Published: March 17th 2008March 17th 2008
OK OK, it’s about time that I wrote an entry. I haven’t written in quite some time, so I should have quite a bit of ground to cover. This will be the first of a couple of entries. Also, I might post a recent radio interview.
I think I left off some time ago with some ramblings about Tarayana school clubs, the Doya in Lotukuchu, and something incoherent about the happiness in Gross National Happiness.
I haven’t traveled much outside of the Thimphu valley except for a trip to a village called Rukha in the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. Other than that I’ve been pretty local here in Thimphu, enjoying the blissful mundanity of living in Bhutan.
The trip to Rukha was quite inspiring. On the way there we stopped at a high pass called Dochula. Since it was right after a good snowfall, the whole pass was covered in about two feet of snow. The sun had come out, all the dust was clear from the air, so we had an unobstructed panoramic view of the high Himalaya to the north. It was crisp and invigorating. Also, as we passed Wangdi, we had a beautiful view
of Wangdi Dzong with the mountains in the background. A beautiful day to travel.
In Rukha, I was shown a relatively successful project that truly inspired hope in the endeavours of Tarayana’s contributions to Bhutan’s unique development process. The villagers live in a beautiful wide valley in view of a dramatic glacier capped peak. Their farm plots for rice, mustard, and other staples are in the middle of the village in the low areas that can be easily irrigated. Their houses - in which they are transitioning from simple bamboo framed stilted structures to permanent timber and tamped mud houses with corrugated steel roofs - are rimmed in a horseshoe shape around the edges of the farm plots on higher ground.
Tarayana has been helping and encouraging the villagers to build these new houses which has brought the villagers socially closer as a community. I’m told that there was quite a bit of strife amongst families in this village until they began to rely on each other to build their houses. Much of the animosity has dissolved in the spirit of community building. One man had been quite reluctant to help on these projects, but now he is
reassessing as the time comes closer to build his house. He’s beginning to see how important it is to work with the others in this remote village.
The villagers have planted orange trees next to their houses and a co-project between the Tarayana Foundation, the Royal Government of Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture Department of Livestock, the UNDP/United Nations Volunteers (UNV), and the Global Environmental Fund Small Grants Program (GEF SGP) has helped them establish fish ponds for aquaculture and a piggery. The aquaculture helps them continue their age old custom of smoking fish.
The villagers are Olep, a sub group of Mongars who have nomadically inhabited the central valleys of Bhutan prior to the arrival of the Ngalops, who are attributed with the unification of modern day Bhutan. In more recent times, this group of Oleps were settled in Rukha Village on land that was owned by the central monastic body. Upon settlement, they have increasingly embraced crop cultivation and have moved away from wildcrafting and hunting - also due to regulations in the National Park.
Another project that Tarayana helped implement is a community organic garden. Tarayana helped by donating vegetable seeds, farm tools, and securing
a plot of land. The project is enabling the villagers supplement their diet of mostly chilies, meat, and rice with a variety of cultivated vegetables. Also, villagers founded the Women’s Cooperative Vegetable Farming (WCVF) and a Tshogpa (Committee) to ensure that the project continues after Tarayana is no longer required to help in the village. To quote a grant proposal I helped compile and edit:
“Natural and eco-friendly farming is encouraged through the provision of technical support and training to all the households. The women’s self-help groups are already very keen on promoting this concept as they plan the cropping schedule for the coming year. The expertise of the extension agent of the Department of Agriculture is also being sought whenever possible, bringing about greater synergies in agriculture production related activities, including organic farming. Nutritional classes have also been conducted where housewives were taught how to cook a variety of nutritious meals using different vegetables. While there was no restriction on the gender of the participants, more women were interested in the training in nutrition and cooking classes, as well as the natural production techniques of agricultural crops.”
Besides the housing and food security projects that Tarayana has
helped implement, the villagers are engaged in rural craft revitalization, in which they are re-learning cane weaving techniques that their ancestors used to practice. Because of the economic instability of the group, a gap between elders and younger generations had developed. Now, as the village community begins to reestablish cohesiveness, some of the traditions are being reemployed to match new economic challenges. Tarayana helps find markets for the finished products in upscale hotels, gift shops, and Tarayana’s own rural crafts shop in Thimphu. Tarayana’s vision is to see some of these products replace the cheap plastics that are dumped on the Bhutanese markets by Indian, Thai, Korean, and other Asian producers.
To round out Tarayana’s poverty interventions, they implement education and literacy programs and livelihood skills training to keep the villagers at pace with the education system of Bhutan and meet the social and environmental challenges of the village. To further quote the grant proposal:
“Tarayana supports a program of non-formal education for adults to learn Dzongkha. Improved and effective language skills are necessary for villagers to be integrated in the national development strategies, therefore it is necessary to provide books, stationary, and other supplies to villagers so
they can work on this crucial skill. As well, Tarayana seeks to supplement the Scholarship Endowment for rural youth education - that grants needy students access to education - with needed books, stationary, and other supplies.”
“Awareness in hygienic health and water and sanitation has been imparted to the community members through intensive interaction between the community and the [Tarayana] field officer. Another GEF Small Grants Programme Project known as the Alternative Livelihood for Indigenous Community of Rukha compliments this Project. The main purpose is to provide the community with environmentally friendly technology to reduce the dependence on firewood and the forest. It supports the community in controlling land degradation while alleviating poverty by providing opportunities for enhanced income. It aims to improve the overall quality of life through cleaner technology and capacity development The activities under this project result in the reduction of air pollution and land degradation. One of the most pressing problems is the scarcity of water for irrigation. This is because the village of Rukha is located on a watershed with a very low density of forest cover. This implies that more than half of their land is not tilled or worked. There
was an irrigation channel that fed the village, but it has been closed because of the possibility of soil erosion and high seepage. Therefore, one major activity is installing water pipes for irrigation on the existing drains that are responsible for soil erosion. Simultaneously, the piping is used for aquaculture to produce smoked fish for income generation.”
All of the projects in Rukha village are interdependent and are a start to establishing a sustainable village life that will perpetuate the survival of a marginalized ethnic group in Bhutan. However, the projects aim to integrate the villagers in the development strategies of Bhutan. There is currently a new road under construction that will link the villages in the valley with modern health and education facilities as well as access to regional and national markets. Though Tarayana endeavours to assist them in exporting their goods, I question whether the new infrastructure will just make them a target for the junk foods and cheap products dumped in Bhutan.
While I was visiting the village, I was really impressed with what was accomplished there. There was such a community spirit. We were invited to a water source consecration and two house consecrations.
All three events were celebratory community events with ritual and much consumption of milk-tea and alcohol - though I abstained from the latter. At the house consecrations, everyone was expected to contribute money to both the new home owner and the lead carpenter. Each time a donation was given an elder would shout out a blessing to the donator and the recipient and do a little dance of spinning around while waving a tashi khaddar (white silk scarf). This went on for quite sometime until everyone who could, had made a donation. After the second house celebration we ate a great dinner and all the villagers stayed and sang traditional songs and danced traditional dances until way too late into the night - even after those of us who were guests were bundled into our sleeping bags ready to go to sleep in the same room.
During that visit, we went to the location of the old lakhang (temple) that burned down some years ago. We were told that it burned down in the 40s when villagers were doing field burning. Everyone was away from the village and the fire swept up the hill. Some of the ritual items
were left. But most everything was supposed to be deposited in a clean running river. However, the two young guys who were charged with the duty were lazy and just threw them over a cliff. One of the boys eventually went blind and everyone thinks it was because he didn’t perform the ritual properly. Also, two of the religious items were supposed to be taken to another lakhang in another valley, but the unique stone and conch became too heavy for the woman who was carrying them away. She had to bring them back to the village. As she brought them back they became lighter. There is a possibility that Tarayana will facilitate the reconstruction of the lakhang. When we went to look at the site, there were remnants of the old structure and a rickety shack that is still used for worship. The original conch and stone were on the alter.
The Olep are traditionally Bon (pre-buddhist animism), but now many embrace Buddhism. They still have a village shaman - who is pretty young - who practices some of the rituals. When I met him, he was fairly interested in me, but I never found out why. I
would just look over and he would be staring at me.
The whole visit and hike to and from the village was quite nice. On the way out some of the rhododendrons were blooming. We stopped quite frequently at homes along the way to distribute beneficiary funds and were always offered milk tea or suja (butter tea). We arrived at the trail head well after dark and drove all the way back to Thimphu, about four hours.
Since then, I’ve been working in the office assiting with the occasional computer question and assessing the UNV Bhutan National Volunteer scheme and the National emergency response plan and how Tarayana can participate. I also help with an occasional grant proposal or editing of a report, so I’ve become fairly versed in the operations and challenges of the Foundation. In the next 5 years Tarayana is going to grow exponentially and they are finalizing the assessment reports of the first 5 year plan and their current operations. At the same time, they are anxiously awaiting the opening of a new facility that is still under construction. It’s a time of change and growth where they have to be careful not to
take on too much, but also respond to the increasing demand for their services.
Most of Tarayana’s projects have been located in the west or central part of the country, while there is a need for new projects to be established in the neglected eastern areas. It will all be very challenging for the Foundation, but there is increasing awareness of the program throughout the country and most everyone I talk to reveres Tarayana as a valuable and prudent organization. Those who don’t, have misperceptions of Tarayana through inaccuracies based on rumors or partial stories.
There are more photos below