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Bhutan’s Changing Landscape

Maintaining tradition while moving forward

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Sangay Wangchuk’s grandmother told him not to cut down trees when the moon is dark. Only when the moon is full can one be sure that the trees won’t feel pain when they are cut. She told him not to throw rocks, as there are spirits in the rocks. If he was ill, it was because certain types of birds were in their village.

The spiritual references, some tied to Buddhism, shaped Wangchuk’s childhood when he was growing up in rural Bhutan. They helped him understand life and appreciate the natural world.

But the upcoming generation—the new Bhutan—often seek more practical answers, rather than answers based on spiritual beliefs or religion.

“My children started asking me tough questions about the environment, life, everything,” said Wangchuk, the 49-year-old father of two teenagers. “They did not accept the spiritual answers I gave them. I had to rely on science.”

Many young people in Bhutan want to move to cities to find jobs and good schools. They want to spend time in front of televisions—new to Bhutan over the past few years—instead of at the Buddhist temples or in the forests that have been part of their families’ lives for centuries.

Urban migration
As a tour operator, this change concerns Wangchuk. For more than half his life, his livelihood has been intertwined with nature and culture. He guides tourists who come to Bhutan for something that is hard to find anywhere else: a country side that helps them reconnect with themselves and unwind. It is a country side rich with Buddhist temples and lush forests, crystal clear rivers and tremendous biodiversity—everything he has loved since he was young.

If Bhutan’s youth—who make up 60 percent of the country’s population—continue to migrate to cities and seek out modern amenities, they will live a lifestyle that is disconnected from nature and religion. Wangchuk fears that the tourism industry, which is one of the country’s biggest industries, will suffer from this change. Fewer people in rural areas means fewer people to care for the landscapes and carry out the cultural traditions that tourists come to be part of and see.

“This is a country that has made people happy for so long,” said Wangchuk. “I want it to stay that way. People will stop coming if they see Bhutan heading in the wrong direction.”

Creating jobs in rural communities
That’s why keeping rural communities alive is a priority for Wangchuk. He is turning part of the farm he owns in Punakha Valley into a retreat for tourists. He is building cottages on the land and hopes to attract writers and other tourists who want a quiet place to be creative. He also has plans to conduct tours of his farm for local school children, with the hope that learning how to grow fruits and vegetables will inspire them to stay in rural Bhutan.

The government of Bhutan and nonprofit organizations also are doing their part to create jobs in rural communities. WWF is helping educate homeowners how to turn their homes into lodging for tourists. Doing so is a means for creating jobs and giving tourists a unique experience.

“People who come on my tours give me hugs,” Wangchuk said. “They are happy when they come to Bhutan. I want to keep it that way. I want to keep selling the dream.”