Bhutanese Children on a Mission to Lighten their Load on the Planet
Avoiding an ‘ecological credit crunch’ requires training and education for new skills and a change in attitudes to enable countries to leapfrog towards sustainable consumption and production practices. Children in Bhutan are proving to be valuable agents in this process.
By Sara Tchaparian
Twelve-year-old Meghna Pradhan is not your average adolescent. She switches off the light when she leaves the room, picks up rubbish in her path, and turns off the tap when she’s brushing her teeth. At her family home near the banks of the Wang Chuu river which runs through Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu, Meghna has set up a compost heap in the garden and installed buckets to collect rainwater water for the plants. She’s put recycling bins around her neighbourhood and she’s even convinced family and friends to use a carpooling system to cut back on road traffic pollution in the city.
Meghna dreams of becoming a doctor when she’s older, but her current passion is focused on cultivating respect for the environment. “A small effort can make a big difference,” she says smiling. Meghna sets about spreading her eco enthusiasm, organising clean ups around their area and informing friends and neighbours of what they can do to help. “Nature is my closest friend”, she says, “I love seeing a green and clean environment and I want to tell others about how good it feels to be an eco-friendly person.”
Several kilometres away, just off the expressway on the outskirts of Thimphu, eleven-year-old Sonam Tenzin Wangchuk is making breakthrough changes in his community in Babesa. Sonam, who lives here with his parents and grandma, is concerned by the high levels of heating consumption that are generated due to a lack of windows in the houses in his area. Although the climate in Thimphu is generally mild, the average annual temperature is 11°C, and this can fall to as low as 5°C during the winter months.
“We burn coal and wood, and use a lot of resources to make electricity”, explains Sonam, “so we are losing a lot of energy to heat these rooms with no windows, even at noon.”
Accompanied by his grandma, a long-time resident of the Babesa community, and armed with a sheet of paper showing his calculations of potential savings on electricity bills, Sonam sets about doing door-to-door visits to advise his neighbours of the advantages of fitting windows in their wooden huts, and to encourage them to participate in his initiative.
“If my entire community agrees with my idea,” he says eagerly, “then we could save over a million Bhutanese Ngultrum (approximately $15,000) in just a few decades!”
The outcome was fruitful: “The neighbours were more than happy to help out! We had an ongoing construction at our house”, explains Sonam, “so we used the resources to build windows for our house and the neighbouring huts. We were able to bring positive change because we had a lot of support!”
“Youth are at the very least a global army of message carriers, and at most, a gigantic tidal wave of change-makers, innovators, and future leaders.”
There is little doubt about the enthusiasm of these pre-teens in making sustainable change happen. Earlier this year on International Youth Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognised children not only as the victims of progress and its polluting industries, but also as vital agents of change. Referring to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns worldwide, Ban Ki-moon said, “Youth can deliver solutions on these issues, and these lie at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
Central to this idea is the active role of children both in the remodelling of production and consumption processes, as well as in communicating vital message. Children have the potential to sensitise populations of all ages — friends, brothers, mothers, aunties and grandmas — to the burning issues surrounding the protection of our planet, and with their increasing presence on social media, their messages can be transmitted worldwide. Comprising approximately 30% of the world’s population, youth are at the very least a global army of message carriers, and at most, a gigantic tidal wave of change-makers, innovators, and future leaders.
Both Meghna and Sonam are participants of the “EGO-to-ECO Challenge”, a project piloted in nine primary, middle and high schools across Bhutan’s capital to encourage students, teachers and schools to think about their consumption habits and to make changes for a more sustainable lifestyle. EGO-to-ECO Challenge founder, Pem Lama explains: “The name of the challenge refers to the change in our mindsets and systems that is necessary to achieve sustainability. This is a key part of people’s well being — if the planet isn’t cared for, then we simply won’t survive.”
Pem uses the word ‘CARE’ as a key concept in her campaign to encourage children to think of themselves as part of a larger ecosystem. “Care is interconnected”, she says, “from self to others, to the environment. The various layers of sustainability can be bought closer to people’s hearts, especially those of young children, and the results so far have been truly inspiring.”
The idea for the EGO-to-ECO Challenge stemmed from a course that Pem completed last year on sustainable consumption and production (SCP) in Asia. The course is provided online by UNITAR, the training and research wing of the United Nations, in collaboration with UN Environment. As well as teaching the basics of SCP, it enables policy-makers and full-time professionals from across the continent to re-think production and consumption processes together via an online forum.
Maya Valcheva, UNITAR’s Training Assistant on Green Development and Climate Change, emphasises that SCP begins with understanding: “Participants learn the basic concepts of SCP and link these to their own realities. They can exchange practices and ideas online, and many have gone on to create an impact in their field through education or policy change as a result of the SCP course.”
Small grants are subsequently given to selected participants who have completed the programme, such as Pem, for a proposed SCP project developed during the course. The initiative is funded within the framework of the European Union’s SWITCH-Asia Programme. “The e-learning course really helped me to concretise the concepts of sustainability,” says Pem, “as it examines the different approaches and instruments for sustainable consumption. The idea of incentivising and encouraging ‘good’ (sustainable) behaviour really helped me in the design and success of my project.”
