Growing forest fires impacting ecology and potential sustainable revenue generation

Reports from the Department of Forest and Park Services show that there is an increasing incidence of forest fires in the country, with 2023 marking the highest number of incidents in the past decade, totaling 83 occurrences. In response, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (MoENR) is implementing a series of initiatives aimed at forest management, conservation, and sustainable revenue generation.

The devastating impact is evident, with approximately 21,575.22 acres of forest land engulfed in flames, threatening biodiversity and habitats crucial for the country’s ecological balance.

 As per the data from 1993–2023, the highest number of occurrence stood at 83 in 2023 where an area of 8731.8 hectares consumed by fire.

An official from the Department of Forestry and Park Services said, “In the 2022 report by UNEP and GRID-Arendal, changes in land use and climate change are exacerbating forest fires and predicting an increase in extreme fires worldwide, including in regions that were previously unaffected. Bhutan should be concerned, in light of the increase in the rate of land use change, and climate anomalies that we have been witnessing recently.”

Despite the increasing forest fire cases the MoENR is exploring innovative solutions to balance conservation imperatives with economic needs. One such proposal involves the sustainable utilization of old forest cover as a potential revenue source.

The officials from the Department of forest and Park services said, “Given the significant amount of timber resources the nation possesses, it is imperative that it be able to significantly contribute to the GDP and national economic transformation initiatives. With Bhutan having a current percentage of 69.71% for forest cover and the country’s 60% land area required by law to be permanently covered by forests, it is possible that surplus timber resources could be extracted in accordance with the principles of sustainable forest management.”

Currently, the Department is exploring extraction of timber through scientific thinning and exporting to generate revenue for the government.

A pilot phase of the scientific thinning initiative, conducted in Thimphu between October and December 2023, exemplifies the government commitment to sustainable forest management.

The official said, “To capitalize on the economic prospects of the substantial forest resources available in our country’s forests, a nationwide scientific thinning initiative has been planned to be implemented with the dual objective of increasing the productive capacity of existing forest stands and producing thinned-volume timber for economic use.”

“This thinning exercise will potentially contribute to the economy with the extraction of about 10 million cubic feet (cft) of timber annually, in addition to the 2.5 million cft of timber harvested annually from the 21 Forest Management Units (FMUs) in the country on a sustainable basis. The pilot phase of the scientific thinning initiative took place in Thimphu Dzongkhag between October and December 2023,” the official added.

Additionally, Bhutan is exploring various avenues for economic diversification within the forestry sector, including the value addition and export of high-value non-timber forest products, promotion of ecotourism and nature-based tourism to capitalize on country’s rich biodiversity, sustainable carbon financing through carbon trading and payment for ecosystem services and research and conservation grants to support biodiversity conservation efforts.

In the midst of increasing forest fire cases, ensuring the preservation of country’s unique biodiversity and mitigating the risk of forest fires requires comprehensive long-term strategies.

Currently, The National Forest Policy of 2011 and the Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan, enacted in 2023, serve as guiding frameworks for forest management. Moreover, the country’s constitutional commitment to maintaining 60 percent forest cover in perpetuity emphasizes the country’s commitment to sustainable forest management.

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