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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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.

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.

Darwin Didn’t Study Linguistics

For most of us, the words “endangered” and “extinct” evoke the very images I’ve saturated you with in the debut weeks of this blog: drowning polar bears, exotic tiger rugs and rare panda births. But did you know that we are not only in danger of losing our beloved animal species, but also some of our diverse world languages?

Two more languages have been added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s list of the World’s Languages in Danger: Koro (India) and Jeju (Korea). According to UNESCO, there are some 3,000 languages classified as endangered. The organization’s Language Vitality and Endangerment Framework has also established a classification system to further subdivide world languages, rated from “safe” to “extinct.”

Yes, some languages will inevitably die out, evolve, or be overtaken by a related, but more powerful and prominent, language — a sort of Darwinian view of linguistics. But in a world of instant, international communication and online translators, do we risk losing our linguistic diversity?

A world without linguistic diversity is just like a world without biological diversity or genetic diversity — boring. In fact, language is one of the most important facets in characterizing a culture. Therefore, without linguistic diversity, we risk losing cultural diversity, as well.

Many of the more figurative lines among the world’s countries, cultures and languages have already been blurred — thanks to Hollywood, the Internet and air travel. One of the more positive results of this has been cultural interaction and integration — who would have thought, 100 (or even 20) years ago, that you could eat authentic Thai food in Omaha?

Admittedly, cultural diversity has been the root cause of countless battles throughout history. But if we don’t preserve it now, we could end up like, well, droids.

Click here to view UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.