What is it that we want to conserve?

Bhutan is known to the world for being leader in conservation arena and often regarded as a carbon negative country whose people are dedicated to remain carbon neutral for all times to come. Bhutan first pledged to become carbon neutral at COP15 held in Copenhagen in 2009, but went un-heard. However, Bhutan’s pledged gained much required attention at COP21 held in Paris in 2015, when Bhutan reiterated its promise. Bhutan may as well be the only country in the world having constitutional mandate to conserve 60% of the total geographical area under forest cover for all times to come. With population explosion and per capita landholdings bound to become smaller with time, this may look daunting, however having 50% of the country delineated as protected area net-work as of now looks ever more promising.

With the advent of many developmental activities, “what is it that we want to or need to conserve?” should be a constant question we might want to ask ourselves often. One of the prime examples of developmental activities practiced in Bhutan is the hydro-power development. Economist/power companies and conservationist in Bhutan has always been in tussle with regards to weighing between the benefits of hydropower development and natural resources conservation. While I agree with both schools of thoughts, I can’t take the side of any even being a conservationist myself, for I do not know the future in the wake of climate change, population explosion and economic developments. Thus, let me put my own points arguing from both ends.

First as a conservationist: I always have soft corner to conservation and to represent all living beings, who are not blessed to have intellect to communicate and express their sentiments. Couple of days back I was attending regional symposium on Payment for Environmental Services and Natural Capital in Paro at Zhiwaling hotel, wherein a participants spoke representing animals, for that matter a tiger or a black-necked crane as the subject of discussion was somehow revolving around black-necked crane. I liked his argument as he started his statement with “let me represent those who can’t speak in a forum of this kind…” I was so intrigued by his statement that I started to think; what would happen to animals if we suddenly bulldoze prime habitat of theirs, rather what might the animals be thinking with many developmental activities coming in. What might our Mahseers be thinking when the road to their spawning grounds are getting obstructed by dams, or what might they be thinking when humans hook them in the name of catch and release – sports fishing!!! I thought any game would qualify to be sports only if those involved enjoy, but in sports fishing, fish are in pain. Imagine piercing our lips.

Since hydro-power is the big thing in Bhutan, a petition went on initiated by a pro-conservationist in later part of 2015 to leave one river un-dammed. I didn’t sign the petition – not because I’m from Kheng, nor because I want hydropower to come to Chamkhar chhu. I was not convinced with the reason to “leave one river free flowing”. What does ‘one river mean’? Does this mean that, all our rivers are dammed? why not petition on damming Amo chhu? If we are talking about leaving one river free flowing based on basin, why the petition only for Chamkhar chhu and not for Amo chhu? If we are talking about maintaining reference point, is it necessary to have whole stretch of a basin? Will some tributaries not serve as reference point? Of-course, I know that lower stretch of Chamkhar chhu is home to Mahseers, but do we know if they are migrating all the way up-stream to spawn?, I’m  putting this question as I saw fingers of Mahseers in a stream which is just two kilometers up-stream of Manas river. We are yet to prove that Mahseers are migrating all the way up-to temperate rivers from our rivers of sub-tropical belt. When we already messed with river eco-system by introducing brown-trout, why are we so concerned about some species of fish? In one of the studies conducted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research, we found that, rivers in Bumthang does not have any endemic fish species, but just brown trout.

Since, my argument seems to be revolving around hydro-power, let me ask ourselves some questions before signing it off:

  • How much should we protect? Why do we need to protect? What should we protect? And for how long?

I ask these questions, because, how much can we do as a small country? What is it that we gain? We are not free from the climate change havoc, though our contribution to accelerating the process of climate change remains very negligible? Why do we suffer from the negative actions of others?

I’m for economic development but not at the costs of environment; I’m for environmental conservation but not at the costs of improving livelihoods. We need hydro-power, but not at current pace; not at current economic debt. We need to conserve environment, but not too stringent to outweigh some form of development to help our communities come out of poverty.

This debate shall prevail as there are not right and wrong points to prove. Till then, may Bhutan be blessed to have steady and progressive economic developments with environment and natural resources intact. May the vision of our Great Fourth Druk Gyalpo prevail and guide us through such tussles that will only increase with many emerging “pros”.



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