NC’s Proposal Brings Mines Under The Scanner

The National Council (NC) that has again taken up the issue of mining and natural resources conservation has passed three recommendations with regards to the sector’s activities and future direction during its session on Thursday

Councilor Jigme Rinzin, chairperson of the council’s natural resources and environment committee said that it would recommend the impact, cost, benefits, and other related issues pertaining to the mining sector to the government.

The first recommendation is to form an ad hoc body in the NC for conducting a comprehensive cost benefit analysis of mining and quarrying, with special focus on its social, economic and environmental impacts.

The second recommendation states that the government must refrain from issuing both mining and quarrying licenses to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) companies until the Council had completed studying the sector.

It was learnt that a French company, Lafarge, had shown interest to tie up with a local mining company two years ago, but approval was not issued by the DGM since it was waiting for the mining and mineral policy to be adopted.

This is a deviation from the 10th session’s resolution, which recommended the government to freeze all kinds of licenses until all eight recommendations resolved in the 10th session were implemented.

While the remaining six recommendations resolved during the 10th session are being implemented, it has not been reflected this time.

The last recommendation was that the Royal Audit Authority (RAA) will conduct a performance audit report on the system of taxation in the mining sector. Many concerns were expressed that the mine and quarry owners were not paying correct taxes to the government.

A report was also prepared by the house on the socio economic and environmental assessment of mining and quarrying activities in the country, which was published in February this year.

The report includes issues and concerns of understatement of income, non-declaration of full sales proceeds, and discrepancies in the taxation system of captive mine owners.

The mining sector on an average contributes NU 200mn to the government as revenue.

The top five tax contributors from the private sector were all mining industries which included Jigme Mining Company Ltd, Eastern Bhutan Ferro Silicon Pvt. Ltd, SD Eastern Bhutan Coal Company Ltd, Druk Satair Corporation and Jigme Industries.

They contributed a total revenue of NU 227mn as taxes.

On the legality of imposing restrictions on mining activities by the Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) within their geographical jurisdiction, it is found that there is no conflict in the legal interpretation of the provisions of the Minerals Management Act 1995 and Local Government Act of Kingdom of Bhutan 2009.

In fact, the two are found to be supplementing and complementing each other. While the Dzongkhag Tshogdu has the authority to issue or deny environmental clearance in consultation with public, it has no authority to impose blanket restriction on mining activities within their geographical jurisdiction.

The authority to issue licenses rested only with the ministry.

While the DGM has the authority to issue mining license, it can do so only after environmental clearance is issued by the Dzongkhag Tshogdu.

The NC resolved that mineral resources are state properties and must be used in the most careful manner for the benefit of the country and people for all times to come.

It has called for a comprehensive study of the sector for making any subsequent decisions on the future direction of mining and quarrying activities in the country.


Bird Diversity And Distribution Survey To Begin In November

Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) will conduct a training which will focus on surveying bird diversity and distribution in the Himalayas around Yongkola, Mongar in November.

The training will emphasize study design, field data collection, statistical analyses and interpretation, and effective communication of results.

Explaining the reason why the training will take place in Yongkola, a researcher with UWICE, Sherub said it was because the place was rich in bird diversity and it was also considered best bird watching place for the tourists.

“It is for the first time such training is being organized on the field to document bird biodiversity and around this time (November) congregation of birds, they would by this time of month have moved down,” Sherub said.

“It’s a long time training process and there will be series of such events on different themes and next it will be on plants and the participants will be in-service from the department of forest. We will be taking about 20 participants who will be given DSA,” he added.

Further, Sherub also mentioned that in the long run, such trainings will be connected to climate change by studying the habitat of the birds and such trainings will be conducted repeatedly. He added, “If we do the data collection over many years, we will be able to detect change in bird species diversity, their population trend and then connect to climate change scenario and able to infer habitat change and threat.”

This training series will teach theoretical and practical approaches to monitoring biodiversity in terrestrial and aquatic habitats of mountain ecosystems. Field practical will focus on bird identification, mist netting, occupancy surveys, point counts, and distance sampling.

The 12-day practical training on biodiversity monitoring relevant to mountain ecosystems, will impart knowledge and experience for implementing scientifically credible monitoring programs in the Himalayan region.

