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Bhutan is CO2 neutral and extremely beautiful
Climate Climate Man-Made

The kingdom of Bhutan could be a model for countries that want to take the lead in fighting climate change.
A woman with a child on her back with mountains at the background

Bhutan is one of the most pristine hotspots of biodiversity in the world. About 72 percent of the country is covered with forest, and with the approval of the population, the government has declared 60 percent of the forests as a protected area. Despite this attention to the environment, the glaciers of Bhutan withdraw because they melt, leading to dangerous flooding and water scarcity.
Trees covered with moss
Silver firs form a dense vegetation in this forest in Bhutan. The Bhutan Constitution guarantees that 60% of the forests in the country will remain protected forever.

This story from National Geographic was produced as part of a partnership with Rolex, to promote natural research and nature conservation. Both organizations are focused on joint support of experienced naturalists, guiding novice researchers and protecting natural wonders.

Bhutan is about the size of Switzerland and certainly has no less mountainous - although geographically it is much more isolated. In the south, the landlocked Bhutan borders India, while the northern border is formed by the mighty Himalayas. Before 1974, Bhutan was completely closed to tourists and to most foreigners, and even now only a handful of paying visitors are admitted at a time.

The kingdom can boast a lively and ancient culture and beautiful scenery. The Gangkhar Puensum, according to many the highest mountain that has never been climbed, rises 7570 meters in the clouds. Apart from an outdoor feeling for adventure, you need a lot of money to visit this unique principality.

The Slovenian photographer Ciril Jazbec is one of the few lucky people who have visited Bhutan. Recently he traveled through this country, past villages and through vast forests, and spoke to the people. The result of his journey is a personal look behind the scenes of a mysterious little country that few foreigners ever get to see.

His photographs range from traditional rural scenes that may seem surprisingly modern to outsiders. And because we are talking about Bhutan, we also see imposing mountains with dense, green forests in the background. All in all, his photographs give the impression of a special place that shows two sides: of history and change, of old and new, of adaptation and resilience.

This predominantly Buddhist country is characterized by both ancient traditions and renewal and is probably best known for its happy people and beautiful forests, which have so far escaped the threat of environmental degradation. Jazbec discusses this in more detail.

Lucky seekers

At the end of the last century, the Bhutanese government introduced a socio-economic indicator which it referred to as 'Gross National Happiness'. The indicator functions as a social thermometer and should prevent the economic development of the country from supplanting the traditional way of life of the population. The idea was praised all over the world as original and humanitarian.
Two woman standing in the meadows, one holding a mobile phone with mountains at the background
During their work on a rice field in Laya, two peasant women take a break. Last year, Laya was connected to the power grid for the first time. The connection was welcomed because the nearest village is several days walk away. 

But of course, with the introduction of the 'BNG' not all problems of the country are solved. In the recent World Happiness Report of the UN, Bhutan was at the 97th place, which is mainly attributed to factors such as income inequality and unemployment.

Another growing problem is the fact that the country's limited and vulnerable ecosystem is being affected by climate change. The glaciers of Bhutan are melting, causing sudden flooding, and the rainy season is becoming increasingly irregular, leading to water shortages in dry seasons. But although little Bhutan cannot be held responsible for the greenhouse gases that blow the rest of the world into the atmosphere, the country reacts by sharpening its own environmental rules - which are already very strict.

About sixty percent of the Bhutanese forests are protected areas and new infrastructure must be developed in a sustainable way. More attention is paid to electric public transport and hybrid cars than to the development of the traditional vehicle fleet.

With this kind of measures Bhutan not only manages to remain CO2-neutral, but even acts as a 'storage place' of CO2: thanks to its vast forests, Bhutan absorbs more CO2 from the air than emissions.

The Bhutanese attention to the fight against climate change was emphasized once again last year by the prime minister of the country. His message about the ambitious measures that the country would take in the light of the changing climate was a reason for the photographer Jazbec to visit the country and to record the resilience of the population.

"Bhutan really has a very special relationship with the environment," says Jazbec. "I've never seen anything like this before."


Jazbec has made photographs of communities that are facing climate change around the world, but it was Bhutan who, because of his able-bodied people, touched a sensitive chord.

When Jazbec visited the kingdom last year, he was shown around by a 'fixer' or local guide, who showed him several villages.

One day Jazbec tried to drive a moth off the screen of his laptop. According to the photographer, his fixer was so upset about what he saw that he appealed to his foreign guest.

"He told me that all living beings have a soul," says Jazbec. "He accepted the fact that animals need space."

That feeling comes, of course, partly from the main religion in the country, Buddhism. Jazbec saw that many people in Bhutan were trying to take good care of the environment. Whether they were motivated by their religion, their community or by a less tangible concept, Jazbec noticed how cautiously people dealt with nature and their animals.

As an outsider, he wanted to capture the essence of a country that had long been described as a 'Shangri-La', an idea that Westerners have always addressed, but that they have never been able to grasp.
boys with bow and arrow mountains at the background
Archery is the national sport of #Bhutan and is practiced by young and old. 

Photographer Ciril Jazbec lives in Slovenia. View more of his work on his website and on Instagram.

By: Sarah Gibbens, Photos by: Of Ciril Jazbec