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Overview of non-wood forest products in Bhutan

Forest policy
Forest strategy
Forest legislation rules and regulations
The importance of non-wood forest products
Problems and constraints in developing non-wood forest products
General recommendations for long-term activities in developing non-wood forest products
Organisations involved in the development of non-wood forest products

by K. J. Subba
Joint Director
Forest Resources Development Section, Thimphu
The Royal Government of Bhutan

The sudden rise of the Himalayas from the flat Indo-Gangetic plains into jagged and lofty mountain peaks endows Bhutan with a wide range of ecological zones. In the Himalayas, it is possible to move from tropical conditions to the alpine zone in a matter of hours. The flora and fauna are thus at once both diverse and unique to Bhutan's singular geography.

Most of the Himalayas, unfortunately, are in an advanced stage of decay Some authors even describe the Himalayas as dying mountains. For the rural communities of these soaring mountains, the world's highest, over-population and over-use of land resources long ago crossed the line of sustainability. At the same time, biodiversity has inevitably become much poorer, the protective value of the forests has been lost and the region, particularly downstream areas, faces severe, natural calamities every year.

Fortunately, Bhutan, in the Eastern Himalayas, enjoys a somewhat more hopeful situation. Here people have learnt to live in harmony with nature in a symbiotic relationship that goes back untold centuries. The Buddhist philosophy of love and respect for nature has also greatly influenced the people's attitude towards their land and its environment. Thus 60 percent of Bhutan's forest cover is still in a pristine state. Flora and fauna, extinct or threatened elsewhere, continue to thrive in Bhutan.

Forest policy

Bhutan's forest policy places conservation above all other considerations. Harvesting or commercial use of the forest is only permitted after conservation goals have been met and only if management policies ensure sustainable use.

Forest strategy

Bhutan has designated 23 percent of its national territory as protected areas, distributed over different ecozones. These are strictly controlled for the conservation of flora, fauna and biodiversity.

All remaining forests are designated production forests. Their management is also guided by conservation principles. Bhutan places strong emphasis on people's participation in forest management and on the development of forestry extension services.

Forest legislation rules and regulations

Rules and regulations are regularly updated to improve and better enforce forest conservation policies (the Royal Government of Bhutan's Master Plan for Forestry Development 1991, Annex Report No. X). These rules, however, still allow the Bhutanese people to practice their traditional use of forest products. Here are a few examples:

Medicinal Plants

· The 1974 National Forest Policy categorises medicinal plants and herbs as resources yet to be fully exploited. Hence the Policy specifies that these resources be surveyed for efficient management and use.

· May 25, 1988 - The Director of Forests approved a proposal to: 1) ban exports of medicinal plants, and 2) establish joint efforts by the Department of Forests (DOF) and the National Institute of Traditional Medicine (NITM) to both collect and cultivate medicinal plants.


· April 3, 1985 - Revised rules on resin tapping from chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) were approved.

Natural Dyes

· January 4, 1980 - The Royal Government of Bhutan waived royalties and sales taxes on the collection and sale of lac and waste products therefrom. This was to revive the dying art of lac cultivation and associated activities. No monopoly is now permitted.

· September 8, 1985 - Exports of vegetable dyes were curtailed. These are now for domestic use only.

The abrupt rise of the Himalayas from the plains of India determines everything in Bhutan - topography, settlement, economy and climate.

Bamboo and Cane (Rattan)

· November 7, 1978 - The Government decided that villagers in the Phontsholing area could henceforth collect bamboo and cane without paying taxes or royalties. This is to encourage the production of handicrafts for sale and domestic use.

· May 7, 1979 - The Government gave Mongar and Zhemgang villagers permission to transport "bangchungs," "palangs" (both traditional bamboo containers) and other products made of bamboo or cane anywhere, as long as they are for gifts, and not for sale.

· September 2, 1984 The Government, to encourage handicrafts production, allowed Dhrumjar (Mempa) Trongsa villagers to collect bamboo and cane for sale or domestic use without paying taxes or royalties.

