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.

 

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Brazil’s Forests, Ecosystems At Lawmakers’ Mercy

The Amazon and other important ecosystems in Brazil could soon be in danger, as new legislation attempts to send crucial forest protections to the chopping block.

The bill seeks to cut elements of the nation’s Forest Code, which mandates that a certain proportion of rural land be protected as forest, as well as establishes protections for natural vegetation in “sensitive” areas, such as on steep slopes and along the margins of rivers and streams.

According to a statement issued by the World Wildlife Fund, which starkly opposes the legislation, Big Ag has been lobbying Brazilian lawmakers to remove portions of the code in order to open up more land for cattle ranching and agriculture.

Thousands of protestors filled the lawn in front of the Brazilian National Congress this week, urging lawmakers to reject the legislation. The WWF also reports that over 1.5 million Brazilian have signed a petition encouraging President Dilma Rousseff to veto the reform bill if it were to pass both house of Congress.

Several of the country’s senators have expressed their opposition to the bill, according to representatives from the WWF who were present at the demonstrations.

“The draft bill, as it stands, only benefits a handful of big agribusiness groups and large landowners, and it will actually be promoting and rewarding deforestation in the Amazon,” Sen. Randolphe Rodrigues commented, according to a WWF report. “The text sets us against the tide of history – it stands for economic power alone, which destroys and debilitates so many beautiful things.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week, and it will then be sent back to the House for the final vote.

Top Wildlife Comebacks of the 20th Century

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

With so many animal populations on the decline – thanks to habitat loss, climate change and human intervention, among other causes – sometimes it’s easy to forget all of the progress that conservation efforts have made over the years. For a positive spin, let’s take a look at some of the greatest wildlife comebacks of 20th century, according to a report issued by The Nature Conservancy (NC).

Grizzly Bear

In 1970, the grizzly bear was designated as a threatened species in the continental U.S. Like many other species that once thrived in the country, the grizzly has continued to be threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Thanks to conservation efforts, however, grizzly-bear numbers are improving, and the species may be removed from the threatened list in the near future.

Gray Whale

Back in the 1800s, widespread hunting nearly obliterated the gray-whale population. Since the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, however, gray whales have begun to rebound and now number about 22,000, according to the NC.

Bald Eagle

This iconic American species was driven to the brink of extinction in the middle of the 20th century due to habitat loss, pesticide contamination and hunting. However, thanks to the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, the bald eagle began to make a comeback, and the NC estimates that there are approximately 10,000 nesting pairs currently living in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Santa Cruz Island Fox

Until a massive captive-breeding initiative was launched by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups, fewer than 100 of these four-pound foxes remained. The animals, native to a small island off the coast of California, had fallen victim to feral pigs and golden eagles. Now, the Santa Cruz Island Fox’s population has risen to 1,300.

Southern White Rhino

Decimated by widespread hunting back in the 1800s, the Southern White Rhino was on the verge of extinction by the end of the 19th century. However, as a result of conservation efforts, they have made one of the biggest wildlife comebacks of all time, with over 20,000 individuals now in the wild.

Gray Wolf

A top predator, the gray wolf was considered a threat to livestock decades ago, and was routinely killed. After having been added to the Endangered Species List in 1974, though, they began to bounce back and now total around 4,000.

Mauritius Kestrel

The NC says this small African bird of prey was once considered the rarest bird in the world. At one time, there were only four individuals remaining. Thanks to work by conservationists, who established a captive-breeding program, there is now a self-sustaining population of over 800 of these birds.

 

DOI: Florida Everglades Deserve More Protection

Florida’s Everglades are set to receive new protections under a new initiative proposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI).

The project would establish a new national wildlife refuge in Florida’s Kissimmee River Valley, as well as afford the area new protections. Under the program, the DOI would purchase 50,000 acres of the designated area from willing sellers in order to establish a wildlife refuge.

An additional 100,000 acres would be protected through conservation easements purchased from landowners, the DOI explains. These private landowners would still own their land, as well as retain the right to develop crops and raise cattle; however, the easements would ensure that the land could not be developed.

Although the preliminary proposal for the Everglades conservation project was first announced in January, it was refined using input from public comment periods.

The DOI’s announcement comes less than two weeks after Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann commented to the Associated Press that she’d be willing to drill for oil in the Everglades if it were done “responsibly.”

How she intends to destroy a World Heritage site “responsibly” is quite the enigma. But here’s hoping that the DOI can finalize the protections before she – or another member of her political party – has a crack at it.

 

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.