The Environment
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The Natural Landscapes

There is a certain underlying purity associated with Bhutanese landscapes. Physical panoramas tend to highlight an essential simplicity over the immense diversity contained within. The ascetic whites of high peaks stand out against the blanket of lush greenery. High clouds and shrouding mists float suspended in the mass of fresh clean air flowing lucent with the breeze. The overall natural setting is preserved to a degree that is both unusual and extremely valuable. Large expanses remain wholly undisturbed. Cataloguing respective species only hints at the fact that entire ecological systems remain relatively uncompromised. Such ecosystems harbor a mass of biodiversity that is almost boundless, interacting through extremely complex context specific processes. To appreciate wildlife within its understated natural habitats is often to be aware of its presence without ever making actual contact.

Bhutan's environment is often referred to as 'pristine'. Such labeling, alluding to some immaculate perfection, serves to emphasize the dominance of the natural over the man-made. It may also be misleading in that it neglects a fundamental human dimension that always causes certain disruptions. Human interventions have an inclination to simplify ecology, often affecting its essential multiplicity. In Bhutan only a very minor proportion of land area is currently used for productive pursuits, and the fundamental relationships between the environment and its human inhabitants are currently unassuming and essentially sustainable. There are basically four explanations for this: the area suitable for agricultural production is very limited; industrial resource use is heavily regulated; currently there is not heavy population pressure on fragile marginal lands; and conservation oriented policies limit encroachment.

Bhutan has to date been relatively successful in meeting the imperatives of conservation and sustainable natural resource management. However, although the natural resource base remains largely intact, this cannot be taken for granted. Future pressures on the natural environment will be fueled by a complex array of forces, deriving from both traditional and modern sectors. As a product of both development and underdevelopment, these include population growth, unemployment, agricultural modernization, hydropower and mineral development, industrialization, urbanization, tourism, competition for available land, road construction and the provision of other physical infrastructure associated with social and economic development. The full monetization of the economy is also impacting on traditional land management systems, based on the principles of participation and cooperation.

Localized unsustainable resource pressures are already emerging. In certain vicinities extraction rates for fuel-wood, timber and other forest products are already approaching unsustainable levels. In areas close to population centers an estimated 10% of forest area is degraded as a result of heavy natural resource utilization. The progressive removal of vegetation cover, especially in critical watershed areas, is beginning to affect the hydrological balance, leading to the localized drying up of perennial streams and flash flooding. The determination of the inevitable trade-offs required will be of fundamental importance to the achievement of an acceptable degree of sustainability in the future. The pressures will certainly increase, and these increases will occur in some of the most fragile ecosystems to be found anywhere in the world.

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