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Bhutan’s lesson for the world

Reading Sipho Kings’s important article on Bhutan, “Forget your GDP, come on get happy” yesterday sent me back to my old TIME-magazines to find an article by Bobby Ghosh (TIME, October 15, 2012) on this tiny country wedged between India and China. The reason why I remembered Ghosh’s article is that it was entitled “This is the last authentic place on earth”, a quote from Siok Sian Pek Dorji, a Singaporean who lives in Bhutan and told Ghosh (p. 32-33): “Nothing is canned. If you see a group of men with bows and arrows, they’re not playing archers for some tourist show. They’re doing it because it’s part of their Bhutanese identity, and they love it”.

Superfluously, Ghosh adds (p.33): “Authenticity is a rare and valuable commodity, and people will travel far to find it”, and proceeds to show why Bhutan’s is threatened from various quarters, chief among them a growing stream of tourists who want to savour the unspoilt rivers, valleys and mountains of this Himalayan treasure. As an active member of the Mountain Club of South Africa, I can understand this – which lover of nature, especially majestic mountainous regions, would not want to witness this rare, well-preserved gem firsthand, while it lasts, on a planet where nature is reeling under the impact of uncontrolled capitalist economic growth?

There are regions in our own country that equal what Ghosh describes as scenes of “jaw-dropping natural beauty” in Bhutan, and although I feel sorry for those South Africans who have not discovered these “up close and personal” – that is, by hiking along difficult trails (not even accessible by 4 x 4) to get there, instead of looking at their watered-down, touristy counterparts from a car or a bus – it is probably a good thing that relatively few of us ever visit these. Masses of people would soon destroy whatever is still pristine about such places, here and in Bhutan.

Just one local example (there are dozens more) is well-known to members of the Eastern Cape branch of MCSA. Every summer, on as hot a day as possible (to avoid hypothermia from cold water), we do what is known as the pool-swim hike in the Groendal Nature reserve about 50km from Port Elizabeth. After climbing and walking for about three hours across a plateau, one descends steeply into Blindekloof gorge, and having lunched at a beautiful spot next to a translucent pool, you circle back, this time down in the gorge, and literally swim your way out of it with your rucksack on your back.

While swimming through one of about a dozen large, deep pools, with huge ferns hanging into the water from the almost perpendicular, rocky sides, banishing sunlight from the bottom – a scene that feels like one from Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” – a friend of mine, admiring a Malachite Kingfisher inspecting us from a tree branch, once remarked that “paradise must be like this”. Evidently Ghosh experienced Bhutan similarly, for he compares it to the fictional, Eden-like Shangri-La from James Hilton’s idyllic novel, Lost Horizon. Judging by the accompanying photographs – of snow-capped peaks and of centuries-old temples hugging the sides of mountains in the mist – this is an apt comparison.

There is a reason for valuing increasingly rare places such as these, in South Africa, Bhutan and elsewhere, such as New Zealand. As 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer pointedly observed, one only knows something (or someone) in its essence when it is no longer there, and today one is only too painfully aware that what’s left of “nature” is receding, and hence difficult to experience personally; hence its increasing value.

Long ago my friend and mentor, Karsten Harries, taught me that art museums should rather be thought of as mausoleums for art, and exist because art is no longer a living thing among us, except in degraded, commercialised format. Similarly, nature reserves exist because they are mausoleums for a once-living nature. And people, or tourists, are fascinated by what is different from, and under threat of destruction in a (post) modern world where everything, including an individual, is mostly valued for its commercial value – incongruously, we are often told to “brand ourselves”, as if people can be reduced to commodities. Neither can nature, or a continent, although one often hears talk of “Brand Africa” today.

In Bhutan, too, precisely because of its precious, but vulnerable natural attributes, the spectre of destruction looms large, which is why its recently abdicated “Dragon King” (the evidently “enlightened” Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who was at school with Ghosh) introduced a minimum tariff on foreign visitors in 1974, which now amounts to between $200 and $250 per day, per person (depending on the season). This effectively excludes all (including myself, unfortunately) except the wealthy eco-tourists who can afford it. At the time the king also introduced legislation to protect Bhutan’s culture from foreign influences, such as banning TV and making Bhutanese architectural design obligatory.

The reasoning behind this was to save Bhutan’s unique culture and natural environment from destruction, because it was evidently, with rare insight, valued more than economic growth measured in GDP (which is what Sipho Kings’s article, linked above, focuses on). However, all is not idyllic in the “real Shangri-La” any longer, according to Ghosh. Modernisation already manifested itself in 1999, when television was introduced, and today Bhutan’s smartphone-bearing teenagers are as much addicted to social media as their western and other eastern counterparts.

Moreover, hand-in-hand with the king’s abdication in favour of his son came his “gift” to his country, to wit, democracy, in 2008, with the result that the new king only has symbolic power. With democracy the responsibility to maintain what Ghosh (p.33) calls a (difficult) balance between “the demands of new liberties” and “saving Shangri-la” shifted to the administration of Prime Minister Jigmi Yoser Thinley (the former Dragon King now spends his time mountain-biking). As might be expected, the newly democratised electorate is putting pressure on government to produce employment opportunities for university graduates who don’t necessarily want to continue living in rural areas. Ghosh continues (p. 34-35):

“For Prime Minister Thinley, the solution was obvious: open the tourist tap. Arrivals soared to almost 65,000 in 2011 and are projected to touch 100 000 this year [2012]. Thinley doesn’t worry that the spurt in foreign arrivals will endanger the King’s preservation efforts. The tariff will remain, keeping out the backpacking hordes. Instead, Thinley hopes to attract wealthy, eco-conscious travelers… ‘We’re evolving from low-volume, high-value tourism to low-impact, high-value tourism’, he says”.

The irony is obvious, that a country that does not value consumer economics above everything else has to turn to those people from countries that do, to satisfy the electorate’s demands in the newly democratized country. It seems to be unavoidable for now, however, to enter into such a compromise for the sake of protecting its irreplaceable natural beauty.

As Sipho Kings reports, Bhutan’s government, like its previous monarch, values its people’s happiness more than mere GDP-growth (which usually does not reflect the people’s economic well-being, anyway, but merely big companies’ “growth”, or profits) and it is evidently succeeding in this respect. This is so, partly because it takes the trouble to find out what the people want to ensure their happiness.

This may seem quaint – during Greek and Hellenistic antiquity “happiness” was a primary ethical concern – but it is significant that today happiness seems to be on the back-burner when it comes to people’s priorities. Bhutan seems to be exceptional in this respect, and it is no accident that both natural ecologies and human happiness are given axiological priority by its government. This represents a valuable lesson to the rest of the world.