Community Forestry in Bhutan Himalayas: Sustaining Life and Environment Through Participation

Dipayan Dey[1]


The kingdom of Bhutan is situated in the eastern Himalayas and maintains a forest cover of 72.5% to date and is one of the ‘Biodiversity hot spots’ of the world. Conservation of nature being the central tenet of Buddhism, this has encouraged the Royal Government to incorporate forest conservation in its national agenda for sustainable development. Community forestry in Bhutan includes sustainable development through participation and reciprocity of the users and the developers. It includes forestry management in forest patches with 50% degraded vegetation and low regeneration rates, as well as plantation and afforestation in depleted areas. The management team comprises of the local users who address problems through participatory learning and action. However, for the success and sustenance of the programme, the scope has to be widened and new rural resource appraisal methods have also to be designed.


The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan lies in the biotic province of the eastern Himalayas extending over a total area of 46500square Km having elevations rising from 100m to 7550m with annual rainfall ranging between 500 mm to 5000 mm at varying altitudes (WWF 1999, Dey & Sadruddin 2000). It is situated in the confluence of three major biotic zones viz. the palaearctic realm in Asia to the north of Himalayas and further west, the boreal zone along the Himalayan range and the palaeotropic distribution found in the Indian subcontinent and south east Asia. Thus the region represents an admixture of flora that is distinct from the other subtraction transition zones and makes Bhutan one of the ‘hottest hot spots’ of biodiversity in the world (Lobzang 1998, Norbu 1994, Grierson & Long 1983).

With an intact forests stand of 72.5% of the total land area and a bursting population growth rate of 3.1% per annum (CSO report 2000), the Royal Government of Bhutan is ambitious to design new strategies for sustainable development through reciprocity, equity and participation to ensure economic growth, without compromising with environmental conservation (Dey 2002, 8th Plan Doc. RGOB, 1997).

In this fragile mountain environment farming system plays a crucial role in providing the needs of the local population as well ensuring proper management of land, water and forest resources. Thus, the concept of social forestry was introduced in Bhutan as early as in 1979, by a Royal Decree that included several varieties of community forestry by adapting traditional systems of resources utilization and indigenous knowledge to sustainable management of forests (Messerschmidt et al 1996). In 1993, decentralization of the social forestry extension programme to the district level and initiation of the Third Forestry Development Project (TFDP) placed social forestry in high priority enabling local forest management activities on government land by groups of traditional users and affirming that participation of local communities is the key to conservation and optimal utilization of forest resources.


The study has been carried out in eastern and central Bhutan covering an altitude range of 750 Mt. to 5500 Mt. and accessing all the major agro-ecological zones. Target survey, sampling and interviewing of the local communities, discussions with government officials and experts from the departments of agriculture and forestry constituted the principle source of information. Additional primary data were collected from the field inventory work carried out at Renewable Natural Resources Research Centre Khangma, Eastern Bhutan, in sample plots systematically laid on grid size of 500m X 300m with an acceptable sampling error of 10% and confidence limit of 95%. Field truthing was done using 1:15000 scale aerial photographs supplemented with SPOT imageries. Inventory design transfer onto digitized maps and analysis of data was done using <MAPmaker> and <PLOT> GIS software (Negi 1983, Jackson et al 1994).

Result and Discussion

Bhutan: The agro forestry resource base.

Bhutan is endowed with more than 902,000 hectare of operable forest containing an estimated standing volume of 184 million cu. Mt. above 10 cm diameter at breast height. The annual allowable cut is only 0.64%, whereas afforestation and regeneration rates ranges between 1.8% and 3.3%, PIS estimated annual increment in hardwood ranges from 3.7 to 5.96 cubic meters in broad leaf forests and in conifers it is 6 to 6.88 cu. Mts. The classified data on kind and quantity of forests are displayed in the following table (Table No. 1).

Table 1: Showing percentage of different forest covers

S. NO.



AREA (%)


Conifer Forest

Pinus sbhutanica, Larix griffithii, Abies densa, Picea spinulosa, Tsuga dumusa, Birch and sub-alpine bamboos.






