Bhutan: Culture and Conservation in the ‘Land of Happiness’

The nation of Bhutan – the self-proclaimed “Land of Happiness” – is arguably one of the few remaining places in the world uncorrupted by modern commercialization. But now, the small country in Southeast Asia could be in danger of losing parts of its authenticity and culture that made it so “happy” in the first place.

In 2005, Bhutan’s government instituted what it calls a “Gross National Happiness” policy, which is intended to “ensure that progress does not affect conservation and social harmony.”

The utter absurdity of a law mandating happiness does not warrant further explanation. But the irony is that it’s starting to look like the entire “happiness” effort was actually driven by commercialism itself. The country has launched a new tourism campaign, and new websites – such as TravelBhutan.com - are starting to dot the Internet landscape.

In another ironic twist, part of Bhutan’s tourism push involves what the government calls a “Noah’s Ark of wildlife” thriving in the country’s newest national park – including the endangered snow leopard, whose population in the wild falls in the range of 4,500 to 7,500 individuals, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

WWF says a recent study showed the leopards are “thriving” in the area, which is positive news for conservation. But what happens when Bhutan succumbs to the tourism trap? What will happen to the country’s culture, its people and conservation efforts?

The answer may lie in yet another irony: Bhutan’s definition of “happiness” is the assurance that “progress does not affect conservation and social harmony.” But aren’t conservation and social harmony considered “progress”?

It may be time for Bhutan to assess what really makes its people happy.

 

Homesick at Home: The Life of a World Traveler

Anyone who’s caught the travel bug knows the feeling: that itch to explore, to experience new places, to expand your world beyond the monotonous rhythm of day-to-day life. For those with wanderlust, a full year spent in the same country seems like an eternity, a purgatory sentence to homogeneity.

By no definition would I be considered a nomad, and my travel resume dwarfs in comparison to my bucket list. But I oftentimes find myself homesick for places I’ve never been, yearning to throw myself into a new culture and break free from the very location I call my home.

Physical home, yes. But emotionally, my heart seeks comfort in what, for many others, would cause anxiety: the muffled sounds of languages I don’t understand, noises I’ve never heard, smells I’ve never encountered.

What may begin as the initial apprehension of the unknown is soon replaced with familiar streets, smiling faces and humorous stories from the locals. Quite quickly, those unfamiliar smells become memories of foods you can’t live without, and those undecipherable sounds start to make sense.

For anyone who’s spent more than a mere holiday immersed in a new culture, this comfort – the feeling of belonging in a place that may have once seemed foreign – is the ultimate travel high. It becomes home.

In fact, you begin to take this different world for granted – the new people, new sites, new foods, new sounds – which, of course, are not so new anymore. The wanderlust sets in – and you begin to feel the itch.

So you travel again. You become part of another world. And it becomes part of you. Each of these places becomes but a mere thread of the quilt you’ve knit for yourself.

Wherever you call your home, these places, these experiences, these people will be with you. Homesickness will set in, but you won’t be yearning for the familiar, the safe, the homogeneous.

Rather, you’ll miss each one of these places that have become a part of where you’ve been, what you’ve experienced, who you are. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll have played a little part in making them who they are, too.

Natural Landmarks: True Conservation Or DOI Greenwashing?

Hanging Lake is one of the sites recently designated by the DOI as a natural landmark.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has designated six new natural landmarks as part of the agency’s “America’s Great Outdoors Initiative.” The following six sites have joined the more than 500 places already designated under the National Natural Landmarks Program:

Barfoot Park. Located in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona, this site is known for its unique plant and animals species, as well as for its meadows and springs. The site comprises 680 acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Morrison-Golden Fossil Areas. This newly designated landmark, located west and north of Golden, Colo., is one of the most important paleontological sites in the western U.S., and is known around the world for its abundance of reptile, mammal and bird fossils.

Hanging Lake. Located east of Glenwood Springs, Colo., this 72-acre site represents a rare wetland ecosystem within the White River National Forest and includes natural wonders such as hanging gardens.

The Island. Situated on an isolated plateau at the intersection of the Deschutes and Crooked rivers in Oregon, this is one of the best preserved examples of native juniper savannah. The site is a Designated Research Natural Area and is managed by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service.

Round Top Butte. This Oregon landmark includes flat, volcanic plains, and is home to over 700 acres of native bunchgrasses, making it a unique habitat. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it also includes a preserve run by the Nature Conservancy.

Kahlotus Ridgetop. This site represents the remains of the Palouse Prairie, which the DOI says is the most endangered and altered landscape in the inland Pacific Northwest. Only about 1% of the original prairie remains.

