Yale Himalaya Initiative

environment | livelihood | culture

Graduate student panel: Illegal timber extraction, creation of national forest inventory, bird conservation, and public health in Bhutan and India

By: Amanda Mei

Representing four different approaches to understanding the coupled human-environment systems of the Himalayas, graduate students Anwesha DuttaYounten Phuntsho, Indra Acharja, and Catherine Schuetze joined the Yale Himalaya Initiative for a panel discussion on November 14. Anwesha Dutta spoke about the political economy of illegal timber extraction in Assam, India. Youngten Phuntsho discussed his work on the national forest inventory of Bhutan. Indra Acharja addressed bird conservation by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature in Bhutan. Lastly, Catherine Schuetze overviewed the One Health policy for human, animal, and environmental health in Bhutan.

Anwesha Dutta: Constellations of Sovereignty and the Political Economy of Illegal Timber Extraction in BTAD, Assam, India

As a visiting research scholar in anthropology at Yale and a final-year doctoral student at Ghent University, Anwesha is focused on the illegal extraction of timber in Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), a territory along the India-Bhutan border. She presented her work on the complex trade relations between the tribal groups Bodo, Adivasi, and Bengali Muslim.

“They literally kill each other,” Anwesha said. “But they cooperate on the illegal timber economy.”

Anwesha discussed how the tribal groups associate with each other in commodity chains, despite tensions between th

e majority Bodo and minority ethnic groups. For example, poorer Bodo and Adivasi tribes fell the trees, predominantly Bodo work in extraction, and Bengali Muslims distribute the timber which is passed to them. With Bodos as the most powerful tribe, commodity chains involving transportation by refurbished bikes, trucks, and river inner tubes, attest to the unequal power dynamics transcending political nuances between the ethnic groups. Anwesha also noted the growing concern of foresters in the region.

Younten Phuntsho: National Forest Inventory of Bhutan — Challenges Faced and Experiences Gained

A mid-career MEM candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Younten Phuntsho shared his work and passion: the national forest inventory in Bhutan. Working for the past seven years in his home country, Younten was involved in four phases of the national inventory. The endeavor was motivated by the country’s commitment to carbon neutrality, high percentage of forest cover (60 percent), and the majority rural population (64 percent).

In 2009, Younten and a small team—only two people in the beginning—began to prepare manuals, and experimental procedures. In 2012, the enumeration phase involved several administrative challenges, including motivating the field staff to work in diverse and challenging, environments. In 2015, the team started to analyze and document roughly 3.5 million data records, with the help of experts such as Professor Timothy Gregoire at Yale who is also a Steering Committee member of Yale Himalaya Initiative. The happiest moment, according to Younten, was launching the inventory report in February 2017.

The way we conducted our [national forest inventory] is being appreciated by many countries in the region,” Younten said. From the audience, Professor Gregoire said, “You did do it right.”

Indra Acharja: The Royal Society for Protection (RSPN) and the Two Birds

Indra Acharja, a Master of Forest Science student at Yale F&ES, discussed his work for the Royal Society for Protection (RSPN) that has been doing conservation work for over 30 years in Bhutan. Indra focused on two species of birds: the black-necked crane and the white-bellied heron. He emphasized the differential challenges of conservation work on the critically-endangered species, and especially challenges related to local engagement.

Indra said the white-bellied crane was “at the edge of extinction,” with a confirmed population of only approximately 60 birds. Within 100 years, the bird has become extinct from Nepal, Bangladesh, and most parts of India. Challenges such as dam construction and low literacy rates obstruct efforts to conserve the species. For example, residents negatively associated the introduced bird species with a major flood that occurred in Bhutan. Nevertheless, Indra is hopeful that RSPN can help residents to conserve the species in the future.

Catherine Schuetze: One Health in Bhutan: The Nexus between Animal, Environmental, and Human Health

Hailing from the University of Sydney in Australia, Ph.D. candidate Catherine Schuetze spoke about the public health policy for humans, animals, and the environment in Bhutan. She is a veterinary surgeon and medical anthropologist specializing on Tibetan areas in Bhutan and India. Interested in how Tibetan pastoralists understand the health of their animals, Catherine presented three case studies on the junctures between human, animal, and environmental welfare.

Catherine proposes that the One Health policy in Bhutan, which concerns mostly zoonotic diseases spread, make more provisions for environmental health. In the first case study, she discussed how the Buddhist practices of tshe thar or animal release increases public health risks, such as avian flu spread by chickens released into Bhutan. In the second case study, she considered protests against the country’s growing “mega-farms,” which is “code for slaughterhouse,” according to Catherine. Despite a roughly 30 percent annual increase in meat consumption in Bhutan, many people in the Buddhist kingdom react strongly against animal slaughter in the meat-processing units. In the third case study, Catherine discussed the health of Bhutan’s spiritual landscape. The gods, such as the mountain goddess of livestock Aum Jummo, require annual sacrifices such as mass offerings of yaks. The rituals, involving humans, animals, and the environment, may be studied as one nexus of public health concerns in Bhutan.

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