Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Fall 2010
A Matter of Balance
Fellow bridges Bhutanese sustainability and Western conservation
Predators are not a problem.
It’s a perspective on ecological balance that might not be obvious at first. But consider, says Phuntsho Thinley DDCF ‘07, the example of ongoing and costly struggles with New York State’s deer and rodent populations.
“An exorbitant amount of money is spent on solving these issues—there are a lot of deer-vehicle accidents, wildlife diseases, and property damage,” Thinley says. “There were predators on the landscape before—wolves and coyotes—that were the natural controllers of deer and other species. If we had predators on the landscape, we would not need to spend so much money and time and energy on managing these problems.”
Mr. Thinley, manager of Bhutan’s Jigme Dorji National Park, learned about Western-style environmental management during his master’s work as a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow at Cornell University. As a conversation practitioner, he says, he has used what he learned at Cornell to consider issues that underlie his everyday work and to think about new approaches. He has also formed ongoing collaborations with Cornell faculty.
At the same time, he thinks Westerners can learn important lessons from the Bhutanese approach. “In most Western countries, ecosystems and landscapes are heavily altered by human beings—[so much that] sometimes they are artificial systems. My feeling is that we have to live in harmony with nature and we have to learn from nature.”
Mr. Thinley relates his approach to Bhutan’s development policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which has gained international currency over the past decade. The four pillars of GNH are preservation of environmental integrity, sustainable socioeconomic development, protection of cultural heritage, and good governance. “Happiness is something that everybody is looking for,” says Mr. Thinley, “and so it is the state’s role to create a conducive, enabling environment for happiness of its citizens. If our environment is not in proper shape, if it is falling off, then people will not be happy.”
This philosophy, Mr. Thinley notes, stems from Bhutan’s deep roots in Buddhism. “One of the important aspects of Buddhist culture is that we tend to give back to nature what we have taken out of it,” he says. “Basically it means living in harmony with nature, as a value of Buddhist culture, and this has helped us in being very sustainable.”
In his role at Jigme Dorji National Park, Mr. Thinley applies this wisdom daily, for the park’s nearly 1,700 square miles demand balance. Four major rivers originate there, all dammed downstream for hydroelectric power in Bhutan and India. Mount Jomolhari, a 23,000-foot peak and pilgrimage site, is within the park, which encompasses habitats that range from to alpine meadows and streams to broadleaf forest. Many endangered species, including the royal Bengal tiger, snow leopard, Tibetan wolf, and Asiatic wild dog, make homes there. In addition, Jigme Dorji, the only Bhutanese park open to tourists, attracts 5,000 hikers and trekkers annually and is therefore a key economic asset.
Most of all, Mr. Thinley works to protect access and development for park residents. “Unlike other countries, we do have people living inside the park,” he explains—traditional communities of yak herders and other Bhutanese citizens who are permitted use of resources, such as the park’s 200 species of medicinal plants, as well as carefully monitored development of infrastructure. “They have been there since before the park came, and we recognize the traditional rights of these people,” Mr. Thinley says. “Rather than moving them out of the park, we recognize them as integral collaborators and partners of the park.”
The challenge for Mr. Thinley and his staff, then—as in all things—is to ensure harmony between the needs of the park’s people, the presence of wildlife, and the sustainability of resources. “This is the biggest challenge. How do we measure sustainability? How sustainable is sustainable?”