Government hears out Highlanders in first meeting of its type in Thimphu

More than 353 members of the country’s highland community spread across 11 dzongkhags were in the capital this week to discuss with the government   their development priorities and challenges and be updated on existing legislation on conservation and development programmes.

The participants aged between 18 and 83 years, depicting a good succession to the highland farming system, asked the government to upgrade schools and basic health units, enforce stringent laws for Cordyceps collection and also discussed about dairy equipment, farm roads and solar lights during the consultative workshop organised by the agriculture ministry on October 18.

During the discussion Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay said the people living in the northern frontiers have a crucial responsibility in securing the borders. “We appreciate and thank you for taking care of the security of the nation in the borders,” he said adding that the meeting should deliberate on the long-term programme to develop livelihoods, promote local culture and security.

Lyonchhen highlighted that the highlands of Bhutan are bestowed with rich biodiversity and home to four national parks, two wildlife sanctuaries and the country’s only nature reserve. Thus, it hosts majority of the country’s protected areas and many globally endangered flora and fauna. Some of the rare faunal species seen in the highlands of Bhutan are Tiger, Snow leopard, Takin, Blue sheep, Tibetan wolf and several species of birds. Almost all of the country’s river systems originate from the highlands.

The highlanders said that many community members have already left the mountains for better economic opportunities in the warmer valleys. Some are still living in the highlands because they have received support from government, otherwise they would have also disappeared a long time ago. “We rely on livestock,” they said.

Lhaba from Laya, said students from Laya are not able to perform as well as other students when they go to study in other schools. “Most of teachers in Laya are fresh graduates from teaching colleges so we need some experienced teachers,” he said.

A boarding hostel at the Gewog School was another priority raised. “When parents move around with livestock, children are left behind which directly hamper their studies and health,” Sakteng gup Sangay Dorji said.

The director general of school education department, Karma Tshering, said schools in the highlands will always be a priority. He said talks are underway in the ministry to upgrade schools in the highlands and it could come through in the next plan. “Like other central schools, 16 schools in the highlands will receive all facilities,” he said, “The ministry would also offer Non Formal Education programmes whenever necessary.”

Sakteng gup Sangay Dorji also said that there is an urgent need to upgrade the BHU (basic health unit) II to a grade I BHU for the highlanders of Merak and Sakteng. “Pregnant women on the way to the dzongkhag hospital in Trashigang end up giving birth on the way because it is so many hours away,” he said.

A representative of the public health department said health service coverage is 95 percent and the remaining five percent is in the highlands. “The 12th plan will attempt to cover them all,” he said. “The ministry will discuss other issues related to heath service and direct the dzongkhags.”

Highlanders also sought permission to kill wolves that prey on their yaks in a pack. “If the government could allow us to kill them it will help, otherwise our livestock will suffer every year,” Phub Tashi said.

Another highlander said that there is a need for more stringent laws to punish those who harvest Cordyceps illegally. Some said that the government provided milk-churning machines were heavy and could not transported easily when they migrate. Likewise, a highlander from Haa said that the solar light equipment was very helpful but lasted for a week.

Agriculture minister Yeshi Dorji said the ministry would review the assistance provided and supply better things in future. “While the ministry is focused on preserving the environment, it continues to support the communities through numerous measures,” he said.

The livestock department has distributed more than 700 milk-churners, 321 butter-making units, 22 milk cans, 100 tents, 221 units of solar power, 186 zholaay (seed bull), 225 sheep and power tiller to each of the 29 highland gewogs in 11 dzongkhangs. Likewise, the ministry also established 29 farm shops and distributed more than 100 units of poly house.

The huge highland livestock population of these areas puts Bhutan in third position globally and is supported by 1.3 million acres of Tsamdro or pastureland.

The most amazing aspect of the highlands of Bhutan is the harmonious co-existence of Transhumant Yak herding system and protected areas. As of today there are 1,157 yak-herding households with 40,438 yaks in 11 dzongkhags. The yak is the primary sources of livelihood to the highlanders and the rich and unique culture of these highlands upholds the identity of the nation. “The yak population remained almost constant over the last decade. However, the number of yak herders has decreased mainly due to access to other livelihood opportunities in lowlands,” the minister said.

In recent years Cordyceps has become a major source of income. There are about 3,433 collectors from 17 gewogs spread across seven dzongkhags. Annual average income from Cordyceps was about 145 million from 2004 to 2015. The community also generates subsidiary income from porter services to tourists.

The highlands have much potential for sustainable income and livelihoods with its popular trekking routes across northern region, which offer potential for eco-tourism development. The richness of bio-diversity also offers opportunity for bio prospecting especially on medicinal plants and herbs. “Considering the richness, socio-cultural, economic and environment importance of highland, Highland Development is proposed as one of the “Flagship Programs” in the 12th FYP,” the minister said.

Various stakeholders from the Gross National Happiness Commission Secretariat, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, National Land Commission and Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs also attended the workshop.

His Majesty The King granted an audience to the participants in the afternoon.

Of all the issues discussed, the highlanders go back home with clear information about the nationalisation and leasing processes of Tsamdro, which has remained vague since the nationalisation process started in 2014.

On the sidelines of the workshop, the highlanders received free health checkups and offered Ku-sung-Thug Mendrel to His Holiness the Je Khenpo at Kuensel Phodrang.

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