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23. Forests for poverty alleviation - case of Bhutan
Doley Tshering


Bhutan has a total area of about 46 500 km2. About 80 percent of the country's population is rural. Forests form the single largest resource of the country covering about 72 percent and form integral part of the farming system of the local people. Household incomes are low with average income per person less than a dollar per day. Most of the rural people are subsistence farmers. Current government initiatives for involving local people in natural resource management include social forestry programmes consisting of community forestry and social forestry. Recently the Ministry of Agriculture adopted the community-based natural resource management, as a guiding principle for natural resource management in the country and the efforts to devolve power through decentralization are encouraging developments. Besides many grassroots projects involving local people in natural resource management and utilization initiated by both national and international NGOs are a step in the right direction. Research should be made more pro-poor and concentrate on finding ways for the forestry sector to meet the in needs through development of appropriate technologies and advocacy for the rights of the rural people. Similarly other actors such as training institutes, policy makers and development organizations have clear and paramount roles to play to make forestry pro-poor and assist in poverty alleviation.


Bhutan is a landlocked mountainous country with a total area of 46 500 km2 in the eastern Himalayas. It ranges in altitude from about 300 m in the south to over 7000 m in the north. The wide variation in altitude means a corresponding variation in range of climatic conditions from hot and humid tropical and subtropical conditions in the south to tundra conditions in perpetual snow and ice in the high Himalaya zone (Gyamtsho 1996). There is substantial variation within these ranges and the climate and rainfall characteristics change dramatically within short distances and a simultaneous variation in diversity of vegetation within a limited geographical area. Ohsawa (1987) defines six vegetation types that correspond to six climatic zones (Table 1).

Owing to her mountainous terrain, Bhutan is very sparsely populated. The total population of Bhutan is estimated around 700 000 and a population density of 14 persons per km2, with majority of the people still living in the rural areas. With the current population growth rate of 3.1 percent the country's population is likely to double by the year 2020 posing serious implications to the Bhutan's environmental resources (RGOB 2001a).

Table 1. Vegetation zones in Bhutan

Vegetation zone

Altitude (m)

Characteristic species

Tropical zone


Acacia catechu, Bombax cieba, Daubanga grandiflolia, Shorea robusta, Terminalia myriocarpa, Tetra nudiflora

Sub-tropical zone


Castonopsis, Lithocarpus, Pinus roxburghii, Schima (Wet valleys) Quercus griffithii (dry inner valleys), Quercus lanata

Warm temperate zone


Castonopsis, Litsea Quercus, Persea, Pinus wallichiana (inner notherly slopes)

Cool temperate zone


Acer campbellii, Abies densa, Betula utilis, Quercus semicarpifolia, Picea spinulosa, Tsuga dumosa

Sub-alpine zone


Abies densa, Juniperus recurva, Larix griffithii, Picea spinulosa, Pinus wallichiana, Tsuga dumosa

Alpine zone


Forest limit; scattered dwarf junipers and rhododendrons (shrubs) till 5000m.

Source: Adapted from Ohsawa (1987).

The Bhutanese economy is still essentially agrarian. Agriculture contributed about 38 percent of the GDP of Nu 18 514.1 million in 1999, this have fallen from about 43 percent in 1990 (Table 2).

Table 2. Composition of GDP (1980-90-98)


(percent real GDP)




Agriculture, livestock, forestry and fishing




Mining and quarrying








Electricity, water and gas








Wholesale, retail trade, restaurant and hotels




Transport, storage and communications




Financing, insurance and real estate




Community, social and personal services (Govt.)




Source: Central Statistical Organization (CSO), RGOB (2001).

A surge in hydropower development and associated industries in the 1980s has increased the share of the mining, manufacturing and electricity from 4 percent of GDP in 1980 to about 25 percent by 1998 according to a report by the Planning Commission (RGOB 2000). The report further states that during the period 1990-99 the maximum growth was recorded by the mining and quarrying sector reaching about 12 percent per annum, followed by the manufacturing sector with an annual growth of about 11 percent while agriculture and allied industries recorded the slowest growth of about 3 percent. The GDP grew at an average rate of about 18 percent from 1996 to 1999 with the highest rate achieved in 1997 (22 percent) and is currently about 14 percent (RGOB 2001a)

The RNR (Renewable Natural Resources) sector includes agriculture, animal husbandry and forestry falling under the Ministry of Agriculture and continues to be the largest contributor to the GDP and is also the major source of employment and livelihood for the Bhutanese people.

