Adventures of an Alumnus in Bhutan
-by Luke Raftis
Since leaving BTH in June 2008, I have been fortunate enough to become involved with several different sustainability initiatives, each offering a new learning experience, and all of which I have felt well-equipped to embrace, largely because of my experience in the MSLS program.
After two years of promoting institutional change within a large institution at the University of Toronto Sustainability Office, I headed off to Bhutan to work on a project that is helping transform the country's Gross National Happiness development philosophy into tangible actions. The project, known as the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative, is one of the first 'civil society' projects in the country, which in itself is noteworthy as Bhutan has a long history of relying exclusively on government programs. The project aims to improve living standards in the remote province of Samdrup Jongkhar by establishing food security, protecting and enhancing the natural environment, and working collectively to direct the socio-economic development of their communities. The organization collaborates widely; with farmers, government ministries, entrepreneurs, as well as NGOs from India, such as Vandana Shiva's Navdania organization, which promotes organic agriculture, and Barefoot College, which trains women on a wide-variety of topics, notably (in our case) electronics for solar power in remote locations.
My role was working with a local technical college to develop a centre appropriate technology, which would focus on the needs of the largely remote, rural communities who rely primarily on subsistence agriculture. The program has since been accepted by the national government and will be brought into the mainstream curriculum of the engineering technology students at the college, and, hopefully, later at other colleges within the Royal University of Bhutan system.
We were based in a small town about 25 kilometres from the Indian border, however as part of the project we also made research trips into the some of the more far-flung areas. Roads are yet to reach many areas of Bhutan, owing to the extremely mountainous terrain as well as a lack of materials and equipment. Conducting interview in remote areas therefore meant hiking in from the road head, in some cases for several days, and being hosted in the home of a local official. Bhutanese people are extremely hospitable and this often led to invitations to all manner of magnificent cultural experiences: archery competitions, tours of ancient ruins hidden in the jungle, samples of the local home-brew and wild edibles, meditation groups, and prayer ceremonies. The stunning landscapes and warm friendly people on top of all this made for an unforgettable experience.
More recently, I am now working closer to home, as the Sustainability Coordinator for the Severn Sound watershed in Ontario, Canada. The region is comprised of a number of small towns and townships that have developed a joint long-range sustainability plan. This promises all sorts of new challenges, but I am looking forward to it, and to continuing this sustainability journey.
*Luke's blog is found here: http://raftisl.wordpress.com
This story is found in the Winter 2011/12 edition of the Trunk & Branches newsletter. Click here to view the whole newsletter.