Mixed Conifer



Blue Pine



Chir Pine



Broad Leaf Forest

Quercus sp. Alnus sp. Shorea robusta, Duabanga grandiflora, Melia sp. Aitlanthus grandis, Bombax ceiba Magnolia cambelii, Michelia sp etc,



Broad Leaf + Conifers






Forest Plantation



Conifer Plantation



Broad Leaf Plantation



Scrub Forest

dwarf juniper and Rhododendron sp,




Forest resource of Bhutan, known as Dzong Gyel Khab (den of medicinal plants) in the past, is self sufficient for the rural communities in non-timber products (Dorji 1995, Namgyel 1996). Important medicinal plants include Cordyceps sinensis (a fungus growing over Leptropteris butterfly larva), Panax, Taxus baccata, Belledona, Aconitum, Swertia, Herachlium, Zanthoxylum etc. Reportedly there are 141 species of orchids available in Bhutan Himalayas of which atleast 25 are in the IUCN red list. Forests of Bhutan also hosts many endemic plant species like the Blue Poppy (Meconopsis grandis) Primula sp. Ceropegia dorjei, and animals like Golden languor (Panthera uncia), Black necked crane (Grus nigricollis). Many Gondowana flora and flora of African origin (Lobelia nubigiana) can also be spotted here. Out of 52 species of Rhododendron, one known as R. kesangii is also endemic to Bhutan Himalayas (Lobzang 1998, Sadruddin 1997, Namgyel and Long 1997).

Bhutan has a predominantly biomass dependant economy with agriculture being the main subsistence occupation of 87% of Bhutanese people. The total arable land in Bhutan is approximately 3146 Sq. Km, which accounts for 7.7% land of the entire kingdom, out of which 31.1% is under dry land cultivation and 38.1% is Tseri (shifting cultivation) land. Wetland and irrigated cultivable land is only 12.3% of the total arable land and the remaining of it has mixed cultivation practices (Gyamtsho 1998).

Survey suggests that 87% of the area under rice cultivation is cropped with local or indigenous varieties; rural inhabitants collect as much as 172 species of plants of varied ethno-botanical importance from the forests for their livelihood. The National Institute of Traditional Medicines alone use more than 300 plant species. Hand made paper industry, lemon grass oil extraction units, resin tapping, turpentine oil and cane products are some of the most common small scale industries of rural Bhutan. Land use patterns in the main districts other than forests are tabulated below in Table 2.

Table 2: Land use patterns in few main districts of Bhutan.


Chhuzing Wetland

Kamzhing Dryland

Tseri Shifting Cultivation

Tsamdo Pasture

Seshing Horticulture

Dung Settlement















































































S. Jongkher













Bhutan: Status of Community Forestry.

Theme and Objectives:

Conservation of environment is the central tenet of Buddhism that perceive community forestry as a global aspect of right thoughtfulness, which inter-connects society, ecology, economy, morality, politics, spirituality, integrity and thinking (Wasi 1997). The crux of Buddhist belief in Bhutan is tendrel gi choe’, the interdependence among all forms of life and dependence of life on forest resources.

Forest act of Bhutan 1995, Social Forestry Rules 2000 and Forest and Nature Conservation rules of Bhutan 2000, defines community forest as “any area of government reserve forest designated for management by a local community in accordance with the provisions under section 36 of these rules.” Community forestry in Bhutan refers to the control and sustainable management of local forest resources by the users (Gilmour and Fisher 1996). Prime objectives of community forestry in Bhutan aligned with the Buddhist philosophy aims -

It is fundamentally a small scale, short term enterprise for long term sustenance but a broad based land use system encouraging high degree of participation and involvement of local people (Messerschimdt et al, TFDP, 2000).

Policy and Practice:

Social forestry rules 2000 defines a community forest as a suitable forest area located within reasonable distances from the local settlements and usually not more than 2.5 hectares per households comprising of both degraded and good forest in equal ratio. Community forestry in Bhutan has two forms - Community Plantation for reforestation and afforestation on degraded, degrading and barren lands; and Community Forest for sustainable development on a mix of degraded and natural forests that are designed by the district extension officers, a local management group and a local executive committee over an agreement or plan.