Land area suitable for agriculture is estimated to be about 8 percent which contributes about 38 percent of the GDP and employs about 80 percent of the population (Dorjee 1995). Maize is the principle crop followed by paddy, the former grown extensively in the eastern and southern sub-tropical areas where the absence of irrigation and poor soil fertility limits paddy cultivation (Gyamtsho 1996). Cash crops grown for export include apples, oranges, cardamom, mangoes etc. Agriculture contributed about 17.9 percent of the GDP in 2000 (RGOB 2001a). Livestock rearing is done not just for milk and meat production but extends to draught power, organic farmyard manure (FYM) and its contribution to GDP in 2000 is estimated to be 7.6 percent (RGOB 2001a). Cattle dominated by the indigenous siri (Bos indicus) is the most important type of livestock and reared throughout the country, while yaks (Bos grunniens) provide the only means of livelihood for inhabitants of high altitude areas where harsh environments limit crop production and other means of livelihood (Gyamtsho 1996).

Forest products accounted for 10.4 percent of the GDP in 2000 with a growth rate of 5.9 percent for eighth five-year plan (1997-2002) (RGOB 2001a). The growth rate in seventh plan period was 22.5 percent, the growth being checked by the government decree that ordered a maintenance of at least 60 percent forest cover at all times in an effort for conservation (RGOB 1995). The main wood product from the forests is firewood: still the most predominant form of energy for cooking, lighting and heating especially in the rural areas. Commercial timber production accounts for only a fraction of the estimated 169 million m3 annual growth and logging concentrated more in the accessible areas, particularly where there are motor roads (Gyamtsho 1996). Wood based manufacturing firms and industries albeit growing in numbers are still few and mainly engaged in sawing and carpentry.


Forests constitute about 72 percent (an area of 29 044 km2) and represent the single largest natural resource of the country (Table 3).

Table 3. Land cover categories


Area (km2)

% of total

Conifer forest

10 636


Broadleaf forest

13 793


Mixed forests



Scrub forests






Agricultural land



Snow and glaciers



Water spreads



Rock outcrops






Source: LUPP (1994) (adapted from Dorjee 1995).

The geographical distribution and area proportion of the forests is very heterogeneous (Table 4). Forests in the Bhutanese context consist of shrub vegetation of hard leaved species, intensively grazed tree stands and true forest stands. Conifer forest is the most dominant type of forest types in Bhutan with temperate hardwoods the second most common.

Table 4. Composition of forest cover in Bhutan

Forest type

Area (ha)

% cover




Mixed conifer



Blue pine



Chir pine



Broadleaf with conifer









Scrub forests






Source: LUPP (1995) (adapted from Dorjee 1995).

Much of the forest is degraded in terms of quality especially near the homesteads (Tshering 2000). Due to a generally poor transport facility wood is normally collected wherever found closest to roads. This entailed pushing the edge of the forest further away from settlements and only in some cases such clearings have been colonized by invasive and hardy species of pines (Pinus spp.) and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.).

Till 1969, all lands were regarded as common property unless explicitly claimed as private land. Similarly forests were also deemed common property whose use was dictated by the village customs and traditions. However, this changed in 1969 with the Forest Act, which decreed all land not privately owned to be Government Reserved Forests (RGOB 1969). The Government then had absolute ownership of trees and other forest products even on private land (Wangchuk 1995). All utilization and management of the forest is controlled by the Department of Forest and its functional divisions. However, with the passage of time and the changing priorities and demand on the forest resources, the Forest Act, 1969 was considered inadequate to deal with the increasing complexities. The Forest and Nature Conservation Act, 1995 was subsequently approved by the parliament which forms the legal basis for social forestry and community forestry.

Being an entirely mountainous country except for the southern part, most of the country's forests are on hills and vulnerable sites. About 80percent of the total forest areas are on hills and vulnerable sites. A combination of the steep terrain constrains utilization of forests commercially as evidenced from the fact that most of the degraded forests are in the southern Dzongkhags (Negi 1983).


Although a correct estimate on forest cover change is missing, most of the authors agree that much of the forest cover in Bhutan has remained largely intact (Norbu 2000, Pradhan 2001). However varying estimates of forest cover are quoted by different authors, which range from about 64 percent to about 72 percent. Official figures are in the range of 56 percent to 60 percent. Because of the protection afforded by the Department of Forests with its stringent rules combined with lesser incidence of forest fires and other catastrophes, forest covers are perceived to have increased by many of the Bhutanese (Tshering 2003). Local people explain this by indicating that past fallow lands and surrounding bare lands are now covered by invasive species such as Blue pine and Rhododendrons. Although the forest areas may have slightly increased as vouched by the local people, many of the forest especially near the homestead are degraded in terms of quality. Local people report that tree products especially firewood and timber have progressively decreased from the forests over the last few decades with them having to walk much longer and spend more time now to get the same amount of product they used to get few years ago (Tshering 2000).


There has been no attempt made so far to measure poverty using a definitive set of indicators. However data on a large number of poverty related indicators are collected and reveal that Bhutan has been successful in tackling and reducing certain types of poverty, particularly access to basic social services and infrastructure. This is evidenced from the increase in the Human Development Index (HDI) from 0.325 in 1984 to 0.581 in 1995 (RGOB 2000). Albeit there is a lack of national agreement on a definitive set of relevant poverty indicators for Bhutan, a rapid poverty assessment carried out by the Planning Commission with assistance from the UNDP states unambiguously that household incomes are low in our country. The average income per person is low at Nu. 40 which is less than a dollar per person per day (RGOB 2001). There is also a significant difference in income between the urban and rural areas with average household income per person are Nu. 70 in urban areas and Nu. 33 in rural areas. The Gini coefficient has been calculated at 0.365 (RGOB 2000).

The UNDP through a discussion paper recommends complementing and expanding the current set of poverty indicators already collected in Bhutan into a more rounded comprehensive set suitable for several purposes of monitoring poverty (UNDP 2002). The paper also lists activities such as expanding the human poverty outcome indicators, establishing a set of poverty lines and ascertaining the perception of the poor on their poverty. Hopefully such an exercise would make more meaningful and robust data available on poverty in the country in future.


The majority of the forest dwellers are subsistence farmers practicing an integrated mixture of arable farming and livestock rearing backed intricately by the forests. Main crops cultivated are cereals such as rice and wheat, the former being the staple and the preferred food in many parts of the country. Other crops include fruits, vegetables and oilseeds. Livestock include cattle, pigs, poultry, and horses and in the higher areas yaks (Tshering 2003).

Five categories of land holding for agricultural purposes exist namely, chuzhing (wetland), kamzhing (dryland), tseri (fallow land), pangshing (pasture land) and tsesa (kitchen garden). Thanks to the small population and the relatively later entry into the development sphere, most people in Bhutan own some amount of land. The Government has stringent rules on maintaining this status quo with a policy of land ceiling of 25 acres or 10 ha for any household. The households with less than 5 acres of land are also not allowed sell their land. As such forest dwellers should in principle own at least own some land and those who owned less than 5 acres in the past should still own the same amount of land. Chuzhing, till recently, was the most sought after land type with rice as a preferred staple crop of most Bhutanese people. However, now with the ability to grow more crops for cash income and the availability of imported rice from neighbouring countries like India and Thailand, there is a huge trend of land conversion towards dryland, one that is of major concern for the Ministry of Agriculture's mission of food self-sufficiency.

Forests constitute an essential support for the local people's economic activities: for agriculture, composts, farm implements, bedding materials and fodder for livestock; as only and never ending source of wood energy for cooking and water and space heating; and as a source of local enterprise of generating income through activities such as collection and sale of wild edibles, manufacture of handicrafts, etc.

Five categories of livelihood sources are important for these people: agricultural crop production, livestock production, forest products, on-farm tree products and non-agricultural activities. Agricultural crop production is the predominant source of livelihood. Paddy and maize are the major staple crops. Other crops grown include wheat, barley, potatoes, vegetables etc. Livestock kept are mainly cattle and horses, poultry and some goats. Non-agricultural activities contributing to household income include off-farm wage labour, petty business such as trading and retailing, and porter charges (for both tourist and government officials). On-farm trees are grown for the major tree products including fodder, firewood, fruits and nuts, and timber.

