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Bhutan: The World's First Wholly Organic Nation?

By Jan Lee

The tiny nation of Bhutan attracted worldwide attention recently when it announced that it intends to convert its agriculture to 100 percent organic farming in the coming years.  For many, its claim is no surprise; the Kingdom of Bhutan has been incorporating sustainable growing methods into many of its agricultural practices for years.

And for the Bhutanese government, its declaration is a normal outgrowth of Bhutanese philosophy toward life.

“The sustainable development concept and principles are entrenched in the Gross National Happiness development philosophy,” it explained in its May 2012 report on sustainable development.

It’s a perspective that isn’t often promoted by governments in the world, that “true development takes place when material, emotional and spiritual well-being occur side by side” and that organic development and sustainable philosophies play an overarching role in defining how we live.

Still, Bhutan’s declaration is music to environmentalists’ ears, as it suggests once and for all that a country’s economic success may actually be able to be shaped by environmental ethics. But can Bhutan really make this conversion to completely sustainable agriculture?

In 2011, the World Bank looked at this question. What it found defines some of the substantial economic challenges that the country may face in pursuit of a more sustainable existence.

Bhutan, which sits squarely between the two largest nations in the world, is completely landlocked and encompasses some of the highest altitudes on earth. More than 60 percent of its land is forested, in accordance with the country’s constitution  (see page 6).   Its agriculture is “mainly subsistence” according to the World Bank; only 8 percent of the country’s land was available for farming and related industries as of its writing, even though agriculture represents more than 30 percent of the GDP.  In contrast, Bhutan’s forests cover 75 percent of the country, but supply only 10 percent of the GDP. In the Bhutanese view, however, the forests fulfill purposes that allow it to focus on sustainable goals, such as proper soil and water resource management, as well as necessary firewood for rural populations.

Almost 30 percent of its rural population lives in poverty, as defined by the World Bank (2011). Many of the villages are remote and “often several days’ walk from the road.” The distance and isolation present “enormous challenges to public services and market opportunities,” issues that are important to any growing economy. The World Bank noted that economic growth also meant better rural roads and improved access to new technologies for rural residents.

It also noted that while Bhutan is commended for its conservation policies, “erosion, deforestation and overgrazing” are prevalent in high population areas, and that there needed to be more support provided in the rural sector for community-based development.

In its tenth Five Year Report (2008-2013; published 2009) Bhutan acknowledged many of these challenges in writing, laying out what it saw as the building blocks for overcoming poverty and inequity of services. But it still appears to have a long way to go to address issues that have been shown, in the past, to be stumbling points for economic growth. By its own admission, less than 60 percent of its population is literate, and less than 40 percent has access to commercial electricity sources (page 150). As much as 25 percent of its rural population still does not have access to safe drinking water.

Whether Bhutan will be able to attain its goal of 100 percent organic farming is in its perspective, tied to its adherence to the philosophy of Gross National Happiness and its four integral concepts: equitable social-economic development; conservation of the environment; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance. These are commendable goals for any 21st century country. Bhutan’s success in converting to a 100 percent agricultural model may offer more than a glimpse at whether sustainable living is possible for an entire country. It may just suggest whether there is indeed a way to balance the ethical considerations of a healthy environment with the competition and demands of a thriving national economy. Image courtesy of rajkumar1200.

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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