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Non-wood forest products of Bhutan

Legislation, orders and rules regulating NWFPS
Importance of non-wood forest products
Constraints in NWFP product development
General recommendations for long-term activities
Organizations involved in the development of NWFPS in Bhutan

Forest Resources Development Section
Ministry of Agriculture

Editor's note. This paper is a very brief synopsis of a detailed report which is being published by FAO/RAPA as a separate publication. The length of the detailed report precludes including it in its entirety in this publication.


The sudden rise of the Himalayas from the Indo-Gangetic plains endows Bhutan with a wide range of ecological zones. In Bhutan, it is possible to travel from the tropics to alpine zones in a matter of a few hours. The resulting flora and fauna are diverse and unique.

Unfortunately, most of the Himalayas are in an advanced stage of decay. Some authors have described the Himalayas as a dying mountain range. Over-population and over-utilization, have long crossed the line of sustainability. Biodiversity is much poorer, the protective value of the forests have been lost and downstream areas face severe natural calamities on an annual basis.

Fortunately, Bhutan, which is in the Eastern Himalayas, is in a different situation. Here people have learned to live in harmony with nature in a symbiotic relationship that dates back for centuries. The Buddhist philosophy of love and respect for nature has also influenced the attitudes of people.

Sixty percent of the forest cover in Bhutan is still in a pristine state. Flora and fauna that are extinct or threatened elsewhere, thrive in Bhutan.

The national forest policy places conservation in the forefront of all other considerations. Utilization of forest products can take place only after meeting conservation goals, which through scientific management, ensure sustainability. Bhutan has designated 23 percent of the country as protected areas. This system of protected areas covers different eco-zones which are strictly managed to protect biodiversity.

The remaining areas of the country are considered production forests, but management of these areas is guided by conservation principles. Strong emphasis is laid on people's participation in forest management and on development of public education and extension services.

Legislation, orders and rules regulating NWFPS

Rules and orders have been issued from time to time to enforce forest policy and also to allow people to enjoy- traditional use of non-wood forest products (NWFPs).

Medicinal plants

The 1974 National Forest Policy specifies medicinal plants and herbs among the resources to be surveyed for efficient management and utilization because these remain one of country's resources which have not yet been fully exploited.

May 25, 1988 - the Director of Forests, approved a proposal to ban the export of medicinal plants and establish cooperation between the Department of Forests (DOF) and the National Institute of Traditional Medicine (NITM) for collecting and cultivating medicinal plants


April 3, 1985 - the rules for tapping chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) for resin were approved.

Natural dyes

January 4, 1980 - The Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) waved forest royalty and sales tax on the collection and sale of lac and its waste products in order to promote the art of lac cultivation and its associated activities. No monopoly on this is permitted.

September 8, 1985 - the export of vegetable dyes was curtailed. These are to be used for home use only.

Bamboo and canes (rattan)

November 7, 1978 - RGOB permitted the villagers in Phuentsholing to collect bamboo and canes without royalty to encourage production of handicrafts for sale or domestic use.

May 7, 1979 - RGOB approved permits for villagers in Mongar and Zhempang to transport bangchu, palang and other products made of bamboo and cane to any location if they are to be used as gifts.

September 2, 1984 - RGOB permitted people of Dhrumjar (Mempa) and Trongsa to collect bamboo and cane without royalty to encourage the production of handicrafts for sale or domestic use.

Other NWFPs

No legislation, orders and rules have been issued for essential oils, mushrooms and other NWFPs.

Importance of non-wood forest products

More than 80 percent of the people of Bhutan depend on agriculture and animal husbandry for their livelihood. The farming system in Bhutan is highly dependent on the forests to sustain it. Non-wood forest products are harvested and used daily without much thought. The full impact of NWFPs on the rural economy has not yet been documented and assessed.

Animal husbandry is an important contributor to the rural economy. Almost every household maintains a few cattle for draft power, animal products and for manure. Many people maintain large herds as a status symbol or as insurance in times of difficulty. The animal population has been recorded as 300,000 cattle and buffaloes, 28,000 yak, 40,000 sheep, 42,000 goats and 22,000 horses.

The impact of these animals, which depend on the forests for fodder, has not yet been fully appreciated. As a general practice, herders drive the animals into the forests to forage for whatever is available and thus much of the forest is used as grazing land. During winter, when fodder in the forests in colder areas becomes scarce, cattle are moved down to warmer forests. In winter, tree fodder is collected for milch cows to sustain milk production.

