I often read articles like this with sadness and dread as to whats to come. I have watched as countries eventually bow to the economic development, favoring money over cultural heritage and the natural environment. Often western countries are quick to criticize but are not willing to offer an alternative or much support. As an example, the Yasuni national park in Ecuador is one of the most bio-diverse rain forests on earth but unfortunately is also sat on billions of barrels of oil. The world, including the Ecuadorians, was shocked when they decided to drill. But to leave $7 – 10 billion in the ground is a big ask for a country so dependent on oil exports. But Ecuador offered the world a very interesting and fair ultimatum that will test what the world really values. They said ‘either we drill for oil or you donate half the money to stop us from drilling’. Ashamedly, the UN backed scheme was a massive failure and the world only coughed up a laughable $13 million resulting in a global demand for cake and eating it too.
Now lets swing this discussion to Bhutan. A country famed for its incredible cultural heritage, mountainous settings and monasteries. Tourists are high value and low volume often paying around $250 a day for a visa. The Bhutanese culture is famed for being preserved and untouched by westernization. But the development that is occurring in Bhutan is impacting upon its cultural heritage. A member of the Bhutanese national council said ‘We do not have military power, we don’t have economic power but we do have culture – and that is what keeps us distinct, and safe’. The battle to preserve its culture and to stop it from being diluted into a global mono-culture rages as they take steps to preserve it. But humans naturally want to develop, progress and move forward. Sustaining an ancient cultural heritage like Bhutan’s becomes a bit of a struggle. This struggle becomes even harder when countries or cultures enter the global market where development and progress is defined as capitalism, westernization, and technological advancement apposed to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH).
But I have had this itch that has been growing in the back of my mind, who is it that really doesn’t want development? Would it be crazy to think that some Bhutanese actually want better transportation, technology and more money? We definitely do! It seems odd that we think that protecting cultures is to conserve them and prevent them from development but by doing so could also be viewed as quite a violation. As countries and different cultures enter the global market they have to make a choice to follow suit or carry on the way they are. I believe the Bhutanese are well and truly cornered. If they remained unmoved from their historical cultural routes and traditions they probably wouldn’t get very far in the global market. But they are forced by the tourist to try and preserve it, otherwise the money from tourism will falter. The guardian article went as far as to suggest that it was a terrible thing that Bhutanese are leaving their villages to seek out a new life for themselves because traditions are being impacted. So are we being selfish in believing that the Bhutanese should be prevented from ‘development’ so that we can come and wonder at the untouched cultures? Maybe we are! In a BBC article tourists were quick to condemn the development of roads to villages in Nepal because it spoils the scenery, but a road will probably improve the lives of many villagers.
For Bhutan and other famous ‘untouched’ destinations, something needs to give way and sadly it looks as if culture will become the loser in this fight. Cultures do have the right to development but tourism really is a fantastic way to help give value to what countries have so they do not feel they have to change. Its a difficult conundrum but to solve it I think maybe we need to realise we are just having to much cake and eating it too, perhaps we need to offer some larger slices of support.