A Bhutanese man planted 100,000 trees. He is living part of the Bhutanese culture that we can all learn from.
If not Bhutan, where else would you find a man who has planted 100,000 trees?
The small country high in the Himalayas is one of two carbon-negative countries (the other being another tiny country, Suriname). Roughly 70% of the nation is under forest cover. The Bhutanese people hold the Guinness World Record in planting 49,672 trees in one hour. And it has many "forest caretakers” who spend their spare time planting trees.
The Kingdom is a short documentary about one of these “forest caretakers”. Sonam Phuntsho is a Bhutanese man in his 50s who has planted 100,000 trees. He is on a mission to plant as many trees as he can.
But in many ways, Phunsho is not special. He was a cow herder who wanted to be a forester but was not selected after his interviews. But that didn't discourage him. Rather, he chased after his passion. He wanted to make a small difference and to inspire the next generation. He also wanted his feat to be a reminder to all Bhutanese people that it is in their culture to love and respect the environment.
Phushoi’s dedication may even save the world. In the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, a group of international researchers concluded that forest restoration is the number five most effective way in our fight against climate change. Mother Nature has cursed us with climate change, but Phushoi is trying to reverse this.
This led to the question: why are the Bhutanese so diligent in planting trees and protecting nature, and are there opportunities for other countries to learn key lessons from Bhutan?
It all starts with the culture
Most people would quickly point to the fact that Bhutanese people are deeply devoted to Buddhism, a religion that sees nature as a life-sustaining force. In this small country with a population of fewer than 800,000 people, there are over 7000 monks, over 5000 nuns, and most others are devoted Buddhists. Temples also serve as schools for many children.
Bhutanese people are well familiar with Buddhist teaching in which trees are mentioned as the provider of shade, respite, food, and enlightenment. Buddha had also attained his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, thus, making trees special. Bhutanese also believe in the idea of rebirth in an endless cycle, which means, they better treat the trees with respect, as they may be reborn as a tree in their next lives.
But Bhutanese’s love for trees goes beyond Buddhism.
Bhutan remains a largely rural country, with 60% of the population living outside of large cities. People in the countryside have a history of depending on the forest, be it for foraging or for feeding their livestock. The watersheds from forests also provide about 90% of the country's water.
Because of this, there is a tradition of not over-exploiting the forest. Customary norms of closing the mountain and restricting grazing and social activities in the forest are enforced by local elders periodically. These rest periods allow trees the opportunity to grow and thrive.
Compatible government policies and leadership
The Bhutanese government also crafted environmental policies that complemented and solidified the attitude of Bhutanese people towards forests and nature. Bhutan nationalized its forests and centralized its forest management with the Forest Act of 1969. A permit is required to cut down a tree, and restrictions were imposed on what can be removed from the forest. Export of timber was banned in 1999.
These policies are drastically different from other countries, such as the United States where almost 60% of the forests are privately owned. This means that corporations or individuals own the right to harvest the land for timber or to re-purpose these forestlands for other uses.
When Bhutan obtained its first constitution back in 2008, a mandatory 60% forest cover requirement was written in the constitution. Of course, forests and nature also have a role to play in Bhutan's world-renowned happiness policy. A pillar of the Gross National Happiness framework is "conservation of environment". And why not? We even have the science to prove that spending time in nature does make people happier.
Besides formal written policies, the Bhutanese monarchy has a history of lending its support to conservation and leading by examples:
In 1985, Coronation Day of the king was repurposed as Social Forestry Day, an annual celebration where citizens are encouraged to plant trees;
The current king, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, urged citizens to plant trees and adopt stray dogs on his 40th birthday;
The country came together and planted 108,000 trees to celebrate the birth of the royal baby.
All of these convinced Bhutanese people that those at the top also care about planting trees and protecting nature.
Bhutan's work to protect nature is not over yet
This is not to say that Bhutan’s forests and status as a carbon-negative country do not face any threat.