Property ownership in rural areas is mostly determined by inheritance (RGOB 2001b). In the western and eastern parts of the country, daughters usually took care of the parents and inherited parental property. Parental property of the household such as land, ancestral houses etc. are as such usually registered under the women's name. Decisions with regard to land are made by women and men are married into the family of the wives and cultivate land belonging to the women. Property ownership and inheritance in the southern parts of the country are however different. Sons inherit property and take care of the parents while daughters are wedded and sent to the in-laws home. Most of the household decisions relating to productive task are mainly taken by men and so explains men being the main decision maker in labour related matters (Tshering 2003).


Five different types of forest management systems exist in Bhutan. Selective clear cutting system where individual tree and group selection for harvesting and regeneration forms the core of the system. Most Forest Management Units (FMU) are managed following this system of management especially in areas serving the local use functions. Clear cutting systems include large scale, strip and wedge, and shelter wood clear cutting. Large-scale clear cutting system is not practiced in Bhutan for a variety of reasons, among the chief ones being also the inaccessibility of large areas. Strip clear-cut systems are amenable to cable crane logging which are predominantly practiced and as such is the most preferred clear-cut management system. Agroforestry systems include both forest and farm intercropping systems. Forest intercropping systems is mainly "tseri" or shifting cultivation and farm intercropping comprise of growing trees on-farm boundaries, or deliberate intercropping with certain crops. Social forestry systems include community forest, community plantations and private forest.

Lots of other systems exist in the last two categories, which are not readily recognized. The majority of forests in Bhutan are state owned although with the advent of social forestry programmes, private and communal ownership of forests in terms of private forestry and community forestry are emerging.


Involvement of local people in natural resource management or specifically management of forests started in Bhutan in 1979, when His Majesty the King, recognizing the importance of community involvement in the protection and management of forest resources, commanded the Department of Forestry to prepare a scheme to involve the local people in planting of trees in their own private land or village lands (SFES 1996).

The Department of Forestry then initiated a series of social forestry activities across the country. In 1993, following a National Workshop on Social Forestry and Forestry Extension held in Lingmethang, Eastern Bhutan in 1992 (RGOB 1993), community forestry and private forestry were recommended for implementation. Thus private forestry and community forestry schemes today constitute the social forestry programme as the main operational focus of the national-level forestry extension programme (Desmond 1996). Subsequently, the Forest and Nature Conservation (FNC) Act of 1995 contained the legal basis for policies and regulations providing tenure on common forest resources to local user groups. The FNC Act 1995, included a chapter on community forestry and defined community forestry as 'any area of Government Reserved Forest designated for management by a local community in accordance with the rules issued under this act (Wangchuk 1998). The provisions of the act beside other things allowed the Ministry of Agriculture to make rules for the establishment of community forestry on Government reserved land (RGOB 1995). The Social Forestry Rules, 2000 were approved by the National Assembly in the summer of 2000, which defines rules for private and community forestry activities by the people.

The goals of the social forestry programme in Bhutan are as follows (from FSD 1996, quoted by Bodt 2002):

These goals have been largely derived from the following objectives:

The sequence of events and the goals and objectives of the social forestry programme outlined above clearly indicates the Government's commitment to involve the people in the management of natural resources. The main assumption of such a move has been that if the forests are owned and managed by the users, the sustainability of the resource would improve (Wangchuk 1998). Twenty three community forests (15 community plantations and eight natural forest and plantations) have been handed over to the communities. Although the Dzongkhag Forest Offices are receiving a lot of requests for private forests, approval has been hindered so far due to the on-going cadastral survey, which has not finalized its results yet (Kinley, pers. comm 2003).

This commitment of the Government in involving the people in managing the natural resources is also reflected in the major emphasis and interest the Government has shown in development of a framework for Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM). The CBNRM framework promotes understanding and importance and scope for CBNRM in Bhutan and suggest strategies for accelerating the translation of CBNRM objectives and policies into practice. Consequently a National CBNRM workshop held in February 2003 identified as possible action research projects such as community forestry, non-wood forest products, pasture, forest grazing and watershed management (RGOB 2003) whereby local communities would be involved in the management of natural resources. The action research projects identified will be operationalised in 2003.