In day to day life, traditional practices, and social rituals forest and forest products are considered consecrated in Bhutan. All over the country 2nd June of every year is religiously observed as social forestry day. The religious flag-poles that are a ubiquitous symbol of Bhutan’s Buddhist heritage are made of only two conifers, Pinus bhutanica and Cupressus cashmeriana, endemic to Bhutan forests. ‘Ridam’, is one common forest oriented custom that restricts human access to specified forests during certain seasons of the year, whereas ‘Ladam’ is the ritual closure of biological corridors and mountain pass across forest areas. The explicit rules of ridam and ladam are defined by the local community and people. “Kidu” or “Solera” are one time royal grants or gifts to individuals, institutes, organizations or monastic bodies that allows the recipient to utilize the forest resources.

Two fundamental conditions dictate the success of participatory community forestry in the locality, the interest and willingness of local villagers and trust and confidence in local management by government. Both are based on the notion of ‘civil society’- a fundamental component of the local community that ensures mutual support, social services and any other form of participatory citizen action (Fukuyama 1998). People’s participation is an empowering process that ends in establishing partnership between the users and developers in one hand and on the other hand builds local capacity and self confidence.

Experiences and experiments: Some case studies in Eastern Bhutan.

Two important case study reports are presented hereunder to exhibit the progress of community forestry in Bhutan under the 3rd Forestry Development Programme.

EXAMPLE 1. Dozam Community Forest

I. Location: Dramtse Block of Monger district, Eastern Bhutan.

II. Problem statements: Site heavily depleted due to timber and fuel wood harvesting, unplanned extraction of lemon grass oil, forest fire and overgrazing led regeneration problems of standing vegetation. Distorted vegetation dynamics and deforestation exposing surface to wind and water erosion.

III. Achievements: Total 63,380 seedlings shown with 56% success, 1.3 Kg Chirpine seeds broadcasted, regeneration rate in oak and Castanopsis raised, seven incidents of forest fire stopped by local community, lemon grass oil production units licensed and license fees deposited into CF management fund, by-laws made to control grazing and over exploitation of resources. Management group assessed progress and incorporated the suggestion and advices of users.

IV. Success Key: Keen interest of users and dedicated work enthusiasm of developers.

V. Comments: Regardless of its success Dozam Community Forest is not an ideal example of community forestry in respect to setting standards and by definition since very little of it is true forest. It might well have been designated as Community Plantation due to its near total degradation. But on the other hand it is a unique example of people participation, user-developer coordinated management technique and proves the community enthusiasm as a key factor for sustainable environmental development.

EXAMPLE 2: The Chaling Experience.

I. Location: North east of Trashigang district, near to Bhutan India border.

II. Problem Statements: Rapidly depleting forests with fast falling production rate in agriculture. Scarcity of drinking water and acute shortage of fodder in winter are the key problems. The site is inaccessible from the highway and lacks in easily available fuel wood.

III. Feasible Solutions suggested:

Few users to be trained at Renewable Natural Resource Research Center for tackling technical problems.

Supply of good seeds and seedlings to be expedited

Lopping of natural fodder trees to be minimized.

Users to be organized for addressing the situation.

Availability of drinking water and fuel wood and construction of feeder roads to be taken up by the local administration.

III. Comments: Chaling case study advocates that participatory learning and action (PLA) methodology for social forestry using the focus group (users with common interests) approach along with resource transects, participatory maps, resource profile and assessment techniques can help in determining the status of communal forests as well as forest management needs and indigenous management systems.

Concluding Discussion.

There has been significant progress in community forestry in Bhutan. However, some important aspects pose challenging at present and have to be taken care of. These discussion points are enlisted below:

Extension support and infrastructural assistance will have to be prioritized in the plans.

Proper assessment of forest resources through GIS and remote sensing must be done for sustainable development.

Accessibility to the area and availability of essential amenities and seeds for the users should be prioritized.

Government policy and rules should support legal procedures to develop community forestry in woodlot and pastures. A strategy to restrict agro-pastoral activities in surfaces with slope gradient 45° and below (9th Plan Document 2002) has to be reviewed.

Highlanders, who still practice ‘slash and burn’ type of crude cultivation practices, must be brought under the process.

Rapid rural appraisal tools conventionally used at present are typically traditional and promote an extractive consultation monologue and needs to be improvised for facilitating interactive participatory dialogue.