Participants will be able to design and implement surveys for measuring bird biodiversity and species distribution by the end of the training.

The training on Measuring and Monitoring Mountain Biodiversity (M3B) will be conducted by Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, Lamai Goempa, Bumthang and will begin on November 18.

Records say that there are about 688 different kinds of bird species in Bhutan while the foreign experts estimate the number to be about 770 birds based on the regional bird diversities.

The 12-days training will be funded by the government.

A Threat To The Survival Of White-Bellied Herons In Bhutan

While Bhutan plays a pioneering role to protect the critically endangered White-bellied heron, an endangered bird species across the world, with the establishment of the Punatshangchhu hydro project, ornithologists from Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) say the habitat of this species has been affected.

RSPN’s ornithologist Rebecca Pradhan said birds have started to vanish from the place where they were spotted before, and the ever growing population along the Punatshangchhu each year has led to disturbance of the birds’ habitat.

The total number birds have now dropped to around 22.

Attacks on birds and their eggs by predators is a major threat as well. The pressure on the birds has further risen with the lack of scientific approach and lack of awareness among the local communities. Heron habitat could also be defragmented with pro-developmental activities such as, hydropower generation and road creation.

Forest fire was another factor affecting the habitat of the birds, though not on a major scale.

Rebecca Pradhan said back In April 2013, the nest in Bertichu was found destroyed and one of the birds was found dead. Though the cause of the death is not yet confirmed, but she said the bird might have been killed due to a landslide or due to natural predation.

Though hydropower construction may not be the single cause for the decline in the White-bellied heron population, but it can partly be attributed to such development, as the bird is highly vulnerable to disturbance (tolerance distance to human disturbance is estimated to 200 metres). The Punatsangchhu basin is the largest habitat for the White-bellied heron in Bhutan, and therefore, the survival of this bird will depend on how safe the basin is for them to feed, roost and breed.

While in the second nest at Burichu, the chicks could not be hatched till the end of June 2013. The reports in the past have indicated that the chicks normally hatched in April and by July they fledge out of nest. The reasons for the unsuccessful hatching were not known.

The other reason affecting the habitat of the birds is the disturbances caused by bird watchers, mostly by conservationist and visitors who kept visiting the area on regular basis to take photographs and monitor the nesting site.

The White-bellied herons were first spotted in 2003 along the Punatshangchu basin after which RSPN started monitoring them, although Rebecca Pradhan had personally started the monitoring of the birds back in 1991.

With just about 20 to 22 birds remaining of this species in their natural habitat, RSPN has initiated study on its ecology and breeding behavior, the rapid pace of development activities calls for immediate interventions that could provide quicker options for the survival of the bird species.

Measures are being taken by RSPN to save the birds, such as captive breeding funded by Punatshang chhu project 1 to increase the population of the birds.

“If there is no disturbance in their habitat then the chances of their survival and increase in the population can be increased,” Rebecca Pradhan said.

With roughly 200 White-bellied herons (Ardea Insignis) in the world today, herons are among the 50 rarest bird species on earth. Herons mostly dwell in Southeast Asian countries, and presumably Bhutan shelters a little over 30 herons in the nation.

In Bhutan, eight nesting sites have been identified amongst lofty flowing waters with pebbly substrates and Chirpine forests. Another characteristic feature of the White-bellied herons is their unique courtship system which begins in the winter from January to February as the river water recedes.

NC Holds Major Discussion On Mining: No New Leases Till Impacts Are Assessed

The National Council discussed the follow-up report on the Impact Assessment of mining activities during its session on September 12.

The discussion on the issue was divided into three parts: recapitulation of the 10th session resolutions, implementation status of the recommendations and recommendations from the Natural Resources and Environment Committee (NREC).

The 10th and the last session of the NC of the first Parliament had deliberated at length on the Impact Assessment of mining activities in the country, whereby eight- recommendations were made.

It had primarily called upon the government to undertake geological mapping of the country before embarking on further mining and quarrying activities; define clear responsibility for the concerned authorities; revisit the existing policies and see whether the mines and quarries are being operated as per the provisions of the law.

The Upper House also discussed the cost benefit analysis and socio-economic and environmental impacts of mining and quarrying, reviewing the effectiveness of environmental restoration measures currently under practice and ensuring mining and quarry companies file annual tax return properly.

