February 6–11, 2023 — For the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19, the AFoCO Secretariat finally had the opportunity to visit Bhutan for project monitoring of the project on “Sustainable Community-based Enterprise Development for Improved Rural Livelihood in Bhutan (AFoCO/017/2020)“. The project monitoring saw the team visit AFoCO project sites in Paro, Thimphu, Gasa, and Punakha. Bhutan is a landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas that is located between India and China. Upon arriving at Paro International Airport, the team was greeted by the beautiful mountainous landscapes surrounding the airport.
The first visit to the project site was straight from the airport, a 30-minute drive from the airport brought the team to one of the five established community-based enterprises supported by the AFoCO project, the Drakey Chinto Group. All of the community members are nomads who would descend from the highlands (4,800 m above sea level) to Paro from November until February. Prior to the project, the raw materials collected by the community were sold at low costs close to the minimum price. The members of the community enterprise explained how the project not only provided a processing unit building and necessary equipment but also built the capacities of community members by teaching them the skills and techniques of incense production. With the support of the AFoCO project, the collected raw materials are first shredded and processed into smaller pieces before being ground into powders that are molded into incense sticks, a popular prayer product in Bhutan, where more than 90% of the population are Buddhists. Through the project, households within the community are now enjoying a 60% increase in annual income as compared to the pre-project periods. Community leaders as well as government forestry officials stationed in Paro are hoping to maintain production levels to contribute to the improvement of livelihoods.
The next day, the monitoring team headed up north, towards Gasa district, which is a 5-6 hour drive from Thimphu. On their way, the team was treated to a picturesque view of one of the largest monasteries in Asia — Punakha Dzong, which rests along a pristine river. Apparently, fishing in the river was not allowed in Bhutan, especially near the Dzong, and only those with certified permits were allowed to fish in the waters.
In Gasa, the monitoring team was greeted by the Governor of Gasa District, who warmly welcomed the team and thanked AFoCO for the contributions it has made to the communities in Gasa. The first project site in the district is a 15-20-minute hike from the main road, next to a natural sulfur waterfall. Tobked Menchhu, a small ecotourism enterprise, specializing in traditional hot-stone medicinal baths, was established through the AFoCO project. During the interview with the community-based enterprise group, they explained that the area used to be a publicly-accessible riverside area that was a popular spot for medicinal bathing and had great potential to be developed into a tourist site. Through the AFoCO/017/2020, infrastructure such as a stone heating system, two bath facilities, and a management building were built in the area. The community group leader shared that since the opening of the facilities, they have welcomed more than 100 visitors within 8 months, and are now able to generate income from the operation of the ecotourism facility.
The second project site in Gasa is Jagoey Menchhu, another ecotourism community-based enterprise specializing in hot-stone medicinal baths. The site is situated next to a famous hot spring in Bhutan, where basic infrastructure and services such as guesthouses and markets are available. The same situation was in place for Jagoey Menchhu as well: an open space with a natural sulfur waterfall well visited by people from all across Bhutan. With the support of the AFoCO project, the site now has a management building, two bath facilities, a stone heating system, and a washroom. The community enterprise leader of Jagoey Menchhu explained that they are expecting to welcome more visitors when the nearby hot spring (which was destroyed in a devasting flood last year) is rebuilt and refurbished soon.
Despite the cloudy and rainy weather, the monitoring team in Gasa managed to get a glimpse of the Himalayan mountain range. The team also had the opportunity to stay in a traditional home in Gasa, where there were no hotels or other lodging options due to the steep terrain. The homestay family welcomed the monitoring and project teams with open arms and was extremely accommodating throughout the two-day visit.
The last day of the monitoring team’s visit mainly took place in Thimphu, in the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, Department of Forests and Park Services, where the team was able to reconvene with former AFoCO fellowship officials from Bhutan: (1st from left) Mr. Lhab Tshering (2020 batch), and (1st from right) Mr. Sonam Tashi (2022-1 batch). During the final exit meeting, the Implementing Agency (IA) and the monitoring team reviewed the monitoring results and findings together and discussed ways forward for both the AFoCO Secretariat and the IA. In the end, both sides agreed upon their forward actions, and the monitoring team thanked the project team for their efforts, arrangements, and hospitality, and exchanged hopes that the monitoring results would serve as a good basis for the mid-term evaluation.
Contributed by Cha Jiyea, Assistant Program Officer