Realities of Bhutan’s Economy

A massive Himalayan griffon vulture flew overhead as I and the rest of the students combed the ground for insects to study. It landed behind a cow shed, and we ran over to see what it was feeding on.

As we approached, the griffon took notice and flew away, leaving only the sound of her flapping wings in her wake. Where the griffon once stood, a giant cow carcass the size of a small vehicle lay in a lifeless heap. In the brief moment that it took for the griffon to fly off above the pine forest in the background, we were able to witness the magnitude of the beast. It was almost as big as the cow carcass, but as it flew higher, it became the size of an eagle, then a crow. Next to the old-growth pine trees, it almost became insignificant, even though it had eaten so much of the cow a couple minutes prior.

This was a humbling experience for both us and griffon, because we had both frightened and been frightened by each other. We, being the aggressor in this scenario, felt the added guilt of failing to observe the griffon peacefully. In many ways this is how I’ve felt while interacting with people throughout our travels in Bhutan. We enter handicraft stores, hiking trails, restaurants that are being run out of people’s homes, and everywhere we travel, we are a group of 22 students, 3-5 staff members, and 2 massive vehicles. We take up a lot of space. Yet, we are considered welcome guests, especially by the academic community, by friends of those associated with the School for Field Studies center, and by the government. The tourism industry employs many young people, who are now often disillusioned by the prospects of a life in the field or life as a monk.

As a class we have spoken with people of various livelihoods in Bhutan. A beekeeper, an herbal tea farmer, monks, a nun, mushroom farmer, government officials, hydropower plant workers, biology researchers, farmers, weavers, and many others have given us the chance to learn about the realities of Bhutan’s economy. Some major topics of discussion have been:

1. Young people are moving away from livelihoods as monks or farmers.

2. Spirituality is still very much alive. Even while young people shift from traditional rituals of Buddhism, studies continue as part of school curriculum.

3. However, secular education is on the rise, and students are drawn to modern technologies and jobs.

Many young people are moving away from livelihoods as monks and farmers. In Bhutan’s most recent five-year plan, which is closest in concept to how the U.S. Congress establishes a federal budget every fiscal year. (The National Priorities Project has a useful tipsheet on this process.) Bhutan’s five-year plans, however, go much farther than establish a budget. They are a comprehensive review of the budget allocation of the past five years, as well as goal-setting documents that are signed by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Royal Government. The most recent five-year plan focuses on diversifying the economy, and channeling youth populations towards “the right direction,” according to the statement on page 10 of the report. This rhetoric is one example of the sentiments we’ve heard throughout our time here. Also, one section of the five-year plan always focuses on the development of local governments, which I thought was pretty cool.

My research will continue in the form of policy reviews. As part of my school research I’m able to interview those affected by the tourism industry, and their perception on development in recent years. If possible, I’ll try to include some cool data I’ve found here.  More to come!

View of Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, from above with mountains and blue sky in background
Image of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, as a representation of urban development. If you look up images of this town even 10 years ago, you’d see a completely different landscape.

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