I have just completed a wonderful 23 day visit in your beautiful country, hiking the Laya Gasa trail and visiting many cultural sites. One my reasons for visiting Bhutan is that you value Gross National Happiness above all and seek to only selectively adopt the best of western civilization. Bhutan is also being held up as an example of a developing country that has put environmental conservation and sustainability at the heart of its political agenda.I was therefore deeply disappointed to see that the Bhutanese have adopted one of the worst traits of my western society – littering.
During my Laya Gasa 13 day trek, through your gorgeous Jigme Dorji National Park, I walked past huge amounts of garbage. In Canada, while we have littering challenges in our cities, we are very, very strict about no littering in our national parks. The National Parks of Bhutan are the jewels of your country and deserve better treatment. (Note: I followed my Bhutan trip with a 4 day visit to Hong Kong and during this time, I saw, maybe at most, 20 pieces of paper on the sidewalk and I never saw anyone knowingly throw garbage away. The citizens of Hong Kong, and their many tourists, clearly follow a ” no littering policy”. It can be done!)
Some of the litter I saw in Bhutan was indeed caused by irresponsible tour operators who left garbage and/ or created mess and risk with illegal fires. ( My tour operator, Bhutan Expeditions, had a “camp with no trace” policy). I was also informed that the tour operators band together at the end of the season to do a major garbage pick-up along the more popular hiking trails. While this fall clean-up helps, it still means that tourists hike and camp in garbage during peak season.
Much of the garbage I saw though was not left by tourists and seems to have been left by Bhutanese Yak herders and villagers along this trek. For example, I collected a large bag of empty beer cans and whiskey bottles at the 5015m Sinchey La pass and it is unlikely that any tourist was drinking at this altitude!
And sadly this problem isn’t confined to your national parks. During hikes to Tiger’s Nest and to the Dodedra Monastery, my group picked up large bags of trash on the way down. Such beautiful, spiritual sites deserve better treatment. Interestingly.
There were some places that were remarkably clean and that was due to a special effort by certain groups. For example it was touching to see the sign at the very clean Gasa Hot Springs, issued by their primary school, stating that management of waste was more worthy than lighting a hundred butter lamps. In addition, during our visit to the Lungchuzekha Goemba at Dochu La, the tour operator, Wind Horse, had posted anti-littering signs and garbage cans all along the route and this trail was the cleanest area we saw in 23 days in Bhutan. Clearly with the right message and program, people can be persuaded to stop littering.
In some villages that we trekked through, we saw signs stating that the local school children had adopted the stream running through the village and were committed to keeping it clean. It would be great if these students could also adopt a section of the trek nearby. This might be a wonderful way to keep the trail clean, to build non-littering values in the next generation, and to inspire the adult Bhutanese and tourist population to follow their fine example.
While Canadians are good at keeping their national parks clean, we certainly still have urban littering problems. In my city of Calgary, there is a massive citizen volunteer clean-up of all our city riverbanks on the first weekend in May involving people of all ages. This is slowly bringing about less littering during the rest of the year and young people in particular now think twice about throwing garbage on the ground.
I loved my time in Bhutan and hope to return in 2 years to hike the second half of the Snowman trek. But I do hope to find the country much, much cleaner. Please do not follow the terrible North American example of littering; Bhutan is in a position to ” do things the right way” and your incredibly beautiful country deserves a “no littering” standard.
A concerned tourist and Bhutan admirer,