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Bhutan puts farms before markets
By Tracy Worcester
Producer of Gross National Happiness
Thursday, 18 August 2005

For the last 20 years, beneath the rural idyll so loved by tourists, the educated young of Bhutan have been leaving the land to seek their fortune in town.

Bhutan's government protects its rural idyll with subsidies and tariffs

Many dream of living in London or New York.

Unemployment in towns has been closely followed by addiction and crime.

The illusions of wealth and an easy life shared by the urban pioneers working in commerce have not materialised. Many yearn to return to their roots.

As the villages emptied, so communal work, building vernacular homes, harvesting and terracing steep mountain slopes, suffered, forcing ever more dependence on the cash economy.

If the children failed to get the grades to continue their free education (promising the much sought-after jobs) families sold their land and homes to pay for private schools.

While many low income countries see their destitute farmers as cheap labour to help their industries win the competitive edge in the global economy, Bhutan is different.

Shunned global economy

Inspired by their much-loved King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who believes that compassion must replace competition, the Bhutanese government has shunned the global economy and is protecting the rural economy with subsidies and tariffs.

Bhutan hopes to stem the brain drain of its young to the West

They have reversed their school curriculum's urban bias to produce "educated farmers" and have given grants to increase and diversify crop production and boost traditional crafts.

They have brought electricity and distributed health centres to the very remotest regions. They have devolved power to local councils and are researching Gross National Happiness as a more inclusive measurement of progress than Gross National Product.

Last year 80 scholars from around the world were invited to discuss how Bhutan would operate this revolutionary concept.

Internalised into the price of the product, the want to include the external costs to people and the environment of goods made with virtual slave labour and no environmental standards criss-crossing the globe. Only then will local trade be cheaper than global.


However, with many government ministers graduating in economics from American Universities, the government is discussing increasing their revenue by opening their economy to investment from foreign banks and multinationals.

Despite cries from farmers to increase protection from cheap imported food in their markets, some politicians are even considering joining the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Imported food would mean an uphill struggle for Bhutan's farmers

If they do not remove all barriers to outside investment and trade, the WTO will lock them into binding trade liberalisation rules and impose sanctions on their fledgling industries.

Bhutan is at a cross roads. Either it signs up to the WTO rules that will give foreign multinationals and investors rights over their laws in trade, resources and services or it continues to protect small local producers and rural economies from the vagaries of the global economy.

At a time when governments across the world are grappling with urban slums, hunger, social breakdown and environmental degradation, Bhutan's choice of development pattern could have global significance.

Gross National Happiness will be broadcast on BBC World's Earth Report on the 19th August 2005.



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