A Shared Experience in Bhutan

Posted: December 6, 2018

 
Hey there! This is Hania and Lena, two Colby College mules spending the semester in Paro, Bhutan – exactly 7,286 miles (11,658 km) away from our home on Mayflower Hill! We are both Environmental Policy majors, and have shared many classes, never imagining that we would both travel to this remote Himalayan kingdom. While writing this blog post, we are happily reminiscing on our sophomore year, when we would eat breakfast at the same time, in the same dining hall…but not together. Now, we not only eat breakfast together, but every meal of every day!

For most of the month of November, we have been diligently working on our Directed Research (DR) projects. This is our chance to explore a research question of our own choosing with close support from faculty advisors. Topics range from effects of forest fires on ecosystem services to studying youth unemployment in Paro. At the end of the month, we will even have the opportunity to present our research at a symposium in the capitol, Thimphu!

Hania here! For my DR project, I am researching cultural perceptions of rice and rice cultivation in the Paro Valley, as well as how those perceptions are changing with Bhutan’s rapid development. Rice is a staple in the Bhutanese diet, and is often eaten three times a day! Paro is well-known as a rice-producing valley, and farmers here are proud of their self-sufficient livelihoods and fertile land. Bhutan imports a significant amount of rice from India, but has set a target of increasing rice self-sufficiency to 65% in the next five years.

Most of my research has consisted of gathering many different perspectives by interviewing rice farmers, local government officials, urban residents of Paro, experts in Thimphu, and monks. My favorite part of the process by far has been being able to interact with locals in a way that I never have before. I have been completely blown away by the hospitality and generosity I have been shown. People not only agree to take the time to be interviewed, but also welcome us into their homes, serve us delicious milk tea, and send us on our way with a smile. I have never had the opportunity to do this type of field work before, but it is definitely an experience I will never forget!

Now it’s Lena’s turn! Over the past couple weeks I have been investigating the impact of sand extraction on the ecological status of the Paro Chhu (river). Sand is a valuable natural resource, being a main component of cement, mortar, glass, and other construction materials. Since Paro is developing quickly, construction materials are in high demand, and you don’t have to travel far from the SFS center to see sites where people are scooping up bags of sand from the river and piling them nearer to their construction projects. Previous research from around the world has shown how much sand extraction can damage river ecosystems, so it surprised me to see the activity happening in Bhutan, since I know the country to have vigilant and protective environmental policies.

I’ve enjoyed wading in the freezing Paro Chhu in my Crocs, measuring substrate sizes, evaluating vegetation plots, and identifying macroinvertebrates. Now it’s time to analyze the data I’ve collected. Depending on the results, I may be able to tie my policy major into my project, making some suggestions for updated sand extraction policy in Bhutan!

Though we will be very sad to leave Bhutan, we have a lot to bring back to our lives at Colby. We’re glad that we’ll have each other to remember every special moment.

 
→ Himalayan Environment and Development Studies in Bhutan