Bamboos are rightfully known as "poor man's timber." In Bhutan, bamboo has many important uses. Due to the varied climate, many different kinds of bamboo are available. Large bamboos such as Dendrocalamus hamiltonii are found in tropical areas, and the very small Arundinaria maling are found at high altitudes.

One of the best-known uses of bamboo in Bhutan is for making bows and arrows. Archery is the national sport and also a cultural event. Bows are made from Dendrocalamus Hamiltonii, but only those which grow on particular microsites produce good bows. Arrows are made from high altitude bamboo and require considerable skill to craft. Feathers for the arrows are obtained from a wild pheasant and the glue is made from fish skin.

The making of fine bamboo baskets and containers is a specialty of people in eastern districts. Such products are marketed all over Bhutan and are now becoming popular with tourists. People also use bamboo baskets for storage and as water containers.

Many poor houses are made entirely of bamboo. The small bamboos that are found in central and west Bhutan are also woven into mats, used for fencing and for roofing temporary shelters.

More than 300 species of medicinal plants are used in traditional medicine. The National Institute of Traditional Medicines (NITM) is well-established, with trained doctors. Staff regularly collect medicinal plants and produce medicine according to formulae given in ageold medical scriptures. The traditional system, which includes acupuncture, treats all types of diseases. Traditional medicine is gaining popularity, even though a nearby modern hospital provides free services.

While the treatments in the institute are quite elaborate, more simple systems exist in rural areas. Individuals or groups often provide such services. In the south, traditions are different. The knowledge of medicinal plants is handed down from father to son. Some healers combine spiritualism and go through elaborate rituals while dispensing medicines.

Modernization had almost wiped out traditional medicine but because traditional medicines do not produce the side effects associated with modern medicines, they are becoming increasingly popular again. Historically, at least two plants, ruta and menu were cultivated in the Bumthang valley and marketed. Today many people do not even remember these plants. However, remnant populations of one of the plants, menu (Innula helenium) has been found and is being cultivated by at least one family.

Natural dyes are another group of non-wood forest products that are associated with the traditional art and culture of Bhutan. Cloth weaving is an important economic activity in the central and eastern dzongkhags (districts). At one time, colouring of textiles was entirely based on natural dyes. Many plants were cultivated and even exported to Tibet. However, natural dyes are gradually being replaced by chemicals or ready-made thread. Improvements in the quality of natural dyes may revive their use. A project at Khaling in eastern Bhutan is compiling research results and other information on natural dyes.

Collection of pine resin, and lemongrass distillation, are recently-introduced activities in the chir pine areas of the country. More than 270 tons of resin is collected by villagers in the eastern districts and sold to distilleries. As the distilleries are next to farms, local farmers work in the distilleries when they have spare time. These activities directly contribute more than Nu. 30 million (US$ 1 million) to the rural economy. Lemongrass distillation also provides income for around 400 families in the eastern dzongkhags. For these families, distillation has become an even more important source of income than farming.

Forests play an important role in assuring food security in the country. During times of crisis, food from the forests becomes critical, particularly in rural areas where the importation of food is difficult and people do not have much purchasing power. Due to varied climatic conditions, drought and poor soil, food problems are faced throughout Bhutan from time to time.

During periods of food shortages, people search for food in the forests to supplement their meager diets. An important plant is Dioscoria. This plant has long tubers which must be dug up from deep under the ground. A single vine may yield anywhere from nothing up 10 kilogrammes of tubers. Tuber hunting is a gamble, but the delicious taste and hungry mouths waiting at home make the digging worthwhile. When food shortages are very bad, the bulbs that grow on the vine are also eaten. However, this occurs only in the most desperate situations because the bulbs are bitter and cannot be eaten too often. There are other tubers that are eaten, but Dioscoria is the most important substitute for grains.

Another commodity which can be obtained from the forests during difficult times is cooking oil. There are many wild seeds which produce oil. Seeds of the Symplocus tree are commonly used for oil, even in good times. The seed of Gynocardia sp., a subtropical tree, is less frequently used because of its highly poisonous seed covering. Sal (Shorea robusta) seeds are collected and marketed in India. In Bhutan, sal is not exploited for oil due to a lack of extraction technology at the rural level. Neolitsia is frequently cultivated, especially in the eastern districts. Aesandra butareace, a multipurpose tree, is also an important source of oil.