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic hardship that it brought upon when tourism stopped, the government considered increasing logging for domestic use. Bhutan is currently a net importer of wood, largely from India. The government believes that an increase in domestic logging can help with maintaining a healthier trade deficit.
Further, since 2009, Bhutan’s CO2 emissions per capita has tripled. As the countries get richer, people will no doubt demand more wood, more meat, more cars, and more international travel. The country must find ways to grow sustainably with green alternatives, as well as to expand the carbon sink capacity.
In the technology world, many developing countries bypassed the PC era and moved straight into the mobile era, allowing them to develop world-leading mobile tools. Similarly, would Bhutan be able to bypass the dirty industrial age, and move straight into the clean sustainability age? It would have to if the tiny Himalayan country were to remain as the world’s Shangri-La.
Other governments can act like Bhutan too
But Bhutan is not unique. Nor should it be.
Bhutan is one of two carbon-negative countries in the world, but many others have committed to net neutrality. Norway and Sweden were the first countries to have legally committed to net zero, by 2030 and 2045, respectively. The United Kingdom, Japan, Korea, and more than 110 other countries, have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050. Certainly, we can expect delays and hit a series of barriers along the way, but we would surely also see encouragement and progress.
When it comes to forest cover, 29 countries globally (including Bhutan) have forest cover that is over 60%. This includes developed countries such as Finland, Japan, and Korea, as well as developing countries such as Gabon, Belize, and Guyana. Sure, no other countries have yet put a minimum forest cover into their constitution, but at least, they have met the legal requirements already if they choose to do so.
As for other countries, tree planting is heating up as a key initiative for environmentalists and politicians alike.
In Europe, the Bonn Challenge was launched by Germany and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in 2011. The goal was to restore 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2030. So far, more than 210 million hectares across more than 60 countries had been pledged and under restoration.
The prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, also found tree planting to be a good policy. Ethiopia had seen its forest cover decline from 35% in the early 20th century to just over 4% in the 2000s. To combat this, Ahmed led a project that planted more than 350 million trees in a day, breaking the world record. The aim is to plant more than 4 billion trees in the country.
But there is an even more ambitious plan in Africa. The Great Green Wall is a plan to grow a wall of trees across the African continent, stretching coast to coast and across 20 countries. The idea was set up first to stop desertification in the region, but it is now also used as a tool to teach ecosystem management, to protect rural heritage, and to improve people’s living conditions.
Even Donald Trump committed to tree planting by supporting the World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Trees initiative, which aims to grow, restore and conserve 1 trillion trees around the world.
It is clear that we still have a long way to go. But one day, some countries may even overtake Bhutan in their environmental conservation policies.
Individuals can start with two very easy first steps
But we cannot just rely on policies to get us there. After all, only a change in our values and culture will drive truly progressive policies. It is the Bhutanese culture that serves to protect the country’s scenic nature, not the legislation.
There are many initiatives that an individual can take to make a difference. It could be committing to recycling to reduce fresh timber from being chopped down. Or eating less beef, which is responsible for 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. But I would propose a couple of easier first steps towards building a nature-obsessed culture in our societies.
First, simply go out and enjoy nature. There are a hundred different ways to do this, from hiking to snorkeling to fishing. Bhutanese people respect nature because they understand and enjoy what nature offers. Pause for a moment, connect and cherish what is in front of your eyes.
Second, be educated and conscious about what challenges nature is facing. Watch a documentary about trees. Or the ocean. Be aware of how that nature you enjoyed is struggling today. Know how you could do your part to help. And then, you can at least make an informed decision of whether it is all worthwhile for you to participate in meatless Monday or to take a bicycle rather than your car.
Related: Watch this documentary about a global plastic problem
Of course, we can all volunteer to plant a tree too. That is always welcome.
Start today by watching The Kingdom, a short video that sheds light on the Bhutanese culture and their obsession with nature. You may just be inspired by it.
Director: Matthew Kaz Firpo
Starring: Sonam Phuntsho
Release date: December 11, 2018
Running Time: 5 minutes
This article is part of the Nature's Curse series.