No Happiness without the Trees: Bhutan’s Trailblazing Environmental Law

March 29, 2023 The Asia Foundation
No Happiness without the Trees: Bhutan’s Trailblazing Environmental Law
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No Happiness without the Trees: Bhutan’s Trailblazing Environmental Law
Mar 29, 2023
The Asia Foundation

Sangay Dorjee (00:03):

GSW Law is founded on the belief that the rule of law plays a central role in promoting good governance, environmental protection, and sustainable development, which are the pillars of Gross National Happiness.

John Rieger (00:17):

Carbon development, and a law school that studies Gross National Happiness. Today on InAsia from The Asia Foundation, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (00:25):

And I'm Tracie Yang. Bhutan is the Himalayan kingdom of about 700,000 with the rare distinction of being carbon negative thanks to its low emissions and abundant carbon-absorbing forests, forests that are protected by the country's constitution.

John Rieger (00:40):

But if Bhutan isn't part of the problem, they still think they can be part of the solution. Last month, Bhutan's Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law School launched its much anticipated Climate Justice and Law Center with an international forum bearing the disarming title Climate Justice for Happiness. Joining us now is the founding dean of JSW Law, Sangay Dorjee.


Dean Dorjee, welcome to InAsia.

Sangay Dorjee (01:04):

[foreign language 00:01:04] from Bhutan, and I'm looking forward to talking to InAsia.

Tracie Yang (01:08):

Excellent. So perhaps the legend of Shangri-La is true. After all, how did Bhutan become a paradise of negative carbon emissions?

Sangay Dorjee (01:17):

Thank you, Tracie. People in Bhutan really feel very fortunate and lucky, and we owe a debt of gratitude to His Majesty, the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who can be described as a great visionary.


Long before environmental concerns became a global agenda, the fourth king made the protection and preservation of the environment a national priority. He was among the first few world leaders who saw beforehand the increasing pressure that development would exert on the planet and its fragile ecosystems.


So his majesty in 2006, before his application, gifted the Constitution to the people of Bhutan. In it, he made us not only the trustees of the environment, but also made it a fundamental duty to preserve our environment for the present and future generations. So as a result, Bhutan enjoys a wealth of ecological diversity with 71% national forest cover, making Bhutan one of the few carbon-negative countries in the world. So this is where we are right now.

John Rieger (02:24):

Bhutan is one of just three countries on the planet that absorb more carbon than they emit, along with Panama and Suriname. So, why has Bhutan's National Law School chosen to emphasize environmental stewardship in its curriculum?

Sangay Dorjee (02:37):

Conservation of the environment is one of the four pillars of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness philosophy,

John Rieger (02:43):

Excuse me. Gross National Happiness, this is Bhutan's alternative to gross domestic product. And we're going to be talking about this more in a minute or two. I'm sorry. Please go ahead.

Sangay Dorjee (02:53):

Yes. As mandated in the Constitution, Bhutan preserves at all times 60% of its land under forest cover. By promoting environmental stewardship in its curriculum, JSW law is ensuring that future law graduates understands the importance of preserving national resources for their own livelihoods and the country's development.

Tracie Yang (03:14):

So then, what are some of the climate issues that you see JSW taking on

Sangay Dorjee (03:20):

Going forward, I think the major focus of climate law will be targeted towards mitigation, including the emission reduction responsibility, and of course justice issues, distribution of climate impacts and duties between polluting and non polluting states, impacts of climate change and vulnerable populations, and equal participation of vulnerable groups in decision-making concerning climate actions.


The law school in the coming years will continue to advocate on the issues of climate justice, including the issues of laws and damage, issues of access to climate finance, green bonds and climate bonds, and changing politics of climate change.


Through climate change in environmental law clinics, we will work closely with communities and stakeholders to understand the impacts of climate change and develop innovative solutions to such problems. Globally, of course, we will continue to support climate justice advocacy through education, research, and by hosting and participating in international dialogues. The law school would like to definitely play a critical role addressing some of these important issues in the coming years.

John Rieger (04:25):

Tell us a little bit more about how JSW Law came into being. Whose vision was it? What was the journey like to bring the law school to reality?

