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2 Bhutan

This chapter provides information on the ecological, political and social governance that controls forest conditions (extent, content, health, productivity, and sustainability etc.) at the micro (local) and macro (regional/national) levels.

2.1 General

Bhutan is a kingdom located between Arunachal Pradesh (India) in the east, the Tibetan plateau to the north, Sikkim in the west and West Bengal and Assam States of India in the south. The total area of the country is 40,077 km2 (Atlas, 1997). The terrain is mostly mountainous with extreme variation in elevation (97 m to 7,553 m) with few fertile valleys and savannah. Storms and frequent landslides during the rainy season are the two main natural hazards faced by Bhutan, hence the name meaning "the Land of the Thunder Dragon".

2.2 Geology

The geology of Bhutan is fragile and calls for conservative management. There are significant differences between the northern and central regions and the southern fringes, which are younger and less stable. Folded and metamorphosed rocks of Precambrian and early Paleozoic age, largely quartzite and gneiss, cover most of the country. A 1:500,000 geological map prepared by the Survey of India captures most of these geological variations.

2.3 Soil

Soils have good permeability and moderate moisture retention. Forest soils are of good tilt although generally shallow. The rugged terrain suggests that maintenance of vegetative cover and careful use of soils is necessary to check erosion and landslides. The topsoil in agricultural areas has pH between 5 and 6, loamy clay between 10 to 30 percent, and silt between 20 to 50 percent (MPFD, 1991). Soils produced by local base materials remain largely unmapped.

2.4 Topography

Bhutan is one of the most rugged and mountainous countries in the world. The elevation varies from 100 meters above mean sea level (msl) in the south to more than 7,500 m in the north (Table 1). The area under 3,000 m altitude is only 55.1 percent. The steep slopes limit the potential for expansion of agriculture and increase the probability of landslides. However, such rugged terrain provides potential to use natural falls for hydropower generation.

Table 1. Percentage of total area in different altitudinal zones

Altitude (m)

Below 600






Above 6,600

Percent Area








(Source: Atlas, 1997) (m = meters)

2.5 Watershed

The orientation, structure and nature of the watersheds have influenced the location of human settlement and land use patterns in Bhutan. The country consists of nine major watersheds that are divided into 42 sub-watersheds and 406 mini-watersheds (Table 2). All watersheds drain toward the south except Gasa, which drains toward the north.

Table 2. Area and nature of watersheds


Area (1 000 ha)

Number of Sub-watersheds

Number of Mini-watersheds





























Nyera Am












The rainfall in these watersheds is mostly from the southwest monsoon (June to September). Unlike other parts of the Himalayas, rainfall in Bhutan shows no clear variation from east to west, but rather strongly demonstrates the effect of altitude and aspect (Table 3).

Table 3. Spatial and altitudinal variation in annual rainfall by region


Annual Rainfall in mm

Southern border area

3 000-5 000

Southern foothills

1 200-2 000

Inner central valleys

500-1 000

Above 4 000 meters elevation

Less than 500

Watershed conservation and hydroelectric generation are related because forest cover is required to check siltation and to regulate water flow in dry months (Fig.1), to ensure hydroelectric production (Table A1.1 at Annex 1), which is not based on large reservoirs but on the "run of the river" and the natural falls.

(Source: MPFD, 1991)

Fig. 1. Dry months in watersheds and sub-watersheds

2.6 Ecological zones

Scientists have categorized Bhutan into ecological zones such as altitude, watershed, ecology, agro-ecology etc., which help to understand the distribution of natural resources.

Bhutan is divided into three (Himalayan, temperate, and subtropical) altitudinal regions. The Himalayan region is a distinct bio-geographic zone lying above 4,500 meters altitude. The temperate region is between 500 or 1,000 m and 4,500 m altitude. The subtropical region consists of southern foothills below 1,000 m and river valleys below 500 m altitude.

Bhutan is classified into eight bio-geographic ecological zones within the three altitudinal regions. The first is co-terminus with the Himalayan altitudinal region. The next four zones (West, West-Central, East-Central, and East) cover the temperate altitudinal region. Finally, the Manas and Sankosh rivers within the sub-tropical altitudinal region make up for last three zones (East, Central and West).

Bhutan has six Agro-ecological (Table 4) zones (Gyamthso, 1996). The wet sub-tropical zone is from 150 to 600 m, followed by the humid sub-tropical zone to 1,200 m. The dry sub-tropical zone starts at 1,200 m and extends to 1,800 m, followed by the warm temperate zone, which reaches 2 600 m. The cool temperate zone lies between 2 600 and 3 600 m and, finally, the alpine zone at a height of 4 600 m.

