Waking the watchdog: Needs, opportunities, and challenges of environmental advocacy in modern bhutan

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In a half-century, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has emerged from isolation to achieve international recognition as a model of alternative development. The small country's Gross National Happiness philosophy emphasizes sustainable development, cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and good governance over the long-favored global metric of success: Gross Domestic Product. Bhutan's historic environmental record has been strong, but modernization and the 2008 transition to democracy are changing the ecological and socio-political landscape, requiring the adaptation of conservation strategy. This paper draws on historic and policy analysis, ethnographic observation, and qualitative interviews with 20 of Bhutan's key stakeholders to identify needs, opportunities, and challenges to public environmental advocacy in Bhutan. While Bhutan is often characterized as a static, serene Buddhist kingdom, its recent history has been dynamic, marked by major political change, economic growth, and active cultivation of a specific and uniform national identity. Accelerating ecological degradation due to development, vulnerability to global threats such as climate change, and transformation of the governance system create a need to advocate for creative and effective solutions. The rapid rate of change within Bhutanese society allows unprecedented opportunities for powerful civil society action. Interviews with major environmental figures from government, international organizations, and domestic groups show a common call for new, dynamic actors who can serve as a "watchdog" for the environment. Their tasks include producing scientific research and translating it into policy, mediating effectively between government and citizens in the fledgling democracy, and overcoming traditional cultural deference to publically challenge actions that threaten the environment. Thoughtful, responsible, and public environmental advocacy is both necessary and possible, and holds potential to enhance the environmental and democratic integrity of modern Bhutan.

Original languageEnglish
Article number10
Pages (from-to)57-70
Number of pages14
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 2013


  • Advocacy
  • Bhutan
  • Democracy
  • Environment
  • Governance
  • Himalaya


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