Can You Guess Which Country Is Winning at Conservation?

Believe it or not, environmental protection is written into the constitution.

Thimpu, Bhutan. (Photo: Richard L'Anson/Getty Images)

Dec 24, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Bhutan’s prime minister has been busy test-driving cars in the mountainous country. Why? The Bhutanese are aiming to convert all government-owned vehicles and taxis to electric cars supplied by companies such as Nissan, Tesla, and Mahindra & Mahindra. Earlier this year, they cemented plans with Nissan to provide a few hundred Nissan Leafs to the Himalayan kingdom.

It’s a natural step for a country whose environmental policy has captured global attention. Bhutan's progressive environmental standards are so impressive, they're becoming discussion points at climate change and environmental events.

National Geographic celebrated Bhutan last month, a country it first featured in the magazine 100 years ago. Back then, British government officer and civil engineer John Claude White wrote about the country in the April 1914 edition of National Geographic, which the magazine said "lifted the veil on a mysterious land hidden in the world's highest mountains." That mysterious land has become less exotic over the years; the Bhutanese royal family opened its doors to visitors in 1974 and introduced television to its people in 1999. The urban development that has followed has the Bhutanese government thinking more deeply about its environmental footprint.

Bhutan is a rarity though, in that environmental preservation is written into its constitution: 60 percent of its forests must be preserved, it states.

In 1977, the World Wildlife Fund worked with Bhutan’s forestry department to safeguard nature, guiding it on how to train forest rangers, set up checkpoints, build roads for patrolling, and mark off preserved lands from the rest of the terrain. Two decades later, the government put a ban on exporting timber altogether. Collecting deadwood is a regulated process, requiring approval. Prime Minister Tobgay explained to the Asian Development Bank that the electricity produced from its hydropower stations—hydropower being the country's largest source of income outside of tourism—is minimizing the need for firewood and consequently keeping the country’s forests intact.

On the agricultural front, Bhutanese officials announced in 2012 that they would go completely organic. Given that many farmers can’t afford pesticides and chemical-based fertilizers, much of the agriculture could already be classified as organic and all-natural. The challenge, more so, is to build a regulatory framework in the country that could certify its farms as organic.

Of course, Bhutan hasn't forgotten about the little things too—it's working to enforce an outlaw on plastic bags.