Tourism in Bhutan

Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan

Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan

Tourism in Bhutan began in 1974, when the Bhutanese government, in an effort to increase revenue and promote the country’s unique culture and traditions, opened the remote country to foreigners. During that first year, only 287 tourists visited Bhutan. In 1992, the number rose to 2,850, and it increased even more dramatically to 7,158 in 1999.

Bhutan restricts tourist numbers primarily because the government is acutely aware of the environmental impacts of tourism and the unique biological wealth of the country. Travel to Bhutan is highly regulated under the policy “High Value, Low Impact Tourism.”

Tourists mainly visit the capital of Thimpu, as well as Paro, a city in the western part of the country near India, and the Tiger’s Nest, which is a famous Buddhist temple (photograph at end of post). Druk Air used to be the only airline operating flights to and from Bhutan, but the country is now serviced by Bhutan Airlines as well.

Paro Airport, the country's only international airport

Paro Airport, the country’s only international airport 

It is quite difficult and expensive to get a visa to Bhutan. Only citizens of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives are allowed to enter Bhutan without a visa. Foreign tourists must use a licensed Bhutanese tour operator to arrange practically everything about their visit to Bhutan, including what lodging they stay in, and where they travel and with whom. Outside of Paro and Thimpu, the entirety of Bhutan is considered a “Restricted Area” for foreigners, who need special permits to travel further.

A daily fee of $250 is charged during tourist high season, which is decreased to $200/day during the low season. The minimum daily package required for visa processing covers accommodation, food, guide, and a vehicle with a driver. Part of this fee goes towards free education, free healthcare, and poverty alleviation in Bhutan.

The only way you can enter Bhutan without a visa (and without being a citizen of the countries mentioned above), is by receiving a formal invitation from a “citizen of some standing” or a volunteer organization. In addition, those who come as guests of the Bhutanese government go through a different visa application process. I believe the latter applies to students who study in Bhutan through SFS because we are partnered with a government agency, the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment.

The Tiger's Nest

The Tiger’s Nest, a sacred Buddhist monastery

Climate Change and Economic Inequality

Welcome back to my blog! Let’s get right back into it:

Oxfam International just released a study (called Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More) that states that by next year, the richest 1% will be richer than the rest of the world combined. Whoa. That is completely unacceptable. Oxfam is calling on governments to “adopt a seven point plan to tackle inequality:”

  1. Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals
  2. Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education
  3. Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth
  4. Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers
  5. Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal
  6. Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee
  7. Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.

Climate change and many of the other global issues we are facing today are intimately connected with this stark economic inequality. These issues are the result of the political and economic system that is keeping people down and destroying our beautiful world. And, in fact, climate change is exacerbating inequality because poor communities are the ones that are on the frontlines of extreme weather and resource conflict. By fighting climate change, we are fighting inequality.

350.org

350.org

The Transition Town Movement

Throughout most of this semester I have written about the bad news – ranging from mass species extinction to climate change to elephant poaching. We all know there are many persistent, systemic, and overwhelming environmental problems. That’s a given. However, during the last few weeks of this course (but don’t worry – I hope to continue this blog after the course is over!) I would like to turn our attention to the courageous people finding solutions. And the Transition Movement is just the place to start.

The Transition Town Movement consists of local grassroots projects that aim to increase community self-sufficiency and resiliency. These projects also educate people about climate change and peak oil, and work towards decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels. The first Transition Town was created in Totnes, England, in 2006.

Common topics for discussion within these communities include peak oil and local energy resilience, transportation, food production, waste and recycling, environmental psychology, and economics (including alternatives to the current capitalist system). If you would like to know more about how Transition Towns are structured and some of the underlying theory, check out the Seven Guiding Principles and Twelve Ingredients of the Transition Model from the Transition United States website.

Transition Towns aim to foster community, educate residents about a wide range of topics, from local food to species extinction, and offer a concrete localized solution to the overwhelming climate crisis. Individual families and towns will face the brunt of climate change, which is why the Transition Movement aims to localize and democratize energy and promote climate solutions.

Transition Towns exist across the world, including right here in Massachusetts in Amherst and Hadley. As of September 2013, there were 1,130 Transition Towns officially registered with the Transition Network Directory, which is a UK-based organization that supports the international Transition Movement. There is also a specific website for the Transition Movement in the United States.

The Transition Movement acknowledges that it does not have all the answers, and that this effort alone will not solve all the world’s current problems. However, they firmly believe that:

  • If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
  • If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
  • But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

The U.S. – China Climate Agreement

Less than two months after the historic People’s Climate March, when 400,000 people marched for climate justice in New York City, world leaders listened to us and stepped up to the plate.

