Feature Story

A path to the modern economy: Using traditional knowledge to build livelihoods and preserve nature in Bhutan

May 5, 2017

Bhutan terraced fields
Working in partnership with UNDP Bhutan, and financed by the Nagoya Protocol Implementation Fund and the Global Environment Facility, the National Biodiversity Centre has documented traditional knowledge around Bhutan. Photo credit: UNDP Bhutan

At first glance, the Dzedokha village, located in the south-west of Bhutan might not seem to have the makings of a lucrative industry. With 2,672 residents, this mountainous village, like thousands of other communities in this largely rural kingdom, is off the beaten track; it is only accessible via a single farm road, mostly impassable during the monsoon season.

But the Dzedokha area’s cultivation of a plant utilized in traditional medicine – Zingiber cassumunar, or Mountain Ginger – is opening up a world of economic potential, while simultaneously preserving traditional knowledge.

Working in partnership with UNDP Bhutan, and financed by the Nagoya Protocol Implementation Fund and the Global Environment Facility, the National Biodiversity Centre has documented traditional knowledge around the country. Documenting the existence of traditional knowledge and its various practices, this information has been gathered in 113 Gewogs (sub-districts).

As part of the project, Implementing the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing in Bhutan, this work seeks to identify and document traditional knowledge and practices, via visits and discussions with communities about the importance of traditional knowledge and the potential long-term benefits available to the community.

"I feel that it is vital to preserve our age-old spiritual practice and traditional knowledge about herbs and treatment methods alongside the modern medical treatments. Since time immemorial, our ancestors have passed on this important knowledge on the practice of alternative healing methods and how to recognise the various plants in nearby jungles as possessing medical values, and thereby useful in treating illnesses... I am now happy to contribute whatever I know to this documentation process which I am sure will help in preserving and promoting the knowledge of traditional medicines and practices." - Shivaraj Chettri

Tika Devi, a housewife & a traditional knowledge practitioner, is an active participant in the documentation process in Sipsu. Regarding her role in the project, she says, "People appreciate that I am keeping this tradition alive. I am very happy to see this initiative to document about our local knowledge." Photo credit: UNDP Bhutan

The samples collected via the process of documenting the traditional knowledge undergo a series of rigorous tests at a bioprospecting lab at the National Biodiversity Centre in Thimphu. Bioprospecting is a systematic search for and development of new sources of chemical compounds, genes, micro-organisms, macro-organisms, and other valuable products from nature. At this lab the prototype products are ready for safety testing. The tests are designed to offer information on these potentially valuable (both economically and medically) genetic and biochemical resources from nature.

Through the project, the Royal Government of Bhutan identified the Dzedokha community as particularly well suited for commercial cultivation of Zingiber cassumunar (mountain ginger). As one of the remotest and poorest areas in Chhukha district, their cash crops such as cardamom, ginger, and mandarin oranges have experienced volatility market prices – a challenge for these isolated rural farmers. But given the region’s relatively fertile soil conditions, mountain ginger grows well and yields a stable market price – with possibilities for increased demand.

The initial idea came while documenting traditional knowledge, when members from the community noted that mountain ginger was often used for relieving joint pains. The pilot project then began with a formal agreement drawn between the National Biodiversity Centre and the community members, followed by training on proper methods for care and cultivation of mountain ginger.

UNDP Bhutan, through the Access and Benefit Sharing Project, will advance Bhutan efforts on SDG 1 on povertySDG 3 on good health and well-beingSDG 12 on responsible consumption and production and SDG 15 on life on land.

UNDP is committed to building the capacities of developing countries to manage their biodiversity, and is currently supporting the sustainable management and conservation of over 320 ecosystems. With projects in over 130 countries, UNDP is working to support countries to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity, in line with their own priorities and needs, and to secure ecosystem services that are vital to human welfare and their development efforts.

For more information on the project, please visit here.

This story was originally published by UNDP.