Bhutan, a landlocked kingdom secluded in the Himalayas, is now at a crossroads. It needs development, but it also wants to preserve its national heritage. Today, Thimphu, the capital, remains largely untouched by foreign influence. Its architecture is predominantly Bhutanese. National clothes are the standard fashion. There are no fast food outlets or other Western franchise chains. But, with a growing young population desiring a better life, can the country progress without sacrificing centuries of tradition? One answer may lie in promoting the kingdom's organic industry. The Ministry of Agriculture, supported by the UN Development Programme, UNDP, is looking into expanding organic farming. Kesang Tshomo is the Coordinator for the organic program.
Because our country is basically mostly natural, and very little disturbance has been done with our farming ... because our farming area is only about 8 percent of the country, we have still a lot of potential that can be capitalized in [the] organic area.
Bhutan's current largest industry is the export of hydroelectric power. Based mainly on run-of-the-river schemes, it already provides nearly half of the kingdom's revenues. Another industry, tourism, is growing. But the government is not keen to encourage it. More than just economic growth, it wants progress that promotes a holistic development of the people. The concept, advocated by the King, his Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is called "Gross National Happiness." United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bhutan, Renata Dessalien explains.
His fundamental idea was that development has to be about more than gross national product. People are not just economic animals, they are social animals, they're religious animals, they're cultural animals. And the development plan has to cater to all these various dimensions of a person.
Subsistence farmers make up over three quarters of Bhutan's 700,000 population. Their crops are free of pesticides and other chemicals. By raising exports for the world's growing organic market, the government hopes to increase farmers' incomes while allowing them to continue living their traditional lives. In 2003, the Ministry of Agriculture began identifying products for export. The criteria is high value, low volume. One particular mushroom variety fits exceptionally well into this category. Deidre Boyd from UNDP.
The matsutake mushroom actually gains high prices on the international market that outweigh the logistics costs and the transport costs that Bhutan has to bear as a landlocked country.
Known for its high nutritional value, some say it also has special aphrodisiac powers. A single stem of matsutake mushroom can sell for as high as USD$100 or more in Japan and Singapore. In pursuing sustainable development, Bhutan faces many challenges, from raising exports to tackling the complex rules of organic certification. But one of the toughest issues remains the effort to maintain its unique traditions in today's increasingly globalized world. This report was prepared by Patricia Chan for the United Nations.