On the night of November 11th, 2014, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Beijing, United States President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a a new U.S.-China climate deal. President Obama stated that by 2025, the United States will lower greenhouse gas emissions 26-28% compared to 2005 levels. President Xi stated that China will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, and then decline. To reach that goal, 20% of China’s energy will have to come from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The agreement was crafted in secret over the last nine months. Officials hope that it will inspire action at the climate talks in Paris in 2015. Prior to this ground-breaking agreement, many believed there was not much hope for a firm commitment in Paris. This is because the United States and China are the two largest economies, as well as the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and without leadership from these two countries, other governments do not have as much incentive or obligation to cut greenhouse gases.

Although this agreement is an important step in the right direction, it has no enforcement mechanisms, and will not keep the world below the 2 degrees Celsius tipping point beyond which catastrophic climate change is inevitable. Bill McKibben provides interesting thoughts about the significance of the climate deal: what it is, and what it isn’t. McKibben notes that this agreement is an important victory for the grassroots and that it indicates that the grassroots should continue to put pressure on the international community. The Council on Foreign Relations also weighs in.

Let us hope that this agreement will push the world, especially the biggest polluters, towards climate solutions and a binding treaty in Paris.

Video Review: The Story of Stuff

If you haven’t already heard of it, The Story of Stuff is a must-see for anyone who is interested in environmental issues and the long-term sustainability of the consumer economy. Through this video, Annie Leonard, who is now the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, makes the compelling argument that the story of where our stuff comes from is far more complex than most of us realize. The Story of Stuff introduces important concepts such as externalized costs and planned and perceived obsolescence. From the extraction of natural resources to the toxic manufacturing process and eventual (and often quick) disposal of products, many parts of this economy are ecologically and socially damaging, and it is imperative that we move toward a more sustainable, local, closed-loop system.

The Story of Stuff Project has made several other interesting videos as well.

MHC Divest: The Fight for Climate Justice at Mount Holyoke

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MHC Divest is a campaign organized by the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition (CJC). Our focus on justice arises from the need to bring attention to the global inequity of the current economic system, and the effects of climate change.

In pursuit of divestment, MHC Divest is organizing all stakeholders on the issue of divestment: Mount Holyoke students, alumnae, faculty, and staff. MHC Divest aims to work with the Administration and the Board of Trustees to redirect investments away from the fossil fuel industry. We urge Mount Holyoke to take the following steps:

  1. Immediately freeze further investments in the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies,
  2. Divest the approximately 2% of its endowment currently invested in fossil fuel companies within the next five years,
  3. Reinvest part of the endowment into environmentally and socially responsible enterprises.

MHC Divest launched in November 2012 and quickly gained the support of many students. During the spring of 2013, the group delivered petitions to President Lynn Pasquerella and participated in productive dialogue and educational opportunities on campus. In the spring of 2014, the group formally registered as Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition.

In spring 2014, MHC Divest organized a successful student referendum in which, of those who voted, 88% of students voted for Mount Holyoke to divest its endowment from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. Members of CJC attended the Intentionally Designed Endowments Conference in April 2014 with President Pasquerella and presented in a session on engaging in collaborative dialogue on campus. Last spring, MHC Divest also met with President Pasquerella and the Vice President of Finance, Shannon Gurek. Through that meeting, we were able to obtain a meeting with the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Mary Davis, and two other members of the Board, as well as an invitation to the September meeting of the Investment Committee. Two members of MHC Divest attended this meeting, which took place in New York City, and made an impressive presentation to the entire Committee. Following that meeting, the group met with several Trustees in October. Seven members of MHC Divest attended the meeting, as well as Physics Professor Alexi Arango, and a student action occurred outside the meeting in order to encourage the Trustees to support divestment.

At this time, MHC Divest is focusing on building power in all parts of the Mount Holyoke community. In this way, we hope to show the Administration and the Board of Trustees that, not only is divestment a fantastic opportunity for Mount Holyoke to position itself as a leader, but also that the entire community supports divesting from fossil fuels. MHC Divest is working with passionate, collaborate alumnae on a letter-writing campaign, faculty on an open letter to the Administration urging Mount Holyoke to divest, and students (both at Mount Holyoke and other colleges) to form strong relationships and interest in divestment as a strategy for combatting climate change and fighting for climate justice.

Into the Streets

This video, called “Into the Streets,” provides a captivating summary of the People’s Climate March and Flood Wall Street in New York City. There are many other videos that capture the feeling of the weekend of September 21st, but this one does a particularly good job. It provides footage of the artwork that was created for the march, the march itself, and Flood Wall Street, which was a protest that occurred the day after the march, on September 22nd. During Flood Wall Street, 3,000 people descended into the financial capital of the world to show that Wall Street is funding the fossil fuel companies, and therefore is funding climate change. 100 people participated in a sit-in and got arrested, including someone in a polar bear suit. (Although some believe the polar bear has become an overused symbol of climate change, I think this particular use was quite clever.)

It was a powerful weekend, with more than 2,000 mobilizations across the world. This video provides a sense of the people who made this weekend possible, the people of the climate movement.