The School for Field Studies (SFS) new semester program, Himalayan Environment and Society in Transition, gives students a broad exposure to the core areas of environment, culture, development, and governance in Bhutan. Students will apply conceptual, analytical, and technical skills to help address questions related to natural resource-based livelihoods, conservation of biodiversity, and vulnerabilities to disasters.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small, land-locked country nestled in the rugged eastern Himalayas between India and China, two of Asia’s geopolitical giants. The landscape comprises mountains and valleys, with seven major river systems draining the high Himalayas from over 23,000 feet above sea level to 1,000 feet at the southern border. As one of the major biodiversity hot spots in the world, Bhutan is home to a beautiful array of birds, butterflies, and rhododendrons. The takin, snow leopard, golden langur, blue sheep, and tiger are among Bhutan’s diverse and charismatic fauna.
In Bhutan, rich cultural traditions and social and political institutions reflect Buddhist principles of The Middle Path, integrating people and nature, traditional knowledge, and modern science. The country’s four pillars of development framework—equitable socioeconomic growth, preservation and promotion of culture, conservation of environment, and good governance—are geared towards promoting the collective goal of achieving a high Gross National Happiness.
In 2008, Bhutan shifted from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democratic monarchy with the enactment of the kingdom’s first constitution. Because the majority of Bhutanese people still reside in rural areas and practice small-scale agriculture and forest product extraction, sustainable management of local natural resources is critical for achieving the country’s development and happiness goals.
This new semester program will take an integrated approach to examining issues related to conservation, governance, and rural livelihoods in Bhutan. SFS has a partnership with the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE), an international research and training facility in Bhutan, and part of Bhutan's Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. SFS students contribute to the advancement of the Institute’s research agenda in several priority areas, including sustainable forestry, conservation biology, water resources, rural development, and policy. Underlying themes to the joint research we undertake include climate change adaptation, natural resource management, and sustainable livelihoods.
The semester curriculum comprises three thematic components, all centered on the environment:
- People’s relationship with nature: We will interrogate the human-nature interface through lenses of religion, society, and culture. We will strive to uncover the knowledge, perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes about nature for an array of stakeholders, including ourselves. We will evaluate human dependence on and vulnerabilities to the processes, resources, and events in nature.
- Democratization, governance, and rural development: We will learn about the policies and institutions in Bhutan that provide conditions necessary for livelihood security, good governance, and equitable socioeconomic development.
- Conservation and resource management: These are key pillars supporting human welfare and economic development in Bhutan. We will study key species and their habitats, and Bhutan’s conservation and natural resource management strategies.
The program curriculum and research agenda address issues related to modernization in Bhutan: the support of rural livelihoods and the conservation of biodiversity in the face of a changing society and landscape. SFS staff and students, in collaboration with our partner, the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE), focus on enhancing the condition of forest, river, and mountain ecosystems while balancing the processes of modernization and cultural preservation.
The research outputs from students represent a vital contribution toward broader studies on ecological integrity of mountain ecosystems, climate change, and rural development. We will contribute equally to both policy and practice.
POTENTIAL FIELD RESEARCH, LECTURES, AND EXERCISES
The three-month program will operate primarily in the central districts of Bumthang and Zhemgang. Much of our learning will occur in the forests, fields, and villages in these areas. Students will get to know the local and national institutions that contribute to the management and governance of environmental resources. Field-based activities will include the following:
- Observe changes in vegetation zones on the journey from the capital city to central Bhutan
- Explore the Phobjikha valley, an important wetland conservation area for the black-necked crane
- Consider the benefits and challenges of integrated conservation and development programs in rural communities
- Trek through villages and relict forests to 14,000 feet elevation
- Conduct biodiversity studies in forests and fields
- Study traditional agricultural systems and practices, and assess how modernization affects the agro-ecosystem and household economy
- Pursue socioeconomic questions in towns, on farms, and with businesses
- Visit monasteries in Bumthang to learn about the role of Buddhism in Bhutanese society and culture
- Detect Buddhist symbols, practices, and philosophy in daily life
POTENTIAL DIRECTED RESEARCH PROJECTS
- Compare timber productivity in community forests and private forests
- Examine the effect of cattle grazing on blue pine encroachment
- Study the effect of land use on water quality
- Investigate the impact of roads on community forest and agrarian livelihoods
- Determine how rural-to-urban migration impacts food security and nutrition across the country
- Stream clean-up in Jakar town
- Environmental education with nature clubs in local schools
- Sports and cultural exchange with school children
- Trail maintenance and landscaping on UWICE campus
- Service to the monastic community
The Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) is a government institution that serves as a center for research, policy dialogue, and training in the fields of conservation and environmental sciences. We live and study on the UWICE campus, set in the pastoral Chokhor Valley in the central district of Bumthang. The facility is the former palace of Bhutan’s first king, built in traditional Bhutanese architecture with colorful decorations both inside and out. The modern dormitories and cafeteria are just steps away from the Dzong, where classes are held. The UWICE campus offers views of the surrounding valley, the mountains swathed in clouds, and the occasional cattle or ponies grazing in the yard
Students will spend the colder month of the semester at a rural development training campus set on the edge of Zhemgang town. The campus has a working farm and a set of modern buildings of Swiss-built stone construction. Classrooms overlook the farm and valley.