The recommendations also states that with increasing developmental activities, there should also be adequate measures for conservation of natural resources, following the middle-path strategy.

And finally, it asked the government to freeze issuing new licenses till all the concerns outlined above are resolved.

Under direction of the NC to the NREC to follow-up on the implementation status of these recommendations as resolved in the 10th session, the latter had initiated follow-up activities with relevant ministries and agencies.

After presenting the review reports, the NREC submitted the recommendations to the House for further recommends and amendments. After a long deliberation the House resolved to revisit the fresh recommendations in consultation with the Legislative Committee and other interested members.

The House will re-deliberate on the recommendations on 19 September 2013.

NREC also shared the earnings reported by Department of Revenue and customs under the CIT/BIT category by the mining and quarry companies for the past three years. In 2010, CIT/BIT generated was 148.63mn, in 2011 it was 163.15mn while last year it increased to 169.59mn.

NREC submitted the review reports on the legality of banning mining activities by local governments (LG) within their geographical jurisdiction and report on the follow-up on impact assessment of mining activities.

The issue on the legality of banning mining activities by the LGs in certain areas in Samtse was raised by the Samtse NC, Sangay Khandu.

Later in the afternoon, the House conducted its first Question Hour session of the Second Parliament with the minister of agriculture and forest, Yeshi Dorji.

During the Question Hour, the House asked questions on human-wildlife conflicts and leasing/reinstating of sokshing and tsamdro rights to the people.

The minister submitted that the questions require extensive research and holistic considerations by all the stakeholders. However, he assured the house that the ministry will submit more comprehensive answers during the next session.

The deliberation on the review report on Changjiji Towa Theatre and Performance audit of Constituency Development Grant (CDG) will continue on 17 September 2013.

Shingkhar-Gorgan Debate Still On

The 67 kilometer Shingkhar -Gorgan highway construction that runs through a core tiger habitat at Thrumshingla Park, which is said to have been stranded because the previous government faced a budget shortage, is now underway.

The agriculture and forests ministry’s minister Yeshey Dorji said for the last ten years there was no record of tiger being seen in the park.

“I have been in that forest since my childhood, saw tigers, and even heard roaring of tigers during the mating seasons, but in the last years people said they did not see tigers which was also highlighted in the report,” Lyonpo said.

Lyonpo said he is not the only one vouching for the highway as people of both Trashiyangtse and Lhuentse need the road.

“The people of Trashiyangtse and Lhuentse have discussed the issue during the DYT meeting and will be writing to the government on the need of the road,” he added.

Besides those concerns, the minister also said the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway was the initiative of the previous government and the present government was just continuing the work.

He said the highway would not only benefit Lhuentse and Trashiyangtse, but the entire six eastern dzongkhags.

If constructed, the road, which would cost government about Nu 890mn is expected to reduce distance by 100km from Shingkhar, Ura (Bumthang) and Gorgan in Lhuentse.  The journey to Mongar decreases by 30km.

The former Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley when met by President of Bhutan Ecological Society, Dasho Paljor J Dorji, Executive Director of RSPN Dr Lam Dorji and WWF country representative Kinzang Namgay, after a joint petition was submitted to the Prime Minister  on August 19, 2011 had said there is still  not enough evidence that the tiger population will actually decrease or its core habitat will be disturbed because of the road, but there is enough evidence that if this road is not built, people of Lhuentse will sink deeper and deeper into poverty, and the eight gewogs of Lhuentse which are well below the poverty line, some going as high as 50 percent.

The petition expressed environmental concerns over the proposed road, where about 36km will pass through the Thrumshingla National Park, a core habitat for the Royal Bengal tigers.

The completion of the construction could take about four years as per the department of roads.

However, conservationists have mentioned it would be in violation to the Nature and Forest Conservation Rule, 2006, which does not permit any kind of construction within the core area.

Dasho Paljor said, “To have highway is a luxury and waste of money too. The money which is being invested on highway could rather be used in some other important work or developments.”

“How many people in Lhuentse will use this highway, how many people in Lhuentse own vehicles?” questioned Dasho Paljor.