Sangay Dorjee (04:38):

Thanks for that question. As I mentioned earlier, again, the fourth king comes into the picture. The fourth king of Bhutan is the author of Gross National Happiness, the father of Bhutan's constitutional democracy. And it could not therefore be more upsetting for His Majesty, the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, to establish Bhutan's first and only law school in the fourth king's name.


A command was issued to Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck, who is currently the president of the law school, in 2009 to oversee the law school project. She began groundwork leading to the establishment of a project office in 2013. And we had the first cohort of 25 students, 13 women and 12 men, in 2017. At that point of time, we had only about seven faculty, five national and two international faculty, and based in a hired private campus in the capital city of Thimphu. And it was only in March last year that we moved to the permanent campus based in Paru on a hilltop, followed by a historic graduation of its first class. And they are happily contributing to the rule of law in the country.

John Rieger (05:53):

You must be very proud of this first class of graduates.

Sangay Dorjee (05:59):

Oh, I can feel that sense of satisfaction really, of having been there right from the beginning, working on this law school project on a plain piece of paper, to the infrastructure and the graduates. So it's really fulfilling for me and of course, everybody who was involved in this project.

Tracie Yang (06:15):

So last month you held the school's first Paro Forum with the great title, Climate Justice for Happiness. Tell us about the forum and why the climate community should pay attention to Bhutan.

Sangay Dorjee (06:29):

We celebrate His Majesty's birthday every year and this year, JSW Law hosted a three-day forum titled Climate Justice for Happiness, funded by grants from the Karina Foundation and The Asia Foundation. This was attended by more than 130 participants, climate leaders and stakeholders from around the world, to share knowledge and best practices and effectively addressing the rising impacts of climate change.


This integral Paro Forum marked the launch of JSW Law's', Climate Change and Environmental Laws Center and initiated Bhutan's unique position and experience as one of the few carbon-negative countries in the world. The forum discussed the intersection of science, humanities, and philanthropy to the complexities of governance, law, politics, and climate change.


As climate impacts are not created and distributed equally, climate justice can play an important role in creating a conducive environment to seek just solutions for their wellbeing. And such solutions cannot be found solely in law. Bhutan is a very good example for this. Its interdisciplinary approach of GNS, Gross National Happiness played an important role in Bhutan's success thus far.

John Rieger (07:41):

Well, let's talk now about Gross National Happiness. What is that and how does it fit with Bhutan's development and the mission of JSQ Law?

Sangay Dorjee (07:51):

JSW Law is founded on the belief that the rule of law plays a central rule in promoting good governance, environmental protection, and sustainable development, which are the pillars of Gross National Happiness. So GNH in short is one of JSW Law's curriculum and research initiatives. The Climate Change and Environmental Law Center is founded on the same pillar, one such focus of the center being promotion of interdisciplinary education and research on sustainability, environment, law and climate justice. So basically what we have envisioned for the law school is very much guided by the philosophy and core values of the Gross National Happiness.

John Rieger (08:34):

So GNH, Gross National Happiness wants to measure development not just by GDP per capita, but also by other indicators like psychological wellbeing, health and education, time spent in work and leisure, good governance, ecological resilience. But can GNH really be a metric like G DP?

Sangay Dorjee (08:56):

Perhaps not one to one, but I think this is an alternative development paradigm. There's about nine indicators that will measure the country's development on the GNH scale. By placing the country's development not only from the perspective of domestic product, but from developing and happiness of the citizens, this GNS model provides a alternative measuring tool for country's development. So this provides an alternative for the rest of the world.

Tracie Yang (09:27):

And why do you think it's important to change to measuring happiness? What does that do in terms of your students' thinking?

Sangay Dorjee (09:36):

With the country's development and globalization, there is the increase focus on materialism, individualism, which is very important. But the Gross National Happiness concept focuses on the wellbeing and happiness of the entire population. And then the government's role is to create the conditions for happiness and wellbeing of the citizens. And therefore, I think as we produce lawyers, we have to train lawyers who can look out for a bigger picture in terms of the interest and the wellbeing of the others as well. So the happiness of everybody is important in this development paradigm,

John Rieger (10:17):

It sounds like Bhutan is a really nice place to live.

