Buddhist Bhutan warns felling trees a threat to happiness

Reuters, Sep 11, 2009

THIMPHU, Bhutan -- Bhutan has warned its citizens over cutting down thousands of young trees every year to make prayer flags, a threat to the tiny kingdom's lush scenery and the government's duty to bring "Gross National Happiness."

Himalayan Buddhists put up prayer flags for good luck or to help the dead find the right path to their next life. The more flag poles put up for the departed the better, and Buddhist monks say fresh poles must be used each time.

Having failed to convince its citizens to switch from wood to steel for prayer flags, the government of the Himalayas' last Buddhist kingdom is growing bamboo, which it hopes will be an attractive alternative.

"The pressure on forest is from all sides -- from flagposts to hydropower. We are discussing this every day," Agriculture Secretary Sherub Gyaltshen, said.

Bhutan's constitution, which emphasises the importance of Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product, stipulates the country must have at least 60 percent forest cover.

Himalayan Buddhists believe winds will carry positive vibrations of tantric symbols written on the prayer flags in yellow, green, red, white and blue to represent the five elements, and 108 prayer flags are put up when someone dies.

"If you re-use an old flagpole, you aren't putting in effort, which means the merit earned is compromised," explained Lopon Gyem Tshering, a monk who teaches at a religious school.

Bhutan felled around 60,000 trees between June 2007 and June 2008 just for flag poles, according to official data, and per capita consumption is rising in the country of around 700,000.

(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alistair Scrutton)