Dasho also said there are many other things to be considered rather than Shigkhar-Gorgan highway. He mentioned that having a road is not the problem, but his concern is in regards to constructing the road in a core zone would undermine Bhutan’s environmental image where the road will pass through the Thrumshingla National Park.

The agriculture minister acknowledged that there might be negative impact, but one have to look at the larger picture and there is need to revisit the national law on the conversation.

Forest fires a major threat to Bhutan’s biodiversity

Despite stern legislation and public awareness programmes in place to
curb forest fires, still the problem persists as it tops the list of threats
to the country’s forest coverage. Forest fires are a major environmental
problem in Bhutan.
There were 36 incidences of forest fires in 2010 alone which burned up more
than 9162.81 acres of natural forests in the country.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) said the main causes of the
fires are burning of agricultural debris by farmers who do not follow the proper
procedures and guidelines.
Tandin Dorji from the forest fires management section of MoAF said farmers
do not have the proper equipment to battle forest fires. “They do not monitor
the debris burning and leave as it is, unattended and they do not suppress the
fire at the end properly and while there is wind blowing the fire is carried away
to the nearby places causing forest fires,” he explained.
The second most common cause of forest fire is due to children playing with
fire near the forest areas. The short circuiting of electric wires is also another
cause of forest fires in Bhutan.
Explaining about short circuits, Tandin Dorji said, “When an electric pole is
being step up, the electrician is supposed to clear the line corridor up to 6 meters
or else till 9 meters if possible. We had an understanding with the Bhutan Power
Corporation (BPC) that they would clear the line corridor to avoid forest fires,
but in many cases it is not happening.”
Mass awareness campaigns have been conducted on how to safely burn the
agricultural debris before the onset of the fire season.
Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang, Lhuentse, Trashigang, and
Bumthang are the districts in the country which are prone to forest fires.
The forest fire management strategy developed by the department of forests
and park services has incorporated both the beneficial as well as the harmful
effects of forest fires to the ecosystem, and the use of fire as an important land
management tool and recommended community based management of fire by
involving the local communities, volunteers, and religious leaders.
It is hoped that this innovative strategy of incorporating all possible tactical
options would be useful in managing forest fires in the country so that the
valuable forests, lives and properties of the people, important ecosystems are
protected as well as the communities can still have the opportunity to use fire
for their land management activities in the rural areas.
With the implementation of the strategies, the department would be able to
reduce the number of forest fires in the country and save many acres of valuable
forests in future.
Between 2010 and 2011, a total of 49 incidences were recorded with 10,139
acres of forest area consumed by fire.

Forest fire recorded in nine years
Year No. of Incidence Areas burn
2001 64 14644.16
2002 46 5425.99
2003 40 2711.21
2004 67 7965.51
2005 37 19580.683
2006 47 56280.747
2007 45 9617.17
2008 70 4501.33
2009 49 9162.81

The Environmental Impact Of The Cordyceps Business

The living standard of the country’s highlanders has improved through Cordyceps business every year, but it comes at a high cost, both social and environmental, a survey conducted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) revealed.

Despite the stringent monitoring in place with strict rules and regulations, officials from the agriculture department agree that there is high pressure on environment.

Director of the department of agriculture and marketing cooperatives (DAMC) Dorji Dhradhul said, “It is a serious concern for us and also for the ministry, but it is not possible to monitor with foresters in the field outnumbered by collectors.”

“We are trying to create awareness through educational program, but only a few seem to be convinced. If the issue gets serious then the ministry might have to revisit the rules and regulations like reducing the number, from three collectors from each household to one, in order to have less impact on the environment. Less collectors mean less impact,” the director added.

This problem is further compounded by growing problems of littering and it is felt that, if not unregulated and unmonitored, the impact from the collection of this highly priced fungus while helping improve livelihood will leave some of the last pristine alpine ecosystems of this planet transformed for the worse.

Every year, from mid May to mid June, the collection season for the Cordyceps begins in the high alpine environment and the extend of environment degradation was categorized in four which were degrading shrub lands, littered landscapes, changing grasslands, and associated forest degradation.

A study by UWICE found that more than 78% of collectors interviewed said that they used Rhododendron and Juniper wood for cooking during the period of Cordyceps collection. The extensive use of slow growing Rhododendron and Juniper wood as fuel also pose a risk of such shrub lands from getting decimated completely.