Besides, the Integrated Conservation Development Programme (ICDP) of the various national parks under the Department of Forests and those implemented by the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) has within them elements emphasizing on the enlisting of the local people for the management of natural resources. Smaller projects by the United Nations Development Programme working directly with the grassroots stakeholders also address the issue of involving communities.


Constraints for poverty alleviation of forest dwellers are many and vary according the kind of poverty one is dealing with. For instance, one clear constraint of poverty alleviation, particularly with regard to the 'poverty of income' is the fact that most of the forest dwellers are far-flung and remote with no or very little access to markets and income generating enterprises.

Lack of employment opportunities for these people, especially during the off-season is also a constraint. Majority of the rural people depend on off-farm employment during the lean seasons to offset their shortages. Moreover for some of these people, off-farm employment is the only source of cash income, very much necessary for buy the necessities of their daily life.

The size of the households also plays a paramount role in contributing towards the poverty of forest dwellers. More often than not, health advocacies on advantages of small families and family planning do not reach these people. Families average 10-15 for most of these households. With limited resource to fall back on and lack of employment opportunities, these households self-drag themselves into the poverty trap.

Education has been recognized as the key for children of the poor families to break out of the cycle of poverty. However not all of the children of the poor can benefit from education for various reasons. Their villages are so far away from the nearest school. Although education is free in Bhutan, there are still some expenses that need to be incurred for instance buying school dress or stationery, etc., some poor parents cannot afford to meet these expenses; because activities of individual household member brings home so little, all members have to contribute, thus keeping children away from school.

Specifically related to forestry, local appropriation of forest products are hindered because forest and forest products belong to the state. When required rural people need to go through lengthy processes of applying for permits which entailing long and repeated travels out of their villages. This means high transaction cost for them and consequently the opportunity of forest and forest products to contribute towards generating income is limited. Further penetration of market and commercial forces (often much bigger and powerful than the local population) into the forest and the helplessness of the local people to protect their forest has lead to degradation of the forest in terms of their quality - crucial products such as bamboo which have huge scope for generating income for the rural people, particularly the poor who are more often employed in this than the rich, are exhausted for commercial large scale exploitation (cf. Tshering 2001).


There are several factors at different levels that offer opportunities for forests to play a role in poverty reduction. Devolution of powers for local development through decentralization whereby from the ninth five year plan (2003 - 2007) gups are entrusted with full executive and financial powers for planning and implementing development in their geogs. Much of the guiding principles for such a move are already in place. Most developmental works are now decentralized with power for decision-making on these activities vested with the local leaders and organizations such as the gup and the Geog Yargye Tshogchung (GYT). The GYT is also allowed to retain taxes collected for their geogs. This is encouraging as forest and forest based rents can accrue to the local people particularly to the poor although proper monitoring and evaluation is a must so that these benefits do not get captured fully by the local elites.

The policy and legal frameworks are also encouraging for community forestry and small scale tree growing by farmers as private forestry. This can greatly increase the local access to forest resources and management of natural forests. However, long chains of bureaucratic hurdles and lack of connections especially for the poor becomes a deterrent. Besides there is still a lot of confusion regarding the social forestry rules even among the professional foresters due to a slow and reluctant institutional change in the national forest agencies. A proactive role from the policy to break this caution and further the community forestry programme is crucial. Private forestry and community forests have a lot to offer to the rural poor especially with the growing demand for timber and wood products within the country.

Small scale wood-based industries can offer poor people some form of off-farm employment which can generate the much needed cash income for the resource strapped rural poor. This is particularly because the poor owns less land and as such have more time to work off-farm.

Forestry rules at present subsidize non-timber forest product appropriation by the rural people. There is a growing demand for non-timber forest products both within and outside the country. Rural poor people can earn cash income through sale of non-timber products such as bamboo mats and baskets. The poor are very often more likely to be engaged in such activities and as such facilitating manufacture and sale of these products are no doubt pro-poor.