Kahlotus Ridgetop

A passive approach

Federal recognition of new landmarks is a start, but it is far from what these natural landmarks deserve. The National Park Service’s (NPS) National Natural Landmarks Program encourages conservation, but it does not impose any new land-use restrictions on the sites.

The NPS says the goals of the program are to “encourage the preservation of sites illustrating the geological and ecological character of the United States, enhance the scientific and educational value of sites thus preserved, strengthen public appreciation of natural history, and foster a greater concern for the conservation of the nation’s natural heritage.”

Pretty passive approach, if you ask me. Without any real federal protections for these landmarks, the designation can be rendered useless – essentially the product of a lame image-building campaign from the federal government.

The National Natural Landmarks Program is hardly a PR stint unique to the Obama administration; the program was founded in 1962. Yet the DOI’s “America’s Great Outdoors Initiative” – which actually encourages hunting and fishing under the mantra of conservation – raises my suspicions.

If the U.S. is truly serious about conservation, it needs to start taking a stronger stance on preservation and stop greenwashing the American public.

Five Natural World-Heritage Sites Humans Are Ruining

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) List of World Heritage sites contains over 900 of the most important natural and cultural locations in world. Sadly, 34 of these properties are considered “in danger,” facing threats such as pollution, human armed conflict, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization and unchecked tourism and development.

Here are five locations where humans have made their mark, perhaps irreversibly damaging some of the world’s most biodiverse sites.

Belize Barrier Reef (Belize):

The largest barrier reef in North America, this site comprises a diverse range of coastal lagoons, mangrove forests and estuaries. Home to many threatened species – such as marine turtles, manatees and the American marine crocodile – over 425 species of plants and over 500 species of fish also inhabit the reef. Dangers to the site include heavy tourism and other human development in coastal areas.

Kahuzi-Biega National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo):

Comprising mostly tropical forest, Kahuzi-Biega National Park is named for its two extinct volcanoes: Kahuzi and Biega. The park is home to one of the last groups of eastern lowland gorillas, of which only about 150 individuals remain, according to UNESCO. Kahuzi-Biega National Park is located in one of the most densely populated areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, posing a continuous threat to the park and its flora and fauna, including endangered species.

Rainforests of the Atsinanana (Madagascar):

This World Heritage site comprises six national parks in eastern Madagascar, one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. The African island is home to over 12,000 endemic plant species and several primate groups, including several species of lemurs. Madagascar’s Atsinanana Rainforests are critical to maintaining the island’s unique ecosystem and biodiversity, UNESCO says, but they continue to be threatened by deforestation.

Garamba National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo):

Located in the northeastern part of the Congo, near the Sudanese border, Garamba National Park lies between the Nile and Zaire rivers. Savannahs, grasslands, woodlands, forests and swamps make up the landscape, which is home to animals such as elephants, giraffes, hippos, chimpanzees, leopards, lions, antelope and the extremely rare white rhinos, of which only about 30 individuals remain. Despite local efforts, poaching remains a significant concern for this World Heritage site.

Everglades National Park (United States):

This South Florida World Heritage site is the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, the largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie and the most important breeding ground for wading birds in North America, according to UNESCO. Comprising freshwater marshes, tropical wetlands, and seagrass ecosystems, the Everglades are home to more than 400 species of birds, more than 275 species of fish, and over 800 species of land and water vertebrates. Some of these species include the Florida panther, snail kite, alligator, crocodile and manatee. However, these species continue to be threatened by loss of marine habitat, and the site remains in danger due to the degradation of the entire ecosystem, thanks to agricultural and urban development, and pollution.

Preserving Libya’s Cultural Heritage

Old Town of Ghadamès. (Photo credit: ©UNESCO/ Yvon Fruneau)

Libya has recently grabbed headlines for its political turmoil, but there’s another important aspect of the conflict that deserves to be mentioned: it’s history. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is calling on the coalition involved in military operations in Libya to respect the country’s cultural heritage by refraining from committing any damage to its World Heritage sites.

Of the 10 states in the coalition (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Qatar, Spain, United Arab Emirates, the U.K. and the U.S.), eight are party to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two protocols, which require that military operations be conducted away from cultural sites.

Temple of Zeus, Cyrene. (Photo credit: ©UNESCO//Thierry Jolly)

The World Heritage sites include the Old Town of Ghadamès, one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities; the Rock-Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus, which features thousands of cave paintings dating from 12,000 B.C. to A.D. 100; the Archaeological Site of Cyrene, ruins of what was once a province of the Roman Empire; the Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna, which represents an early artistic realization of urban planning; and the Archaeological Site of Sabratha, a Phoenician trading post that was once part of the Numidian Kingdom of Massinissa.

To learn more about Libya’s cultural heritage or any of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, explore UNESCO’s interactive map or view National Geographic’s guides.