Other Forest Products

No legislation, rules or regulations have yet been enacted for essential oils, mushrooms, and other forest products.

The importance of non-wood forest products

More than 80 percent of the Bhutanese population depends on agriculture and animal husbandry for its livelihood. To remain sustainable, the country's farm system is highly dependent on forests. Non-wood forest products, used daily, are taken for granted. Important as they are, the full impact of these products on Bhutan's rural economy is yet to be either assessed or documented.

Grazing and Fodder Production

Animal husbandry is an important contributor to the country's rural economy. Almost every household maintains at least a few cattle for draft power, animal products and for manure. Many Bhutanese keep large herds as a status symbol or as insurance against hard times. The country's animal population is estimated at 300,000 cattle and buffaloes, 28,000 yaks, 40,000 sheep, 42,000 goats and 22,000 horses.

These animals' dependence on forests for fodder is not as yet fully appreciated. It is general Bhutanese practice to simply chase the animals into the forests to forage wherever they like and for whatever is available. In Bhutan, forests and grazing lands often overlap. During winter, when forest fodder becomes scarce in the country's colder areas, cattle are driven to forests in warmer climes. Tree fodder is collected, particularly for the milch cows so important for milk production during winter.


Bamboo is rightfully known as the "poor man's timber." Its use is so versatile that it merits a full study on its own. In Bhutan, bamboo has many uses. Due to the country's varied climate, many different kinds are available. Large bamboo, such as Dendrocalamus hamiltonii, is found in tropical areas, while the very small Arundinaria maling is found at high altitudes.

One of the most common uses for bamboo in Bhutan is for making bows and arrows. Archery is the national sport and an important cultural activity. Bows are made from Dendrocalamus hamiltonii, though only those that grow on particular microsites produce good bows. Arrows are made from high altitude bamboo. Making these arrows requires considerable skill. The arrows' feathers, for example, are obtained only from one type of wild pheasant, while the glue for attaching them is made only from fish skin.

Split bamboo is commonly woven into mats for house walls and roofs.

Producing fine bamboo baskets and other containers is a speciality of the people in the country's eastern districts. Such products, now becoming popular with tourists, are marketed throughout Bhutan. Poor people also use bamboo baskets for storage and as water containers. Many of the country's poor live in houses made entirely of bamboo. In southern and eastern Bhutan, the larger bamboos are all but indispensable to rural life, so much so that living without them cannot even be imagined. The smaller bamboos found in central and western Bhutan are used for weaving mats, as fencing, or as roofing for temporary shelters.

Traditional Medicine

Traditional medicine is still practiced throughout Bhutan, with its more than 300 species of medicinal plants. The National Institute of Traditional Medicine (NITM), for example, is a well-organised institute staffed with traditional and western trained doctors. The Institute regularly collects plants to produce medicine as per formulae cited in ancient medical scriptures. NITM combines traditional medicine with acupuncture to treat all types of diseases. The Institute is rapidly gaining in popularity, even though a nearby modern hospital provides free services.

While NITM's set-up is quite elaborate, simpler systems of traditional medicine - provided by individuals or groups - are practiced in rural areas. In the south, traditions are different. Knowledge of medicinal plants is passed down from father to son. Some practitioners combine spiritualism, and its accompanying elaborate rituals, with dispensing medicine.

As traditional medicine does not have the side effects associated with modern-day medicine, it is once again becoming popular. The country's modernisation almost wiped out this age-old practice and once-thriving business. It is known that in olden days at least two plants, ruta (Saussurea lappa) and menu (Innula helenium), were cultivated and marketed in the Bumthang Valley. Today many people do not even remember what these plants look like. A remnant of menu, however, has been found and is being cultivated by at least one family.