Forest-based tourism, payments for off-site ecological functions, carbon storage and sequestration etc. offer promising future prospects for local people to tap by involving in tree growing and forest management through community forestry and private forestry.


The recognition that forestry sector needs to deliver goods and services not only for the national development but should also concentrate on the needs of the marginalized poor forest dwellers should be explicitly spelt in research statements and objectives. Research should be targeted to the farmer level so that research can address the needs of the poor. Current forest research at best remains irrelevant to the poor people. Attempts to incorporate the needs of the poor in conducting topical research would go a long way in the poverty alleviation effort in the country. Research into understanding the interactions between the rural people and the forests should be emphasized and involvement of the local people in forest management should be promoted and advocated backed with empirical and scientific proof. Research should work together with other stakeholders to influence policy decisions that support poverty and forestry inter-linkages. Constant review and conduct of forestry research to generate information that would enable policy makers make informed decisions should be done by research managers. Possible topics for research that would aim to do this include people's perceptions about forest resources, indigenous knowledge systems, indigenous institutions, etc. It is the poor who depend mostly have and depend on indigenous knowledge systems, promotion of this would get the poor to participate and benefit from research (Tshering 2003).

Research areas and topics for forest and poverty put forward by CIFOR (Table 5) are also relevant for Bhutan although priority accorded to each topic may be different.

There is a general lack of clarity on the contribution that forests make towards poverty alleviation due mostly to lack of proper forest valuation methods and lack of base line data. Forestry research should put forward convincing statements regarding the magnitude of forest contribution. Globalization and other emerging trends could bring in immense benefits for the poor. For instance farmers could trade carbon credits with companies for trees grown in private forestry or community forestry. Research and extension should explore and help farmers forge such links.

Table 5. List of poverty related forest research areas and topics relevant to Bhutan

Research area



Status in Bhutan

1. Exploring the present pro-poor role of forest


Forest products (subsistence and income in household livelihood strategies.


Number of completed research projects


Small scale wood based processing enterprises


Few anecdotal studies


Economy wide benefits of forest based rents


Currently debate on green accounting


On-site ecological services from forests and trees


Few watershed studies

2. Emerging market trends and opportunities


Globalization, trade liberalization and markets




Small holder tree planting and private sector partnerships




Payments for environmental services


Debate on-going

3. Cross-cutting institutional and extra- sectoral issues


Local resource control and land tenure


Few studies conducted


Decentralization, governance and market deregulation


Anecdotal evidences as part of other studies


Integrating forest into macroeconomic and poverty strategies


Advocacy by donor agenciese.g. UNDP.

Source: Adapted from Angelsen and Wunder (2003).

However research is very often determined by the interest of a number of stakeholders viz. research funding organization, national agencies etc. and unless these organizations actively and proactively put poverty alleviation on their agenda for research, research described in the earlier paragraphs and Table 5 would not be possible. Further national forestry programmes should take full stock of the importance of incorporating poverty alleviation strategies in forestry plans and policies. Policy plays an important role in any developmental effort. An enabling policy framework goes a long way in determining the success of development initiatives. It is important that policy interventions take into account priorities and strategies for poverty alleviation. Policy makers can consider a major shift in strategies in poverty alleviation and forestry to consider the role of forest carefully and critically. Enabling policies can activate local confidence and incorporate local community participation in forest management through community forestry, private forestry and other forms of partnership.

International organizations such as the UNDP and other donors can help in building the capacity of the local forest research and planning units to conduct poverty related research and help plan forestry programmes to focus on poverty alleviation. Empowerment of the rural poor through capacity building and advocacy can also help in giving them a voice and proper 'lobby weight' for negotiating access and rights with the government forestry agencies.

Training institutes such as the Natural Resources Training Institue (NRTI) should consider modifying the curriculum to include syllabus on the role that forests play in poverty alleviation strategies.

All in all, a well thought out plan of action incorporating the broader interest of national development, forest conservation and poverty alleviation through the involvement of all relevant stakeholders and working on these plans together would make the role of forests in poverty alleviation more meaningful, well received and effectively implemented.


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[32] Rnewable National Resource Research Centre, Bajo, Wangdue, Bhutan.; E-mail: [email protected]

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