A variety of forest fruits are also eaten regularly. Some fruits are just plucked and eaten while passing through the forest, while others may be taken home. Some fruits such as walnuts, corpus, zizyphus and mows are marketed. Some wild fruits are very rich in vitamins. Phyllanthus emblica is recognized to be one of the richest sources of vitamin C.

Villagers also eat many plants as vegetables. Fern shoots, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, cane shoots and even orchid flowers are marketed in season. These delicacies are sought all over Bhutan. Mushrooms, particularly the Cantharellus cibarius, is canned and sold for as much as Nu. 50 (US$ 1.65) a kilogramme. These mushrooms are found in temperate oakpine forests. The oak mushroom is widely cultivated on oak billets and some are exported.

The sale of betel leaf with betel nut is a yearround activity, particularly in western Bhutan. The leaves are collected from tropical and sub-tropical forests and taken to northern districts where wild leaves are preferred over cultivated varieties.

The forests of Bhutan also produce a number of spices which are used locally and exported. Pepper is one of the most important spices to be collected. Though it is not used locally, the collection of the spice enables people in tropical areas to earn a good income. Cinnamomum bark and leaves are also collected and exported. The seeds of Zanthoxylum are marketed locally and used extensively in the country.

Constraints in NWFP product development

Medicinal plants

· Lack of an inventory of the currently available plant resources - even the more important plants (what species, where, how much?). NITM claims that certain medicinal species have decreased substantially (by as much as 50 percent). Ayurvedic doctors (dungtshos) and other traditional healers also claim medical plants are more difficult to obtain, but no quantifiable inventory data are available.

· Poaching of medicinal plants, particularly those used in neighbouring countries such as China, India, Nepal, Sikkim, and Tibet, occurs in northern and southern border areas, purportedly with the help of local people.

· Foresters lack knowledge needed to identify medicinal plants and allied species.

· There is an absence of post-harvest handling facilities suitable for drying and sifting. This is aggravated by a lack of roads to transport materials for immediate primary processing in order to avoid spoilage.

· An agency is needed to take charge of the collection, primary processing, quality control, and marketing of crude and formulated drugs.

Resin tapping

· Inadequate wages given to tappers working under a harsh environment.

· Lack of sufficient and trained manpower to undertake tapping; inadequate opportunities for apprenticeships.

· Non-compliance with revised tapping rules.

General recommendations for long-term activities

1. Establish national priorities based on the potential for NWFP development in the country.

2. Develop a more complete inventory of prioritized commodities. Involve taxonomists, botanists, forest rangers, foresters etc. in identifying species, locations, quantities, etc.

3. Train key personal for various purposes: plant identification; proper collection techniques; appropriate processing methods; good manufacturing procedures; quality control; generation of new designs, etc.

4. Establish and maintain gene banks for conservation purposes and future tissue culture.

5. Develop seed storage facilities, herbarium collections and computer databases to store traditional knowledge related to NWFPs.

6. Establish post-harvest handling facilities for drying, sifting, sorting, deep freezing, atmospheric control, etc., as near as possible to the source of supply.

7. Establish annual scholarship grants for key persons to obtain degrees in related disciplines or provide short term non-degree training programs to acquire new technologies.

8. Create an agency that will serve as a clearing house for all matters pertaining to non-wood forest products, including marketing. This should include a mechanism for an annual review of the agency's accomplishments by nonbiased non-biased outside persons.

Organizations involved in the development of NWFPS in Bhutan

· Forest Research Section, REID, Ministry of Agriculture

- Herbarium collection, plant identification
- Vegetative propagation of important non-wood products

· Forestry Services Division

- Collection of information on NWFP use
- Surveys of non-wood forest products

· Research, Extension and Irrigation Department (REID), Ministry of Agriculture

- Essential oils
- Vegetable oils
- Mushroom production

· Ministry of Trade and Industries

- Surveys of specific non-wood products with industrial potential
- Marketing and production

· National Institute of Traditional Medicine (NITM)

- Collection of medicinal plants and production of medicines
- Research on cultivation and propagation of important medicinal plants

· Handloom Weaving Centre, Khalilng

- Documentation of traditional natural dyes
- Production of textiles based on natural dyes

· Cottage industries (Yatha weaving centres)

- Production of textiles based on natural dyes
- National Women's Association of Bhutan
- Interested in local paper production and other non-wood products.

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