One of my professors mentioned the importance of knowing one’s position in their environment. Throughout our time in Bhutan, the group of students I studied with discussed this at length.
One of the questions we tried to answer was that of whether or not we were tourists. We never reached a solid conclusion, partly because of time, but many of the students fell into one of the two categories: 1) yes, we are, because three and a half months is not enough time to begin to understand Bhutan, and we’re always traveling with the rest of our non-Bhutanese group, or 2) no, we aren’t, because we’re here for much longer than an average tourist is, and we’re studying and contributing to the environment here.
This problem came to light especially during the directed research project that we carried out in the last month of our stay. The premise of this project was to conduct research in the first two and half weeks under a chosen topic and then analyze our data to write a full-page paper on and present our findings. Our topic was tourism and its effects on the Paro Valley. Our lead investigator, Dr. Kuenga Wangmo, as well as the School for Field Studies and Bhutan Ecological Society as a whole, was a blessing to work with, due to all the connections we made throughout Bhutan during our research. We ended up conducting 229 surveys across occupations that we determined could be linked to tourism (people who are farmers, monks, restaurant owners/managers, hospitality owners/managers, store owners/managers, customer service, taxi drivers, and tour guides). One of the biggest limitations, however, was the sense that our own biases affected our research throughout the process. Our inability to speak Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, our lack of cultural understanding of the area, our potential status as tourists ourselves, all were factors in this sensation. Ultimately, we found an interesting discrepancy between our results and results from the most recent Gross National Happiness (GNH) survey.
After the presentations were over, the same professor pointed out something that none of us really thought about, something that a lot of people we interviewed mentioned as well. Personal relationships within a country of a smaller population can lead to bias too. This was the flip side to knowing our position in research here. But does that mean the only solution is for the country to increase its population or for its people to become less familiar with each other for the sake of research? No.
Throughout our time here, we learned all about the various community projects that help to protect the environment and its people. Community forestry is a structure that allows communities of at least five households to manage and extract resources sustainably from a section of Bhutan’s vast forests. Community policepeople monitor citywide events to make sure they stay safe for its attendees. Community workshops for various tools, such as agricultural machinery and human-wildlife conflict management help people to deal with livelihood problems.
All of these examples are voluntary. The importance of interconnectedness rings true especially in these sorts of projects that help take care of the community and its environment. Research into these methods is important for sure, but if it comes at the sake of disconnecting threads like this, there needs to be another way. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned throughout Bhutan.
I will soon be posting a fourth blog post on my findings from my time in Bhutan and all the people I talked to, particularly pertaining to interconnectedness and the country’s model of GNH. How are these topics reflected in various community projects and government policies?