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Bhutanese Youth

A Rebellious Generation Changes Bhutan


A Rebellious Generation Changes Bhutan


Unlike preceding generations, the Bhutanese youth of today are not content to live in poverty and rely on the government for help. They are symbolic of a changing Bhutan and the hope of achieving economic prosperity.



A Rebellious Generation Changes Bhutan

By Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 484 )

Standing on the busiest street in Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, the vast verdant expanse of the Himalayas rise in the distance. The slowly rising lush green foothills are studded with tiny white cottages, calling to mind a Swiss village in the Alpine foothills.

This "city" of 70,000 sitting 2,500 meters above sea level is a perfect microcosm of the transformation evident throughout Bhutan over the past decade or so.

The city's buildings present a uniformity of traditional Bhutanese architecture resulting from strict government-prescribed building codes aimed at preserving the traditional cultural landscape.

During the day the streets are filled with men and women clad entirely in traditional Bhutanese garb due to government regulations that require traditional attire be worn for work and formal gatherings.

With the arrival of weekend evenings, these snapshots of Shangri-La undergo a dramatic transformation in the blink of an eye.

Amid the dark alleys fashionably dressed young people in their twos and threes tuck into discreet nightspots to drink, dance and party the night away. Their vernacular is occasionally peppered with American hipster-speak as they joke, hoot and howl among themselves.

New Generation of Malcontents

Bhutan is changing, especially its youth.

A recent tragic case of an allegedly drunken youth murdering his father has shocked Bhutanese society.

Past generations of Bhutanese relied on the government to provide for them, seemingly content to live in poverty. Today's Bhutanese youth, however, are no longer content to abide by the law and societal norms. On the negative side, more of their desires are going unsatisfied. On the positive side, they want to change the status quo, better their society and find their own life path.

In them can be seen Bhutan's choices, changes and the price to be paid for all of it.

Sangay Richen, 30, sports movie-star good looks and seems to be an endless repository of energy. He has formed Bhutan's first organic agricultural cooperative, assisting not only Bhutanese farmers but also helping numerous unemployed find a new direction in their lives.

Sangay was born into a poor farming family in northern Bhutan's most impoverished area. He grew up watching his parents toiling in the fields but was determined not to merely accept that fate, instead vowing to improve the lives of farmers once he grew up.

After earning a diploma in agriculture from a technical training school at 24, he went to work for the government's Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for teaching farmers growing techniques and marketing.

"I was happy working for the government, but a lot of my classmates didn't get into university and were unemployed after graduation," Sangay says.

With Bhutan's tuition-free education, each year more than 10,000 graduates head out into society. Neither the government nor the nascent private sector has the capacity to absorb the rapidly expanding pool of graduates.

What's more, the increasing influence of Western culture has resulted in an increasing unwillingness among young Bhutanese to work blue-collar jobs or in agriculture, driving youth unemployment in the country up to 13 percent, three times Bhutan's overall unemployment rate.

New Inroads with Organic Farming

Just over two years ago Sangay sought out several unemployed friends to join him in setting up his agricultural produce cooperative, partly motivated by his desire to help his friends and partly to promote organic farming.

"Government officials go on a lot about this or that concept but never put anything into practice to actually solve the youth unemployment problem," Sangay explains.

Last year he resigned from his steady government job to focus full-time on the operations of the cooperative.

In 2008 Bhutan's government announced its intention to transform the country's agricultural sector to 100-percent organic by 2020 as part of realizing its "gross national happiness" (GNH) economy. Sangay's establishment of the cooperative was in happy coincidence with the new government policy.

But promoting organic farming will be no easy task. It is not particularly widely accepted among farmers or consumers.

On a hillside on the outskirts of Paro City an hour's drive west of Thimphu, 48 year-old Penjor lives in a hundred year-old farmhouse with his family of five. His was one of the first farming families to sign on with Sangay's cooperative.

"For the first couple of years after moving from chemical fertilizers to organic fertilizers, yields dropped 40 or 50 percent, and I was really ready to give up," Penjor says while sitting in the rustic second-floor living room of his farmhouse sipping rich yak butter tea. "Once the soil was properly conditioned, yields gradually began to recover."

Problems with Organic Production

The organic rice Penjor now grows fetches a market price 150 percent higher per kilogram than his previous variety, and in a good year he can earn as much as US$2,000.

"It took a lot of convincing in the beginning. Then later I just had to show them how it's done," Sangay says. "If you can convince one, others will follow."

After seeing Penjor's results, a few of his neighbors were definitely becoming interested. Sangay currently has 38 farms working with the cooperative.

Sangay rented a booth in a quiet corner of the produce market in central Thimphu to sell the cooperative's organic produce but with less than ideal success.

"The outward appearance is less appealing, not to mention about five percent more expensive than other [non-organic] producers, so business wasn't good," says Pema Tsewang, who was a 24 year-old unemployed street artist when Sangay brought him on to run the produce booth. Whatever he didn't sell in the market, he sold to hotels or the government.

If business is not good, why keep doing it?

"It's hard to get by on your own," the shy Pema says. "It's more viable to do it in cooperation with others."

The organic restaurant operated by Wangchuk, one of Sangay's partners, has encountered similar circumstances.

"Bhutanese still aren't completely aware of the importance of organic, so promoting it has been quite a task," the rotund 32 year-old betel-chewing Wangchuk explains.

Wangchuk's sparsely decorated 60-seat two-story restaurant serves up traditional Bhutanese home-style fare. The restaurant's food is better than hotel food, yet it still loses more than NT$1,000 per month, no small sum for Wangchuk, who draws a monthly salary of about NT$6,000.

If it weren't for the restaurant's exemption from the 30-percent business tax as an organic establishment, the losses would be even higher. Consequently, in his spare time, Wangchuk works as a tour guide to earn extra money for his family.

These aren't the only challenges Bhutan faces in developing organic agriculture; it must also take its overall economic development into consideration.

Although farmers using chemical fertilizers are currently in the minority, economic development has increased demand for food staples while urban expansion has encroached upon a considerable amount of arable land. The use of chemical fertilizers is the fastest way to increase yield per unit of land.

Bhutanese government officials also acknowledge that future imports of chemical fertilizers from India will only increase, not decrease.

Sangay's cooperative currently continues to operate at a loss and must rely on assistance from the government and international organizations to stay afloat. Nonetheless, he remains confident:

"At this stage it's not about making money, it's about first accruing social capital," he says.

Sangay's confidence is a result of his successful efforts to persuade 38 farms to join his cooperative to date. Some businesses have taken note of his slow, steady results and have gotten together to pool NT$400,000 in investment capital to finance the cooperative's operations.

More importantly, Sangay has gained the backing of none other than the country's prime minister.

"The next phase will be to begin expanding our scope of operations and then begin to consider how to turn a profit," he says.

Preparing for the World Stage

As with Bhutan's promotion of GNH, there are numerous very real obstacles to be overcome as well as a multitude of challenges Bhutan's young people face in realizing their own ideals. But Bhutan's government has already provided them with full preparation: a comprehensive education, fluency in English and modern information technology.

Sangay has already set up a website and established foreign and domestic Facebook groups to establish contacts with interested parties and experts abroad, gaining new knowledge in the process.

Sangay and his partners are symbolic of a new breed of Bhutanese youth, no longer reliant on government for everything, and possessing their own views. In them lies Bhutan's hope of realizing its GNH aspirations.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy