Being happy in Bhutan

Posted on March 4, 2013


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This week the Himalayan nation of Bhutan – usually a place that ducks from attention though it is located on the roof of the world – made headlines. The small kingdom of 1.2 million people made an announcement that they would become the first wholly organic country in the world by banning the sale of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

It’s not the first time that Bhutan’s approach has raised eyebrows, and that’s probably because it’s not the first time they’ve chosen a solution that bucks the trends being followed by the rest of the world.

The minister of agriculture and forests, a farmer himself, explained the decision with the simple but weighty quote, “We like to see plants happy and insects happy”.

Unofficially, he could have added that the government also likes to see people happy. It’s a mantra they take very seriously – a gross national happiness (GNH) index has been used to measure national contentment since the 1970s.

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Wedged between China and India, and sitting a stone’s throw from Bangladesh and Nepal – nations overwhelmed with poor populations – Bhutan’s approach to development is working in comparison. More than 95% of the population has clean water and electricity, life expectancy sits at 66 years, and the nation is both carbon neutral and food secure. The GNH index emphasises sustainability and wellbeing as opposed to economic success, but income per capita is US$1,760 a year, which is still significantly higher than the income per capita in other South Asian countries (in Nepal it is US$441).

What’s most fascinating about Bhutan’s approach to development is that they’ve achieved this success while maintaining traditional ways. In a world where urbanisation seems to be the unofficial manifestation of development, Bhutan has modernised and kept its rural culture – 85% of the population still live in rural areas where they are serviced by sealed roads, free education and health care.

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Bhutan is one of the most expensive places in the world to visit. I went last year while I was living in neighbouring Bangladesh, one of the few countries that has direct flights to Bhutan. As well as being difficult to get to, tourists must pay a daily fee of US$200, travel with a compulsory local guide, and stay in specially approved accommodation for foreigners. Bhutan’s tourism industry is the antithesis of nearby Nepal’s culture of backpacking and beer dens.

The silence in Bhutan is almost as impressive as its mountains. Even in the capital city of Thimphu, life never moves faster than a stroll. The air is a tonic that aids soul-searching, and it was while I sat on the edge of a cliff, shadowed by prayer flags that seemed to pave the way to the clouds, that I realised how far away I was from the rest of the world, literally and figuratively.

We’d been climbing for a few hours, and the climb had been preceded by a morning spent on donkeys who carried us halfway. Despite rising higher and higher, the last part of our journey required us to descend a thousand steps, only to walk through a gorge and climb upwards again on the other side. We were making our way to the infamous Tiger’s Nest, a monastery perched so impossibly high I felt like it could be the castle in the clouds I dreamed of visiting as a child. Legend has it that the former wife of a Bhutanese emperor turned herself into a tigress and carried a Tibetan guru on her back, flying him to the Tiger’s Nest. They spent the rest of their lives there in meditation and made the place holy. Our Bhutanese guide relayed the story with as much sincerity as a European tour guide might relay the story of Leonardo Da Vinci being a famous artist.

That’s Bhutan. Perched on a rooftop overloooking the world, it is a treehouse, shielded from the outside world by the looming Himalayan mountains. The geography has created a natural state of isolation that has ultimately led to a political solution of protectionism. It’s only in very recent years – with a rise in foreign tourists willing to pay for perfection, and an increasingly mobile local population with internet access – that history’s shield has begun to shatter.

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Bhutan’s success in development has largely come from its protectionist stance. By clinging to its Buddhist traditions, it has shunned many modern problems and still delivered essential services to its populations. But what comes next?

It’s a complex picture; happiness nearly always is. As we wandered the streets of Thimphu, robed monks mingled with women clad in the traditional dress and young people defiantly wearing jeans or sneakers. In a newsagent, I picked up a local women’s magazine that conservatively spoke about the pros and cons of abortion. Our guide told us that she didn’t want to have children because she didn’t want to quit her job, but in her family she could only choose one. She knew that a life as a childless, married woman would be hard and wondered what to do. As we moved around, we watched new roads being built – roads that paved the way to better access for remote communities but were fashioned using cheap imported labor from India.

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Bhutan’s approach to modern life is so unique that I can’t help but applaud it for its bravery. Its commitment to values like environmental stewardship, for example, is impressive.

In 2008, Bhutan became a democracy. Now, the nature of Bhutan’s future happiness is in the hands of the people, not the King.

Will the younger generations vote for farms or freedom?

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