With its geopolitical placement between the two giants of India and China, the Kingdom of Bhutan has maintained its strong presence guided by Buddhist philosophy, shaping progressive and multifaceted development policies and institutions that champion notions of sufficiency and well-being, most notably exemplified by the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), coined as a critique of GDP to consciously synthesize lessons and avoid mistakes committed elsewhere in the world. As a largely agrarian economy, with more than half of its population engaged in some form of agriculture, such efforts have been reflected in their natural resource sector, namely in the agricultural and livestock management initiatives and practices that tried to reflect their countries and leader’s development paradigms. While extensive research has been done on the concept of GNH, limited studies have been conducted on how such state-level interventions intersect and are negotiated among competing and emerging ideas and practices around food production, and how they emerge at the household or community levels.
Gross National Happiness, Buddhist philosophy, sustainable development, meat consumption
With its geopolitical placement between the two giants of India and China, the Kingdom of Bhutan has maintained its strong presence guided by Buddhist philosophy, shaping progressive and multifaceted development policies and institutions that champion notions of sufficiency and well-being, most notably exemplified by the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), coined as a critique of GDP to consciously synthesize lessons and avoid mistakes committed elsewhere in the world. GNH, With posing an important case study for degrowth or post-growth research (Gerber, 2020). As a largely agrarian economy, with more than half of its population (745,153 in 2014) engaged in some form of agriculture (NSB, 2014), such efforts have been reflected in their natural resource sector, starting with forest, agricultural and livestock management institutions and initiatives that tries to reflect their development paradigm. While extensive research has been done on the concept of GNH, limited studies have been conducted on how such interventions intersect and are negotiated among competing and emerging ideas and practices. This paper tries to see how state-level interventions in Bhutan intersected and negotiate with competing and emerging ideas and practices specifically around the transitions in the production and consumption of meat at the household or community levels.
The emergence of Gross National Happiness
The exposition of GNH as a national goal of development began to emerge only towards the end of the 20th century. It is said to have been initiated by the fourth king, after assuming his throne in 1972, during a press conference, when responding to a journalist who asked about Bhutan’s GDP in 1979. The very first Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigme Y. Thinley (office held between 2008 to 2013), and the establishment of the Center for Bhutan Studies as a government thinktank facilitated the structuring, promotion and the implementation of the concept. While the notion of GDP was foreign to the majority of the population, the notion of seeking happiness as the ultimate goal, however, was nothing revolutionary in a predominantly Buddhist nation. What was unique, however, was its effort to diffuse the it fully into a national policy. In 1998, former Prime Minister, Thinley, was the one who launched the framework of GNH based on four pillars, which operationally structure the implementation of GNH.
The four pillars are sustainable socio-economic development, which assumes that economic growth is important but not an end in itself; conservation and sustainable utilization and management of the environment, which recognizes that humans are intimately interconnected with the natural environment and all sentient beings; the preservation and promotion of culture, which maintains that culture is dynamic and particularly important to sustain identity and promote unity; and lastly, the promotion of good governance, which is what is necessary to peruse the other three pillars. While such initiatives have received much praise, it has also been widely criticized both internationally and domestically, within Bhutan. Phuntsho (2013) reviewed existing critiques describing how many argue how the notion of happiness is essentially a non-quantifiable and immeasurable condition, while domestically, GNH is often criticized as being “a catchy branding for the intellectual elites,” that is deviating toward being merely an “ideological distraction from the real issues and problems,” diverting the government away from improving the basic conditions necessary for happiness.
Bhutan and modernization
Bhutan’s emergence out of its self-imposed state of isolation, with the completion of the first motorable road connecting the capital city of Thimphu directly from the boarder to India, and the implementation of its first Five Year Development Plan (FYP) in 1961 is often described as the opening up of Bhutan and the beginning of its modern economic development. Albeit very cautiously, Bhutan is considered one of the last countries in the world transitioning to capitalism (Gerber, 2020). Younger generations seeking employment has contributed to the rising rates of urban migration, and consequent depopulation of rural villages. Although a small pocket of people have emerged as a capitalist class, rising rates of unemployment has been a growing concern, with a majority still dependent on relatives and parents sustaining a family farm. These dramatic alternations of social dynamics between the emerging state and its people, as well as the relationship between people have necessarily led to the drafting and establishment of numerous legislations and rules to regulate these changes taking place. Such interventions have also come in the form of religious teachings.
Bhutan prides itself for being a Buddhist country, and the secular and state have always co-existed side by side. Buddhist principles of interconnectedness, balance, harmony, compassion, sustainability, and the sanctity of all life, were values that subsisted as a way of life in one form or another. While it is understood that religious values and beliefs are characteristically taught, interpreted, and adapted within local socio-cultural contexts, they can play a very large role in influencing the relationship between state and society, particularly in how ‘development’ is perceived and negotiated externally within society and internalized personally (Bradley et al., 2007).
