THIMPHU: Sonam Phuntsho was just a young boy when the passion for planting enveloped him.
In a rural village of eastern Bhutan, he recalls the first sapling that he helped foster outside his house, from seeds he retrieved from a forest nearby.
“When you plant a tree and when you see it grow, it makes me feel alive and of course it gives me boundless, pure joy,” he said. “I planted hordes of trees around my house and beyond every single winter holiday. From that fateful day on, there was no looking back.”
Now 58 years old and retired, Phuntsho is on a mostly solitary mission to bring life to the hills around his home - the nation’s capital city, Thimphu.
He is a tree warrior in a country with some of the most magical forests in the world. And there is much work to be done.
Bhutan is a country dedicated to environmental protection - its constitution mandates at least 60 per cent of its entire land mass be covered by forest, a target it easily meets and exceeds at the moment.
More than half of the country is also currently reserved as protected areas, national parks, animal sanctuaries and biological corridors.
The result is Bhutan has become a carbon negative country, largely thanks to the sinks its estimated 800 million of trees provide. Those offsets come to 8.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, about four times what the entire nation produces.
But as climate change places greater strain on the country’s forest resources and ecological balance, Phuntsho believes taking actions and making merit in the natural world has never been more important.
On land that has been left bare and barren as a result of wildfires and drying climate conditions, he gets to work each and every day.
Phuntsho hikes 10 kilometres to reach Kuensel Phodrang, gentle hills that overlook the misty valley that holds Bhutan’s biggest city. It is a spiritual place too, home to the Great Buddha Dordenma, an enormous gold-gilded bronze statue that overlooks the city.
Phuntsho leaves at 8am with a packed lunch and a bundle of seeds and cuttings. He is a self-driven volunteer but feels duty-bound to continue his task - planting new trees and managing the land.
“Since Bhutan has sworn to keep 60 per cent of its land under forest cover for all time to come, I feel deeply motivated that I am contributing in some small ways to fulfill this promise,” he said.
“The area is slowly coming back to life. I have planted more than 100,000 plants. It will take years but I know one day this hill will be bustling with forest life.”
His attitude and dedication is something intended to be instilled in all Bhutanese.
In February, on the occasion of the Bhutanese King’s birthday, the country’s prime minister, Dr Lotay Tshering, encouraged every citizen to plant a tree, as a “true example of being a climate champion”.
“If one could take care of a tree, that person is sure to be taking care of his or her family’s life in the best natural way possible,” he told CNA.
“Whatever we do on a daily basis, climate change is involved. What I wear, what I eat, what I do for the day actually has a direct bearing on climate change. For generations to come, Bhutan will definitely be carbon negative and that is a little gift we can give to the world.”
The government has prohibited commercial logging and local Bhutanese are prohibited from taking fish from the rivers, killing wild animals or setting fire to forests for agricultural or clearing purposes.
While this has allowed trees to flourish, some critics say forests are now overstocked, reducing the health of the life within it, affecting groundwater and increasing the risks of damaging fires. Grasslands and meadows have reduced and agricultural land has been constrained.
There are also arguments that using timber to fuel the construction industry would result in buildings more friendly to climate change, rather than the reliance on cement and glass that dominates Bhutan’s urban areas.
But officials are adamant that Bhutan is making the right decisions, despite the economic impacts that may result, and the law is strong in providing for forest protection.
“If you don’t have it in your constitution, the need to exploit for commercial purposes will always outweigh whatever other priorities you have. That’s the reality,” said Secretary of the National Environment Commission, Sonam Wangdi.
“Forests are a source of livelihood for many, and even for microclimatic conditions, the forest is what controls precipitation. The more forest you have, you’ll have more regular precipitation, so that helps farming communities,” he said.
“Every citizen is a trustee of the environment who has the right to enjoy and the duty to protect. It’s written in our constitution. It imposes responsibility on each and every citizen. We have to make efforts.”
Phuntsho could not be asked to do more. He hopes his work in degraded land areas will reap results for generations to come.
“For me planting trees is deeply spiritual. Every time I plant a tree I pray that it benefits all sentient beings,” he said.
“I am aware that when the tree that I plant grows, it becomes a source of home and food for hundreds of thousands of birds and insects and animals. If one tree can do that, imagine what hundreds of thousands of trees that you plant can do.”
He added: “We Buddhist believe that helping give a life and helping support a life are two of the biggest positive deeds that you can do in your lifetime. I am beyond happy that I get to do this every day of my life. I intend to do it until my last breath”.