The 14 most prevalent diseases in Bhutan (Master Plan for Forestry Development 1991) in order of seriousness are:

· Respiratory tract infections
· Diarrhoea/dysentery
· Skin infections
· Worm infections
· Malaria
· Conjunctivitis
· Peptic ulcer syndrome
· Otitis media
· Tooth and gum diseases
· Urinary tract infections and nephritis
· Childhood diseases
· Sexually-transmitted diseases
· Diseases of the female genital tract
· Complications in pregnancy and childbirth puerperium

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes comprise another group of non-wood forest products associated with Bhutanese traditional arts and culture. Cloth weaving is an important economic activity in the central and eastern "dzongkhags," or regions. At one time, the colouring of textiles was entirely done by using natural dyes. Many plants were cultivated for this, and some were even exported to Tibet. Natural dyes are gradually being replaced by chemicals or ready-made coloured thread. Improvements in the quality of natural dyes, however, may revive their production. A project at Khaling in eastern Bhutan is presently compiling an information base on natural dyes and conducting research to improve such dyes.

Pine Resin and Lemon Grass

Pine resin collection and lemon grass distillation are recently introduced activities in Bhutan. More than 270 tons of resin are collected each year by villagers in the country's eastern districts and sold to a factory. As the work is carried out close to their farms, farmers supplement their incomes by doing such collection when they are free from farm work. These activities pump more than Nu. 30 million (just under US$ 1 million) into the country's rural economy.

Lemon grass distillation employs some 400 families in the eastern dzongkhags. To these families, this activity has become even more important than farming.

Forest Foods

Forests also play an important role in Bhutan's food security. Food from the forests becomes critical to rural areas in times of crisis, when transporting food to remote areas is difficult, or when people have no money to buy food. Because of Bhutan's varied and unpredictable climatic conditions, from time to time the country faces localised droughts and other conditions causing crop failures.

During hard times, people search for food in the forests to supplement their meagre supplies. Thus an important plant is yam (Dioscorea sp.). This plant has long tubers and requires a considerable amount of digging to obtain. Tuber hunting, though, is always a gamble. A vine may yield up to 10 kilogrammes of tubers, or nothing at all. Yet the plant's exotic taste and the hungry mouths waiting back home, make the hard digging worthwhile. When food shortages become extreme, the bulbs that grow on the vines are also eaten. This occurs only under the most desperate situations as the bulbs, which are stewed, are bitter and cannot be eaten too often. Bhutan has other less well-known tubers, but Dioscorea remains the most important substitute for food grains.

Another commodity that sends poorer farmers into the forests during difficult times is seeds, from which cooking oil is extracted. Many wild seeds can be used to produce oil. The seeds of the Symplocos tree, for example, are commonly used for this purpose, even in good years. The seed of Gynocardia sp., a subtropical tree, is used less frequently because of its highly-poisonous covering. Sal (Shorea robusta) seeds are collected and marketed in India because Bhutan still lacks the requisite extraction technology at the rural level. Neolitsea is cultivated throughout Bhutan, particularly in the country's eastern districts. Aesandra butyracea, a multipurpose tree, is also an important source of oil.

A variety of forest fruits and nuts are regularly consumed in Bhutan, but contribute little to food security. Some fruit is plucked and eaten by rural folks passing through forests; some may be taken home. Fruits and nuts, such as the walnut, Cornus, Zizyphus, and Morus, are occasionally marketed. Some wild fruits are rich in vitamins. Phyllanthus emblica, for example, is recognised as a rich source of vitamin C.

Villagers also use many plants as vegetables. Fern shoots, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, cane shoots and even orchid flowers are marketed in their respective seasons. These are much sought after delicacies throughout Bhutan. Mushrooms, particularly Cantharellus cibarius, are canned and sold for as much as Nu. 50 (about US$ 1.50) per kilogramme. These are found in oak-pine forests in the country's temperate zones. Some are exported. The oak mushroom is-widely cultivated on oak billets.

Traditional paper made from Daphne spp. and Edgeworthia gardneri has become a popular export product.

Villagers in western Bhutan commonly collect and sell beetle leaf and beetle nut on a year-round basis. Leaves are collected from tropical and sub-tropical forests, then transported from western Bhutan to northern districts where wild leaves are preferred over cultivated varieties.

