The School for Field Studies (SFS) Eastern Himalayan Forests and Rural Livelihoods summer program introduces students to Bhutanese culture, society, and environment. Traveling and trekking across valleys and ridges and through villages, students gain an intimate knowledge of the diverse ecosystems and rural livelihood strategies, and conduct research on Bhutan’s priority environmental concerns and resource management and biodiversity conservation strategies.
Our classroom followed our group to wherever we travelled. While on morning walks, and on our trek, we worked on plant IDs. Around campfires, traditional dances and songs were shared with us. While visiting a dzong, we learned about the meanings of paintings in the temple walls. During homestay with a local family, we learned how to cook traditional dishes. I have never taken so much new knowledge away from a program.
—Theresa Wondra, University of St. Thomas, Summer ‘12
Bhutan is nestled in the remote and rugged eastern Himalayas, a mountainous area characterized by some of the world’s highest peaks, extraordinary biodiversity, and deep cultural and religious history etched into the landscape. 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 this Buddhist kingdom, rich cultural traditions and social and political institutions reflect Buddhist principles of The Middle Path, integrating people and nature, traditional knowledge and modern science, and balancing economic growth and collective 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 four pillars of development in Bhutan: conservation of environment, good governance, equitable social and economic growth, and preservation and promotion of culture.
COURSE CONTENT AND STUDENT RESEARCH
Traveling through Bhutan, students learn about culture and history, religious traditions, environmental issues, and conservation policies, and explore the role that environmental services and natural resources play in rural livelihoods and national development. With the central district of Bumthang as their classroom, and a trek across valleys and through villages, students gain an intimate understanding of local environments and rural livelihood strategies.
Through Directed Research projects, students contribute to the advancement of SFS’s joint research agenda with the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) in areas including sustainable forestry, watershed management, and rural development. Students develop skills in assessing environmental problems, defining research questions, conducting field research, and communicating results.
In this six-week program, students conduct a Directed Research project on themes related to forest management. Project themes have included the following:
- Social, economic, and environmental impacts of community forestry
- Floral biodiversity
- Blue pine forest encroachment and the potential for private forestry development
- Climate, water management issues, and flood preparedness
- Observe four major vegetation zones during the journey from the capital city to the field station
- Visit the stunning Punakha Dzong and Bumthang monasteries
- Overnight in Phobjikha valley, an important conservation area for the black-necked crane
- Consider how religion influences people’s attitudes about the treatment of the environment
- Take a multi-day trek through cultural and natural landscapes, up and over the ridge, between Chamkhar and Tang valley
- Field visits to community forestry projects, micro-hydropower stations, and rural farms
- Guided by UWICE staff, learn important features of local forest species, including species composition and community dynamics; practice field techniques for tree measurement and how to estimate timber volume
- Conduct interviews with Bhutanese citizens who have resource-based livelihoods, exploring the relationship between human well-being and natural resources
The Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE), part of Bhutan's Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, serves as a center for research, policy dialogue, and training in the fields of conservation and environmental sciences. Students live and study on the UWICE campus, set in the pastoral Chokhor Valley in the central district of Bumthang.
The administrative building at UWICE is a former king's palace and is built in traditional Bhutanese architecture with wood paneled walls and colorful decorations both inside and out. UWICE campus offers views the surrounding valley, the mountains swathed in clouds, and the occasional cattle or ponies grazing in the yard.
The modern dormatories and cafeteria are just steps away from the Dzong, where classes are held. A running trail behind the campus winds through the woods where wild strawberries, roses, and stream crossings accent the landscape. After classes, students can head up the trails for a quick run, hike, or yoga retreat. There is also a volleyball court where students can challenge the locals in competitive play or opt to play a rousing game of Snooker in the lounge.
Note: The program operates in rugged and rural environments, taking us (often by foot) to high altitude and to villages with pit latrines and simple diets. The trek and field work requires participants to be in excellent physical condition. Flexibility and patience are equally important attributes for the successful participant.