Sunday, April 13, 2014

Forestry, traditional uses and nature conservation of the forest in Bhutan

Forest of Bhutan

By András Darabant forester, works in Bhutan

If the readers of this blog have heard of Bhutan, it was likely in the context of the country’s preeminent role in environmental conservation and the judicious use of its natural resources.  First acquaintances with Bhutan are frequently made also through images depicting pristine forests and picturesque settings of human settlements in perfect harmony with nature. 

I. The biodiversity of the forest in Bhutan
How does a slightly more nuanced picture of this simplistic view look like? 
II. Traditional uses and nature conservation of the forest in Bhutan
What are the forests like and how are they conserved and used?

II. Forestry, traditional uses and nature conservation of the forest in Bhutan
What are the forests like and how are they conserved and used?

Bhutan is not only famous for the diversity of life forms, but is also represented as an international showcase of environmental conservation.  Conservation is one of the highest priorities on Bhutan’s development agenda.  The country’s constitution mandates the maintenance of 60% forest cover for all times to come – a unique regulation on a continent ravaged by deforestation.  Not only do Bhutan’s policy makers emphasize the maintenance of the native vegetation cover, but they have also set aside more than half of the country’s area as protected areas or biological corridors linking them.  While most ecosystems are represented in this protected area network, there is a clear over-representation of sparsely populated areas in northern Bhutan – frequently located above the timber line.  Most National Parks are operational based on management plans and have undergone exercises of zonation – defining core, multiple-use and buffer zones depending on their conservation value and their importance for local livelihoods.  Biodiversity surveys are still mostly patchy and new species are frequently described as a result of an in-depth campaign of this sort.

This variety of forests not only harbors diverse life forms, but also provides a range of different uses to the population, including non-timber forest products for medicine, food, and handicrafts.  The most famous of all probably is the Chinese caterpillar (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), which is considered to be a non-timber forest product, even though it grows and is collected above the timberline.  Collection of this moth larva attacked and killed by a fungus has made yak herders along the Tibetan border prosperous overnight.  Year after year, administrative centers along the northern border are teeming with sellers and bidders during auction season of this highly prized commodity. 

Bamboo basket
Bamboos, even though considerably less valuable, are probably more important for the overall livelihood of the rural population.  Virtually everywhere, bamboo products are part of everyday life from manual milk churners to woven fences, and from baskets strapped to the side of pack animals to bows, used for the most popular sport in the country.  Other examples of forest-based products include lemon grass, harvested in the dry Chir Pine forests of eastern Bhutan and locally distilled for its essential oil.  Some of the mushrooms have reached considerable economic importance as demonstrated by the collection and sale of matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake), which is highly prized by Japanese.

Village dwellers in Bhutan spend considerable amount of time in the forests surrounding their villages, be it while tending their herds of cattle, which graze on forest vegetation or collecting timber and firewood.  It is therefore not surprising that they have an immense knowledge on plants and animals.  In certain regions, such as Kheng, people traditionally supplement their diet from the wild to the extent that local lore says they never had to endure a famine in the past.  Working and camping in broadleaf forests with Khengpas for extended periods, the author of these lines rarely had to supply much else than rice, cooking oil and onions from a market – the remaining ingredients of long-remembered delicious meals were collected while heading back to camp from long days of work in the forest.  Some of these food products have gained commercial importance, providing a source of cash income to the poorest segments of society: “dambaru” (Elatostema sp.), “nakey” (Diplazium esculentum), “pacha” (Calamus sp.), “namdang” (Pogostemon amaranthoides), wild honey, wild asparagus (Asparagus racemosus), and many others sound all too familiar even to the first generation of urban-raised Bhutanese, who hardly venture to the areas, where these wild foods grow in abundance.  Talking of growing food, we have to mention the nutrient storage and transfer function of forests, maintaining agricultural production in the country.  Domestic cattle primarily graze in forests and the nutrients transferred by them to agricultural fields in the form of farm yard manure are the primary source of external nutrient input, which maintains agricultural production in the country.

Besides its importance for local users, the forest resource represents one of the greatest assets of the nation at large.  Forests maintain the backbone of the national economy by tapping and discharging continuous and sufficient water allowing the generation of hydroelectric power, which is the country’s main source of income.  Besides, forests provide timber, representing a highly sought-after commodity.  The majority of timber in Bhutan is harvested for use by the rural population based on a system of subsidies.  When forests in Bhutan were nationalized with enacting the country’s first Forest Act in 1969, the government foresaw compensation of rural communities through the provision of subsidized timber, giving way to the presently applied system.

Besides rural use, timber is harvested for commercial purposes from Forest Management Units, which are operated on the basis of forest management planning.  Inventories form the basis of management plans and are ideally conducted once in a decade.  Inventory data are statistically analyzed to derive figures on stocking in terms of species composition and volume, which, combined with area of cover is used to calculate Annual Allowable Cuts.  Owing to the mandate to manage forests sustainably, silvicultural systems prescribed foresee minimal disturbance to harvested stands.  Fir forests, covering head watersheds in high altitudes are managed using the single tree selection system only, while the generally prescribed silvicultural system for mixed conifer forests is small group selection with group sizes up to a quarter of a hectare.  Somewhat greater impact using small patch cuts is allowed in broadleaf forests.

Commercial harvesting relies mainly on sky line cable cranes made in Austria and Switzerland, allowing yarding of harvested logs from distances up to 1500 meters above and below forest roads to landings on the road.  Parallel cable crane corridors are established at regular distances of 60 meters along roads and silvicultural groups are marked according to the small group selection system at every 50 meters along cable crane corridors.  This way, a “Swiss cheese” of more or less regular gaps covers approximately one third of harvested forest areas, leaving the matrix untouched, at least in an ideal situation.  Unfortunately, however, frequently there is a discrepancy between planning and implementation.  In theory, interlines – the spaces between cable crane corridors representing the intact matrix of the “Swiss cheese” – should be left untouched until the next harvesting period reaches the same area 40 years later.  In reality however, the pressure for marking timber for the rural population is immensely high in these areas, given the easy access via forest roads.  Above the roads, from where timber can easily be manually rolled downhill, interlines rarely remain intact, a practice which jeopardizes the sustainability of continuous harvesting operations.

Timber is transported to log depots, which are usually located near highways, along forest roads.  These roads are constructed in an environmentally friendly manner using excavators, which are able to minimize damage by applying the cut and fill road construction method.  Bulldozers, the application of which would lead to considerably greater damage, are banned in Bhutan.  Unfortunately the level of expertise in road alignment and road construction techniques leaves considerable scope for improvement.  Most roads are of poor alignment, are constructed often without drainage and properly filled embankments, but instead by pushing excavated material down steep slopes, which causes damage to vegetation, soils and watercourses.

In recent years, communities have been increasingly involved in forest management activities in the country.  Within a relatively short period, more the 500 community forests have been declared in the vicinity of villages.  While land ownership remains with the government, communities are given user rights over timber and other resources found within community forests.  The primary goal of the community forest program is the gradual achievement of self-subsistence of local communities in terms of timber and the subsequent phasing-out of the subsidized rural timber policy.  After initial euphoric establishment of community forests, problems of lack of equity and poor governance surfaced from a number of community forests, recently prompting the forest department to put a temporary halt on the establishment of new community forests.

Bhutan’s forests are an important asset also in on-going climate change discussions and the country may be able to tap into associated climate finance mechanisms, such as REDD+.  With methodology and processes yet to be clarified, the country and local forest users should receive financial incentives from global funds for conservation, afforestation and best practices of forest and land management, leading to increased carbon sequestration.

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