The UNITAR course was specifically designed for the Asia-Pacific region, where SCP is a pressing subject. Asia is currently the world’s largest manufacturing hub and it is growing at an accelerated pace in comparison with the other continents of the world.
Sara Castro of UN Environment’s Economy Division explains: “We know Asia will grow further, and that the region will increase its consumption levels as populations here increase. This has the potential for either a positive or negative effect on the planet, so it’s important to teach people not to overuse natural resources, and to urge the private sector to implement more sustainable practices in the supply chain.”
But implementing SCP is not always straightforward. Countries are slow to open up to change as the awareness and understanding of sustainable consumption practices is low, and small and medium-sized enterprises often lack the finance and capacity that is necessary to enforce sustainable methods. What’s more, environmental policies or legislation that restrict damage to the environment are either nonexistent or overlooked in many countries.
“Convincing policy-makers to take steps towards changes for SCP is the most difficult challenge,” says Maya Valcheva of UNITAR. “There will always be winners and losers as a result of policy reform, and this causes fear. Promoting sustainable consumption and production is really about looking in a holistic way of how changes will affect various sectors so that economic opportunities can be upscale and losers can be compensated. This is what the training programme teaches them to do.”
“School is a good place for children to learn life skills, and we find that one is never too young or too old to learn.”
Bhutan itself is often regarded as an exemplary model of environmentally sustainable development. The country’s effective use of hydropower and its strict policies on maintaining its forests have meant that it is the only carbon negative country in the world, absorbing more carbon dioxide than it produces. Bhutan’s approach to sustainable development is based on its own happiness index, the Gross National Happiness index (GNH) which seeks to balance both material and non-material factors of well-being and also includes pillars of sustainable socio-economic development and environmental conservation.
“Bhutan comes with a unique and inspiring vision for the world”, says Pem. “If we can marry Bhutan’s GNH philosophy — which values mindful development — with “Western” values of innovation, then we can generate tremendous opportunities for the creation of a sustainable world, but as a nation we currently lack the capacity to implement this.”
Since 2009, schools in Bhutan have been encouraged to align their establishments with the principles of GNH through a government initiated programme called “Educating for GNH”. This means that some, but not all, schools have recycling schemes, compost bins, vegetable patches or flower gardens in their school grounds to promote outdoor learning, which effectively bolsters many of the principles and values of the GNH. Early Learning Centre Thimphu head teacher, Karma Doma Tshering, says the EGO-to-ECO Challenge was a further opportunity for students at her school to understand that, “we are a part of nature, and not apart from it”. She highlights the role of children as agents of change: “It is our wish to teach children well by empowering them to be positive change makers in their communities. School is a good place for children to learn life skills, and we find that one is never too young or too old to learn”.
With youth activism on the rise — their actions propagated through increased connectivity and social media — Pem is intent on continuing her focus on children as the mouthpiece for SCP in Bhutan. She plans to roll out the EGO-to-ECO Challenge on a larger, perhaps national scale through further funding.
“I get such an enthusiastic response for this initiative,” says Pem. “The children accept SCP ideas and take them on immediately, whereas in my experience communicating SCP with my work for Green Public Procurement in Bhutan (GPP Bhutan) project, adults are a bit more hesitant to adopt SCP practices, even if they see the benefits of doing so.”
“If global populations reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles.”
The United Nations states that if global populations reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles. Training for SCP processes would appear to be vital at this time, and there is a need to fund training programmes that cover all regions. UN Environment’s Sara Castro holds an optimistic tone. She is hopeful that with the necessary technical support and follow-up, change will happen. “You plant seeds and then you see how they grow”, she says.
It’s prize-giving day for the students and schools who took part in the EGO-to-ECO Challenge, and the students are gathered at the ECO Fair to present their projects. Each school has a stall, and rich displays of products made by the children from recycled waste bring colour to the venue. Judges walk around to decide which school has made the most impact, and which students have brought the most sustainable change to their school and local community.
Clad in traditional national dress, girls and boys gather at the awards ceremony to hear the announcement of the winners. Eight students are chosen for the award of ‘Sustainable Student Ambassador,’ and Meghna is one of them. As she receives her prize, she bows her head in a sign of respect to the honorary guest, Karma Tshering, Director General of the Department of School Education, from Bhutan’s Ministry of Education.
Meghna feels content. “The best thing about the EGO-to-ECO Challenge,” she says enthusiastically, “is the impact that it has made, just by spreading the word in the community.”
Sonam is also called up for an award. He is now in high school and would like to start a programme that will help to reduce fossil fuel consumption. He looks proudly at his Sustainable Student Ambassador certificate.
When asked what he feels he has achieved, he hints at his staunch determination to keep up the good work: “I changed my neighbours’ mindsets,” he says with conviction, “so they learnt to say ‘We’ instead of ‘I’. I’ve learnt that no problem should be neglected, and that the world will only advance if young people make a difference…
I feel I can!”