In the Kingdom of Bhutan, a mountainous country nestled between India and Tibet, you can’t just wander into the forest during the months from sowing to harvest. This period is when the Reedum is enforced, which in Bhutanese means the “closing of the mountain.”
There is no berry-picking, wood gathering or collection of anything from the forest. No loud voices, no obnoxious noises, no burning. All these could disturb the mountain deities.
If you commit these offenses, you might have to find the village’s Reedum stone and pay its weight in silver coins. And if the deities unleash a storm in anger, destroying village crops, the villagers could penalize you by having you feed the whole community for a year.
Reedum and all its social contracts is based on a religious belief that local guardian deities live in the mountains. This belief is linked to the ancient Bon religion which preceded Buddhism in Bhutan.
“Yet Bhutanese researchers have shown that there is an ecological basis for these norms,” said Robin Sears, an associate researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “They are explicit and actually help the forests to regenerate.”
In addition, Bhutan’s increasing population, recent economic growth and new construction in urban centers have placed pressure on the country’s timber stocks. If Bhutan isn’t careful, the higher demand could threaten their forests’ sustainability.
CIFOR and Bhutan’s Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER) knew that as the government explores policies to protect these hilly, mountainous forests, uphill and downhill communities would experience changes in their livelihood and ways of life. So, they collaborated on a project to understand Bhutan’s forests and the communities that depend on them, the results of which they hope would inform policy decisions.
“Forests are very much a part of life in Bhutan,” Baral said. “We wanted to know how the Bhutanese people perceive the values of these forests in terms of ecosystem services that contribute to their well-being and beyond.”
Why assess the value of Bhutan’s forests?
This was not an easy question to answer, partly because Bhutan’s forests are difficult to navigate, which makes it difficult hard to study. “It’s highly mountainous,” said Sears, who is part of the project. “Only 2.6 percent of the land cover is arable, so that’s a very small amount of flattish land.”
The country has extremes of elevation ranging from 200 meters above sea level in the southern Himalayan foothills to more than 7,500 meters above sea level in the High Himalaya. It’s a fascinating landscape with climates ranging from near tropical to periglacial, all within a couple hundred kilometers.
But for all the diversity of its land, Bhutan lacks long-term scientific field data from their mountain ecosystems. These data are necessary for evaluating ecological services, such clean water from unpolluted, flowing streams, carbon sequestration, or the prevention of avalanches and downstream flooding.
Ideally, researchers rely on monitoring systems installed in forests, or empirical data collected regularly by researchers. “We wanted to quantify the ecosystem services using field-based empirical data, but that was expensive and time consuming,” Sears said. “So we decided to start with a study on the local perceptions of the services and did it on a small scale.”
“We felt this perception study would be a good way to kickstart our understanding of the forests’ ecosystem services,” said Jigme Wangchuk, a researcher at UWICER. “It’s a quick and affordable method and it helps the communities better understand the connection between ecosystem services and their livelihood.”
The researchers used participatory research methods, including focus group discussions, interviews and household surveys and focused on three forest types, namely high-altitude oak forests, forest management units and community plantations.
Like most studies on ecosystem services, the CIFOR and UWICER study divided services into four categories: provisioning services, which are products obtained from the ecosystem, such as fresh water or food; regulating services, which are benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes such as climate regulation or avalanche mitigation; habitat services, which highlight the importance of ecosystems to provide habitat for migratory species and to maintain the viability of gene-pools; and cultural services, which are non-material benefits that people obtain from ecosystems such as spiritual enrichment, or recreation.
The idea was to learn what components and services of the forest are important to the local people so down the line the government and other potential buyers know which services are worth paying to preserve. The end goal, Baral said, was for Bhutan to explore the Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) scheme, where whoever preserves or maintains an ecosystem service should be paid for doing so. An example of this is when companies buy carbon offset credits and the payment goes to communities taking care of a forest that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.
For this to work in Bhutan, two things need to be clear. “First, the buyer needs to know what they are paying for, and second, the seller needs to know what they are providing to the buyer,” Baral said. “For this reason, it’s important and critical to determine what services Bhutan’s forests are providing to whom. And identifying and quantifying these services is the primary step.”
Well-being from a healthy forest
After interviews and discussions with 396 villagers in villages spread out across 17 forests in Bhutan, the researchers reported 17 ecosystem services perceived overall as important to the communities.
The villagers recognized fresh water, timber, fuel wood, non-wood forest products, fodder and leaf litter as the forests’ provisioning services, with fresh water and timber as the most important. For regulating services, they thought ground water recharge, fresh air, carbon sequestration and soil erosion protection equally ranked as the top services.
They named soil productivity, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, pollination as supporting services, with soil productivity and biodiversity as most important. And for cultural services, they chose recreation and aesthetic services as most important, followed closely by cultural spiritual sites.
The researchers compared this list to ecosystem services identified by forestry experts and found common priorities, namely the provisioning services of fresh water, non-wood forest products, fodder, food, fuel wood, and grazing; and the regulating services of soil erosion protection, natural hazard reduction, and water purification.
Researchers noted priority services chosen by residents in the three different study areas. Among the ecosystem services identified by communities in the oak forest, water regulation, provision of fodder and fuel wood were the priorities. Access to timber was the priority for communities in the planted forest, and those in the forest management units named land productivity, freshwater, timber, and fresh air as the top ecosystem services.
Overall, the interviews and discussions revealed that villagers ascribe their good health to a healthy forest. And the researchers are happy they now have baseline knowledge of the forests. But the study also uncovered a perception that there is a general decline in the provision of ecosystem services, particularly from forest management units. Villagers attributed the decline to a country-wide increase in the demand for timber, which they have linked to socio-economic development.
The researchers plan on validating these findings through scientific field measurements and similar studies in other forest management regimes.
Experts learning from experts
Baral, Sears, Wangchuk and Choden noted that among the best things to have come out of the project was a synergy between the communities and the researchers, and between the international researchers and the local scientists.
Researchers learned about how communities value the forest and learned to appreciate local knowledge, and villagers learned about the ecosystem service conceptual framework. “Prior to the study, we thought the local people were aware of ecosystem services obtained from their forest but not all of the regulating and supporting services,” Choden said. “After the study we learned that people are aware and value their ecosystem services beyond provisioning services.”
“My sense is that the local people would like to know more about their forest. And if they have a different narrative about the relationship between trees and water, I think they wouldn’t mind hearing about the scientific narrative,” Sears said. “At the same time, we scientists recognized local people as the experts. They have been living near these forests for generations. We learn from them.”
UWICER researchers feel that the training they received in research design and social science methods as part of the project will go a long way. “It substantially enhanced our capacity in project planning, implementation in the field, interpretation of results and publication of results,” Wangchuk said. “Many local researchers got to author or co-author studies, a big opportunity that enhanced our scientific paper writing skills and presentation.”
“Our Bhutanese colleagues, they took the initiative once the team defined what the three projects would be,” Sears said. “They took it and ran with it.”
What enhances these new capacities is that local researchers now have a stronger link to the local knowledge that farmers and villagers have used to care for their forests for hundreds of years. “It’s a whole other knowledge system,” Sears said. “It now informs future research and empowers the Bhutanese people in decision making. That has great value.”
For more information on this topic, please contact Himlal Baral at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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CIFOR advances human well-being, equity and environmental integrity by conducting innovative research, developing partners’ capacity, and actively engaging in dialogue with all stakeholders to inform policies and practices that affect forests and people. CIFOR is a CGIAR Research Center, and leads the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). Our headquarters are in Bogor, Indonesia, with offices in Nairobi, Kenya, Yaounde, Cameroon, and Lima, Peru.