Table 4. Agro-ecological zones

Agro-ecological Zones


Annual rainfall (mm)

Max. annual temperature( 0C)

Min. annual temperature( 0C)

Annual mean temperature( 0C)



< 650




Cool Temperate






Warm Temperate






Dry Subtropical






Humid Subtropical






Wet Subtropical






(Source: Gyamthso, 1996) (* meters above mean sea level)

2.7 Institutions of governance

Bhutan has been an independent country throughout its history. In the 17th century, Shabdrung N. Namgyal (1594 -1652 AD) unified the country into one state and brought Bhutan under his rule. The theocracy established by Shabdrung in 1652 ended in 1907 when Ugyen Wangchuk (1862 -1926) was elected as the first king of Bhutan by popular consensus. Since then, Bhutan has been an enlightened monarchy, ruled by a hereditary king (Dorjee, K. 1995).

The National Assembly, the Royal Advisory Council, the Judiciary and the Council of Ministers are involved in the governance of Bhutan (Fig. 2). The National Assembly makes laws and has 150 members, consisting of representatives of the people (105), religious persons from the monasteries (10) and government officials (35) nominated by His Majesty, the King. The Royal Advisory Council advises the government on important political issues, and is comprised of four councillors elected by the people, two representatives from the body of monks and one nominated by the King.


Fig.2. Authority and control under His Majesty the King of Bhutan

The executive wing is comprised of eight ministries (foreign affairs, home, finance, planning, communication, health and education, trade and industries, and agriculture) that work through divisions (departments) and public undertakings. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) has three divisions (Crop and Livestock, Research and Extension and Forestry) and two public sector corporations.

At the regional and local level, the country is divided into twenty administrative units known as dzongkhags (districts). Each dzongkhag is divided into gewogs (administrative blocks), the number of which varies according to the size and geo-physical terrain of the dzongkhag. There are about 197 gewogs. Some of the larger dzongkhags are also sub-divided into dungkhags and administered by a dungpa.

Fig.3. Ministries in the Royal Government of Bhutan

Each dzongkhag has an administrator (dzongda). An administrative head (gup) and member of the National Assembly (chimi) administer the gewogs. Gewog committee members (gewog tshogpas) assist them in the preparation and implementation of a gewog development plan. The members of the Gewog Tshogchung Committee are elected for a period of three years. The gewog is administered by the Gewog Yargye Tshogchung / Gewog Development Committee (GYT). The gup is the chairman of the GYT, who is assisted by GYT members including mangaps (village elders). The chimi participates in the GYT meetings, in addition to representing the gewog in the National Assembly.

2.8 Social institutions

The social institutions at the local level in Bhutan are comprised of religious institutions, religious persons, trading centres, outsiders, market institutions, and blocks of villages (gewogs). A household may be considered as the smallest or the core social unit within the social structure of the gewog.

The natural divisions brought about by the watersheds have shaped the country into three (eastern, central, and western) socio-economic-geographic regions. People speak different dialects in these regions. In the east, Sharchogpa is the main dialect whereas in the central region, Bumthangpa is the most widely spoken dialect. In the western region people mainly speak Dzongkha, which is also the national language.

A majority of the Bhutanese are Buddhists. Hinduism is limited to southern Bhutan. Buddhism has influenced the value system and has shaped the institutions and social structures of Bhutan. The Buddhist monks are supported by the state and they are actively involved in the process of development and reviewing its relevance to society. The Buddhist institutions continue to play an important role in the daily lives of people, including promotion and preservation of traditional scholarship.

Each gewog has a temple (lhakhang) that has its own seasonal religious festivals (tshechu) comprised of religious ceremonies and dances. The belief that only religious persons can perform rituals defines the relationship between households and religious persons, which is of patron-client type in many places.

Barter is the most prevalent trade practice, though, cash transactions are becoming more popular with people from nearby gewogs. Outsiders mainly consist of contractors, traders and shopkeepers. Contractors employ the local residents as daily wage labourers. Shops also provide a source of money when local residents need cash. The residents are obliged to render services such as annual maintenance (dzongsel woola) of Buddhist monasteries (dzong), and labour (zhapto lemi) to the district (dzongkhag) administration.

Interaction among gewogs takes place in the form of matrimonial alliances, the sharing of services of religious persons and the exchange of labour during peak agricultural seasons and for the joint maintenance of irrigation canals.

Local communities have developed various social institutions such as "reesup", "chusup", "shingsungpa", and "reedum" for dealing with various natural resources. The "reesup" (village forest guard) is appointed by the village elders to ensure adequate firewood and construction timber to everyone and to enforce "reedum" (social sanctions on the use of natural resources). Similarly, "chusup" are appointed by local communities to ensure the existing traditional rights for drinking water among the households and the proper distribution of irrigation water among landowners. Furthermore, a "shingsungpa", a person of high integrity, is selected by each village to work as an arbitrator to resolve conflicts on the issue of agricultural crop damage by cattle. The social institutions of "chusup" and "shingsungpa" were formalized and legitimized by the Land Act 1978 and that of "reesup" was revitalized by the forestry organization in 1985.

2.9 Summary

This chapter summarized the ecological, political and social modes of governance controlling the capability of different factors to influence natural resources, including forests, in Bhutan. Some of the main concerns of planning and policy development in Bhutan are providing necessary support to sustain fragile environments and natural resources, satisfying the growing needs of an increasing population and maintaining support to other sectors such as hydropower generation.

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