Field Notes from Bhutan

Posted: June 21, 2013

Following two weeks of academic assignments, field-based exercises, cultural explorations, and profound experiences, our SFS Bhutan 2013 students are today completing their midterm exams. We are all equally astonished to have reached this halfway point already! However, today marks a turning point, as our daily lectures (in both the field and classroom) and pre-assigned readings will soon be replaced by individual Directed Research projects and Literature Reviews conducted by the students themselves. But first, a quick recap of what our curriculum has looked like thus far.

Starting on Day 2, our program has included nine guest lectures from prominent academics, social leaders, and active scientists from various sectors throughout Bhutan. We have had discussions on culture and society in Bhutan with Ashi Kunzang Choden (a prolific author and descendent of one of Bhutan’s great historical Buddhist figures); talks on Himalayan Buddhism and environmentalism in Bhutan with Dr. Karma Phuntsho (an internationally acclaimed scholar and leading environmentalist); and lectures on Bhutan’s unique development model of Gross National Happiness (GNH) with Dr. Saamdu Chetri (Director of Bhutan’s national GNH Center and advisor to the Prime Minister).

Along with six lectures provided by the SFS faculty team (Sonam Phuntsho, Ritodhi Chakraborty, and Galen Murton), we have also studied with members of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) science and research community on climate change and watershed management in Bhutan, democratization and decentralization, and conservation policy. Collectively, these discussions and presentations have established an informed foundation for our students on the key policies and institutions behind Bhutan’s unique approach to governance, development, conservation, and forestry policy.

In concert with our active lecture series, we have also conducted four Field Exercises (in italics) in three different ecological zones across the country. Beginning with a study of Ecological Landscapes on the hillsides of the capital city, Thimphu, students have continued their observation practices and writing assignments in the lush valley of Phobjikha and conifer forests of Bumthang. Here at UWICE, students have conducted Forest Measurement surveys, a skill that will be practiced frequently during our DR projects.

To augment these biophysical studies and quantitative research techniques, students have also been introduced to a suite of Qualitative Research Methodologies, which they then practiced with members of the UWICE Forestry Trainee cohort here in Bumthang. These include interviews, surveys, and focus groups on inter-generational perspectives on ecological change and traditional values as well as analyses on Resource Based Livelihoods through participatory mapping. On the basis of these experiences, students have gained, on a daily basis, a more nuanced understanding of the complex and important issues of development, conservation, and rural livelihoods faced by local communities and decision makers across Bhutan.