Fuel wood is scarce in the high altitude collection grounds which are above tree line. With just available wood being Rhododendron, Dwarf Juniper and Willow, which are harvested extensively leading to opening of the areas in the fragile environment. Such openings may accelerate the process of mass wasting, thereby leading to many ecological and environmental hazards.

Studies reveal that it takes nearly 169 years for Rhododendron aeruginosum to attain the base diameter of just 8 centimeters, with an annual increment of only 0.6 millimeter. The slow growth of Rhododendron coupled with huge extraction by the collectors is a big concern. It’s, however, known fact to the collectors.

Some of the collectors The Bhutanese talked to said that it should be made compulsory to stop burning wood and go for kerosene and LPG.

Garbage management is another concern as mostly plastic and bottles wastes are not disposed off properly. Collectors throw garbage either by the side of the stream rocks or underneath the rocks, which might be hazardous to both fresh water biodiversity as well as to the people living downstream.

To address this problem, some collectors have come up with suggestions to have a proper designated disposal site. Some also said that temporary shops at the site should be discouraged.

Changing grasslands was another issue affecting the environment. Cordyceps collection coincides with the time when the young shoots of grass start to grow and with people collecting Cordyceps trampling on the grasses, the grass quality decreases and so does the feed for the yaks.

Digging for Cordyceps at the site is also a concern since it not only disturbs the grassland ecosystem, but may also accelerate soil erosion.

The amount collected from the sale of the Cordyceps has increased the purchasing power of the highlanders. There is a trend of buying power chains in the communities, and this may lead to harvesting of more of timber for construction of house and roofing, and fire wood.

Chencho Dema/Thimphu

Cordyceps Face A Threat Of Extinction

The increased number of the Cordyceps collectors every year poses a threat to the sustainability of the resource.

A survey conducted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment found that the collectors were ignorant about the threat and also seemed least bothered by it.

An official from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) said,” The collectors are living with the notion that Cordyceps has been there before and will continue to be.”

“With such a notion, it could mean either the collectors are not concerned or they are trying not to voice concerns fearing the consequences of government policies banning its harvest in the future,” he added.

Only a few of the collectors have expressed concerns like the need to introduce a system which allows Cordyceps collections on an alternate years’ basis.

A 39-year -old man from Sephu, Wangdue Phodrang said, “Year by year we are not able to collect the amount of Cordyceps which we used to collect in the earlier years. I think government should intervene before the fungus vanish.”

Prior to 2004, harvesting of Cordyceps was allowed only in Lunana, but later on June 17, 2004, a Royal Decree allowed the yak herders stationed in high pastures to collect a limited amount of Cordyceps. There were also various measures in place to restrict the overall harvest which included a ban on collection during the months of Mid May to Mid June.

The policy of allowing only one person from a household was lifted in 2008, allowing three people from a household to engage in collections during the specified season.

Some of the collectors The Bhutanese talked to said illegal harvesting of the Cordyceps by the poachers from across the border is one factor posing as a threat to the sustainability of Cordyceps in Bhutan.

With many of the harvest sites of the Cordyceps being near the porous northern border areas of the Tibetan plateau, people from across the border were reportedly harvesting Cordyceps illegally in Bhutan.

Sighting of such poachers is not a surprise for the local collectors. Despite strict monitoring by the forestry and army officials, the trend seems to continue. In 2008, 13 Tibetan poachers were apprehended.

Cordyceps collection was legalized in 2004, and ever since then, the collectors have earned substantial income from the sale of the valuable and high in demand fungus. Government’s role has been found to be vital, especially in terms of creating awareness for sustainable harvesting practices.

Records with the Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) shows a total of 235.89 kilograms of Cordyceps worth Nu 169.60mn were transacted in seven different auction sites across the country in 2012.

The government earned a total royalty of Nu 1.65mn last year.

The highest price fetched per kilogram of Cordyceps was about Nu 1.2mn from Lunana while the lowest price was fetched from Tshento gewog in Paro which was Nu 51, 000 last year.

A total of 38 buyers were registered with the FCB to participate in the Cordyceps auction in 2012 after depositing Nu 50, 000 as security amount.