Bhutan's forests also produce a number of spices, used locally and exported. Piper sp. is one of the country's most important spices. Though not used locally, this spice earns people in tropical areas a good income during season. Cinnamomum sp. bark and leaves are also collected and exported. Zanthoxylum sp. seeds are marketed locally and are extensively used throughout the country.

Problems and constraints in developing non-wood forest products

Bhutan's potential for developing its non-wood forest products (NWFP) is quite considerable. But this promising sector is burdened, at least for the present, by several serious constraints. Too little is known, for instance, about the country's existing resources, management strategies, best harvesting practices and marketing opportunities. Professionals in the NWFP sector are far too few and they have limited knowledge of practical management and prospects for further and future development. Institutional support is extremely weak.

There is an acute lack of inventory data and even many of the best informed Bhutanese professionals admit they are all but completely in the dark as to the country's real NWFP resources. But finding out just what these resources are and, equally important, where they are requires money, and money is precisely the resource in shortest supply in the country. Bhutan is, after all, one of the poorest countries on earth. Per capita income is a lowly US$ 150 a year and government financial resources are never adequate to cover Bhutan's almost endless development needs.

The shortage of quality training institutes in the country is another major constraint to Bhutanese development. Legal codes and laws governing most phases of forestry development are as yet inadequate and where they do exist they are all too often ignored. Comprehensive enforcement of modern forestry legislation, even were it to exist, would require more forestry officers than Bhutan could afford to put into the field.

Geography itself is a massive physical barrier to the country's rapid development. Bhutan lies in the heart of the beautiful but stupendously rugged Eastern Himalayas, and is, in fact, one of the most mountainous countries on the planet. To build a good all-weather road in Bhutan is a colossal and extremely expensive achievement. The present road network, for instance, though by far the best the country has ever known, makes the transport of goods a slow, costly, and at times dangerous, endeavour. Roads, uniformly narrow due to the Himalayan peaks through which they pass, are few and far between.

During the long rainy season and the winters of ice and snow, Bhutan's roads often become altogether impassable, beset as they are by landslides and washouts. All this adds up to far more than just human inconvenience. It is a major obstacle to development of any kind.

These problems and developmental constraints seriously affect every aspect of the country's social and economic advancement, including its budding non-wood forest products industry.

General recommendations for long-term activities in developing non-wood forest products

· Establish national priorities based on all known non-wood forest products and prioritise them according to an agreed set of criteria.

· Aim for a more complete inventory of the prioritised commodities, giving species, locations, and quantities. This would involve taxonomists, botanists, forest rangers, and foresters, among others.

· Train personnel in plant identification, proper collection methods, appropriate processing techniques, efficient manufacturing procedures, quality control, and the generation of new designs.

· Establish and maintain gene banks for conservation, tissue culture, and seed storage, and start a collection of voucher herbarium specimens; set up extension and information centres for teaching the art of vegetable dyeing.

· Set up post-harvest handling facilities as close to commodity sources as possible for drying, sifting, deep freezing, controlled atmosphere, etc.

· Initiate annual scholarships and grants for B.Sc., M.Sc., and Ph.D. degrees in related disciplines or short-term, non-degree training programmes for acquiring new technologies.

· Create an agency, or agencies, to serve as the national clearing house for all matters pertaining to non-wood forest products, including marketing. This should include a mechanism to oversee annual reviews of accomplishments, preferably conducted by unbiased third-party personnel.

Organisations involved in the development of non-wood forest products

Forest Research Section, Research Extension and Irrigation Division of the Ministry of Agriculture

· herbarium collection, plant identification
· vegetative propagation of important non-wood products

Forestry Services Division

· collection of information on non-wood product use
· survey of non-wood forest products

Research Extension and Irrigation Division of the Ministry of Agriculture

· essential oils
· vegetable oils
· mushroom production

Ministry of Trade and Industries

· survey of specific non-wood products with industrial potential
· marketing and production

National Institute of Traditional Medicine

· collection of medicinal plants and production of medicines
· research on cultivation and propagation of important medicinal plants

The Handloom Weaving Centre, Khaling

· documentation on 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

Farmers' markets selling non-wood forest products are common throughout Bhutan.

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