Community forestry in Bhutan has been proved as a successful tool for the sustenance of life and forest ecosystem but to meet the challenges ahead it has to be extended to a wider set of context and contents like forest resource conditions, settlement ranges in varied terrains and user friendly strategies, wider variety of management techniques and land use pattern and tenure. The process has to be more participatory where it moves up from a guided development approach to a facilitated participatory approach through participatory learning and action.


1. 8th F.Y.Plan Document, Mo Planning, Govt. of Bhutan, 1997: 67-71.

2. 9th F.Y.Plan Document (draft); Mo Planning, Govt. of Bhutan, 2002.

3. Dey, D and Sadruddin, 2000. Biodiversity in Bhutan Himalayas; status and conservation of forests in 2000. Proceeds. International Congress on forests, BIOSFERA; Brazil, pp156-167.

4. Dey, D. 2002. Bhutan,s current strategy on environmental management. Int.Rev.Env.Strat. IGES 3(2): 20-30.

5. Dorji, T 1995. Assessment of non-timber forest resources utilization in eastern Bhutan. Field Doc. No.8, FSD, MoA, Govt. of Bhutan Thimphu.

6. Fukuyama, F. 1998. Trust: The social virtues and creation of prosperity. The Free Press. NY.

7. Gilmour, D.A and Fisher, R.J 1996. Villagers, Forests and Foresters of Himalaya (Edn. 1) Sahayogi Press, Kathmandu, Nepal. Pp 56-71.

8. Grierson, A.J.C. and Long, D.G, 19883. Flora of Bhutan, Vol.1, Royal Bot.Gard. Edinburgh.

9. Gyamtsho, P. 1998. Status of Biodiversity Conservation in Bhutan. Paper 1, Report on the international meeting on Himalaya eco-regional cooperation. UNDP,WWF&ICIMOD. Pp 11-52.

10. Jackson, J.K., Styler, P., Kabutha, C.B. 1994. Participatory mapping for community forestry a field manual. NACFP, Tech.Notes 5/95, Kathmandu, Nepal.

11. Lobzang, 1998. Biodiversity in Bhutan; a conservationist’s view. Acad. Journ. Of Sherubtse college. 4(1&2): 112-116.

12. Messerschimdt, D. Chhetri, B. Pradhan, M. 1996. Upper slope forest management in Kabhre Palanchok, Nepal. Consultancy report on the Nepal Australia community forestry development project. ICIMOD Kathmandu.

13. Messerschimdt, D. Dorji, D. and Thinley, K 2000. Social forestry in eastern Bhutan; 3rd forestry development project. RNR-RC, Khangma. Bhutan.

14. Namgyel, P. 1996. Beyond timber; What value of forests. Country Paper, Forest. Res. Instt. MoA, Govt. of Bhutan, Yasupang.

15. Negi,G.S, 1983. Forestry development in Bhutan; Report on remote sensing, land use and vegetation mapping. FAO/BHU/75/007.

16. Norbu,L 1994. Forest tree improvement in Bhutan; A base line study. FAO, working paper No. 5, RAS/91/004.

17. Nurse, M. Thinley, Z. and Ugyen, P. 1998. Assessment and awareness techniques. Field Doc. No. FE98/06, Khangma, TFDP, Bhutan.

18. Sadruddin, 1997. Medicinal Plants of Bhutan: A conspectus. Acad. Journ. Of Sherubtse College. 3(1&2): 56-62.

19. SFES, 1996. Community forestry guidelines for Bhutan.Social Forestry and Extension Section, MoA, Govt. of Bhutan. Thimphu.

20. Wasi,P. 1997. Community Forestry, the great integrative force, in Community Forestry at a Crossroads (Eds. Victor, M.C et al) Pp 3-8.

21. World Bank, 1993. Staff appraisal report, Bhutan; 3rd Forestry Dev. Project. Washington D.C, Agril.Opn. Divn. Country Dept. 1. South Asia Region.

22. WWF,1999. A manual for wildlife management in Bhutan. World Wildlife Fund, Bhutan Chapter, MoAg. Thimphu, Bhutan.

Annexure A: Digitized participatory map of forest resources.

[1] Department of Plant Sciences, Sherubtse College, Bhutan. Email: dipayan@druknet.bt