to safeguard its environment, biodiversity and ecological heritage however; with developmental activities it can threaten forest cover. However, tree planting is being promoted and this initiative gives hope that Bhutan will keep the forest cover safe.
Chencho Dema from Thimphu