With modernization came new practices of information sharing. Through the development of its extensive road and telecommunication networks came expanded access to both physical and virtual sources of information and new practices of meaning making. These played a significant role in enabling the expanded dissemination and influence of religious dogmas, amongst a wider number of people, giving religious leaders a reinvigorated prominence. In a urbanizing yet predominantly agrarian society, where a vast gap exists between the literacy rate of young adults and the elder population (above 65), which according to UNESCO (2016) is 92.9 % versus 9.4% in 2017, these practices have taking diverse forms, such as religious chat groups or facebook pages, according to one’s social network, but have nonetheless become noticeable factors influencing the public’s relationships to religious teachings. In a Buddhist context, such teachings directly translates to heightened awareness about systems of morality, or code of ethics. Most fundamental being the five precepts which include a commitment to abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and abusing intoxicants. Such heightened exposure has, intern, shifted how and what animals people raise, and how and what people eat, particularly meat.
One legislation that was implemented reflecting such transitions was the Livestock Act, in 2001, which designated two months in the year, as well as three days every month where people are not allowed to sell or purchase meat in shops. In addition to legislation that legally coordinated activities, there were religious leaders who found themselves able to wield more influence through being able to have better access to welcoming recipients of their teachings either directly or through television programs throughout the country. One cause that has been particularly influential is their efforts to popularize vegetarianism in the late 1990s, when a Buddhist association conducting prayers for world peace decided to practice vegetarianism (Choden, 2008). Around the same time, Jay Khenpo, the most prominent religious leader in Bhutan, announced that monks should not be served meat during rituals, such as funeral ceremonies.
There are very few texts describing the everyday practices of ordinary Bhutanese people in the past, but through a few existing texts, including Chilli and Cheese by Choden (2008), we can perceive how the current patterns relate to the past. Choden describes how there were “basically no taboos around food, about what should and should not be eaten.” Meat would have been considered a festive food, which was limited to new years and annual rituals. Essentially, meat was “not only a mark of status, but generally loved by all” (Choden, 2008).
In comparison, a mixed methods study, which included semi-structured interviews, participatory observation, and a structured questionnaire survey conducted in 2018 in six different districts in Bhutan (n=450), revealed contrasting realities in transition. When asked about the changing patterns of meat consumption, only a third (31.2%) perceived a general increase in meat consumption. Reasons for change included historical shifts in commodity trading, of having depended on meat as a commodity to trade for salt with Tibet in the past, and raising one’s own livestock for food security, but choosing to be vegetarian siting religious reasons, such as “now, we know that it was sinful,” or they have been “prohibited by a Lama (Buddhist teacher)”. Survey results corroborate such claims, as the majority of the respondents (89.5%) agreed (of which 62.8% strongly agreed) that we should consume less meat for religious reasons. Furthermore, survey results showed that few (19.5%) said they would like to eat more meat if they could, and only 6.9 % said they preferred meat that they raised themselves, with more than half (56.3%) agreeing that they preferred to buy their meat from the market. When asked to elaborate, respondents mentioned an increase in consumption of meat due to improved access, but also a decrease due to improved access to religious knowledge through television, as well as the promotion of vegetarianism in schools, leading to meat consumption decreasing among younger generations. However, government statistics and studies by Dawa (2014) show that there is a general increase in total meat imports and consumption, however varied in net perduction depending on the type of meat. For example, there was a 38% decrease in beef production between 2000 and 2016, while there was almost fourfold increase in domestic pork production and about a three-fold increase in chicken production. As a reflection of people’s relation to meat in urban areas, consumers adapt to the regular sales restrictions during the designated holey months, by rushing to the meat market to stock up. In rural areas, farmers have increasingly distanced themselves from having to commit acts of killing as it is “against GNH,” according to Schroeder (2018). As it is considered increasingly sinful under the larger public eye, farmers are having to juggle ethical tradeoffs and competing values by often reporting having never slaughtered livestock, but only eating what died of natural causes. With fewer rural residents interested in raising animals for self-consumption, there is an increase in the already high import reliance on India. Interestingly, minimizing the slaughtering of livestock in Bhutan and expanding meat imports from India was legitimized as minimizing sin. This, however, is nothing more than the externalization or the outsourcing of sin, enabling the deepening of market dependence and lowering food security.
With this I would like to conclude with some comments and further questions to consider. Bhutan, while celebrated as a nation promoting alternatives to capitalistic developmental paradigms, is also juggling with ethical dilemmas that have taken root as a result of expanded presence of the state and religious powers due to improved infrastructural development and new evolving spheres of practice. The expanding market and the resultant commodification of food are enabling these competing values to co-exist. The increased commodification of and import dependence of meat is serving the purpose of outsourcing sin, to the benefit of the domestic meat consumers, however, limiting food security and challenging food sovereignty. Further exploration in to these dilemmas are needed to understand how inherited ideas and practices around food production and consumption change when inflected by the new shared objective of a political projects, such as the promotion and implementation of GNH? How is the discourse around GNH and other approaches to sustainable development mobilized as a part of perhaps competing political projects and strategies involving religious and other interest groups?
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