Sangay Dorjee (10:20):

Oh, it's trying to be one, and I think we can. We are working hard on it right now. Initially, when we started law school and we went out in 2016 for the recruitment drive, the only thing that could think of studying law was to become a lawyer or a judge. And then we had to explain and say, "Look, open up that horizon into many other professions."


A few of our graduates have opted for jobs which are not typically a lawyering or a judge's job, but that really makes optimum use of the legal knowledge. And the other things that we open up the admissions to all the different streams, the humanities, the commerce, and the science streams. So that has also made the legal education attractive.


This year, the class of 2020, we had about 900 applicants for a limited seat of 25.

Tracie Yang (11:12):


Sangay Dorjee (11:13):

So very competitive. And also because all the students who get admitted are a hundred percent scholarships.

John Rieger (11:21):

That's impressive.

Sangay Dorjee (11:21):

So here we encourage all the students from different backgrounds to apply and it makes all the more attractive for the students to apply. And we choose the best, of course.

Tracie Yang (11:30):

Are there other entities in Bhutan working on climate change and how do you see working with them? What does JSW Law bring to the table?

Sangay Dorjee (11:40):

Yes, we have many entities in Bhutan that address climate change work, and they've been doing for many years. For example, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Bhutan Ecological Society, Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, and many other NGOs and CSOs are also working towards the goal of climate justice.


The Climate Change and Environmental Law Center will play the key coordinating role. So for instance, during the recent Paro Forum, the Climate Center brought together climate leaders, experts, scientists, activists, youths practitioners, and policy-makers from around the world to engage in discussions on climate justice.


Similarly, in developing the strategy paper for the Environmental Law Center, all the national stakeholders were involved in the process. So therefore, while we have many other key players, we believe that JSW Law School can play a coordinating role. We can bring all these players together and we can speak the same language and use a common platform. So I think we have succeeded with the Paro Forum and we hope that we can continue. So

John Rieger (12:50):

Dean Dorgee, what's it like for you on a personal level, leading Bhutan's National Law school and this elite student body?

Sangay Dorjee (12:58):

Oh, well, I'm not a lawyer myself and I have a group of faculty who are basically lawyers and then I have a group of students who are also to be lawyers. I can see the transition that they make from year one to year three. By year three, they become very good lawyers.


Oftentimes, I make decisions that they don't like and these faculty and the students come together and try to convince me, try to argue with me, one non-lawyer against a group of lawyers. And the only argument I gave is, "Look, guys, law or any other subject I would consider as only 30% of what somebody can know. The rest 70% what I call is the common sense or the experience. I believe that I have that, and therefore, please do not argue with me." And I make a decision because I've not made the decision based on the 30%, but I've made the decision based on the 70%, which is for the common good, not for the lawyers. So I don't know. Please don't laugh if you don't have wish to laugh, but I think it's something that-

John Rieger (14:06):

So it sounds like your law students become a lot more difficult to deal with as they go through the school.

Sangay Dorjee (14:13):

By year three, I can definitely see the dramatic change in them.

Tracie Yang (14:19):

So you're their first challenge then?

Sangay Dorjee (14:21):

Yes. And definitely in the course of my time at the law school, I have learned so much, more than actually I contributed to the law school. So I really will graduate also very soon with so much of that, things that I've learned during my time at the law school.

John Rieger (14:37):

Sangay Dorgee, founding Dean of Bhutan's Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law. Thank you for joining us today,

Sangay Dorjee (14:45):

John, Tracie, thank you so much.

Tracie Yang (14:47):

That's our show for this week. Dean Dorjee and our own Meghan Nalbo have written at greater length about Bhutan, carbon emissions and the philosophy of Gross National Happiness in this week's InAsia blog. Tracie and John say, "Check it out."

John Rieger (15:00):

And while I don't like to nag, why not take a moment to subscribe to our podcast while you're there? Until next time, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (15:07):

And I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (15:08):

Thanks for listening.