Environmental governance in Bhutan : ecotourism, environmentality and cosmological subjectivities

Jesse Montes

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This thesis explores how environmental conservation and subjectivities are influenced as Bhutan negotiates its increasing integration into the global neoliberal capitalist economy. Until recently, Bhutan sought to isolate itself to a large degree from international integration, instead relying on a strongly state-centred monarchic governance regime to deliver economic development domestically. In so doing Bhutan has developed an international reputation for forward thinking in regards to human well-being as the country contests dominant economic models for development practice through its promotion of its signature Gross National Happiness (GNH) agenda. Now, however, Bhutan is working to negotiate increased involvement in global market forces, causing fissures to emerge in this philosophy and ideology. One of the main forms of global market integration currently pursued by Bhutan is ecotourism, which has been described as a quintessential neoliberal project seeking to harness environmental conservation as a form of income generation (Büscher and Fletcher, 2015). While this promotion seeks to frame ecotourism as an economic strategy to balance environmental and development aspirations, how the sector influences cultural values and assumptions is unaddressed. In this way, ecotourism can be seen to promote particular cultural transformations and forms of subjectivities that challenge the broader goals of the GNH agenda to date. This work explores these dynamics through a poststructuralist political ecology framework. Via this lens, an examination of discourse and power relations at multiple scales is conducted in order to gain critical insight into conservation paradigms operating in the country under the influence of newfound neoliberalization processes. Concepts of governmentality and biopower ground this examination by providing a framework for analysing emerging rationalities of governance. Chapter 5 provides insight into Bhutan’s overarching forms of governance, placing the country within the context of global capitalism and associated discourses. A ‘variegated’ governmentality perspective highlights the coexistence of multiple rationalities that contribute to an emergent ‘Buddhist’ biopower grounded in situated values represented by a Buddhist worldview and the country’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) agenda. Chapter 6 focuses on the national level, honing in on environmental governance in particular. ‘Environmentality’, an adaptation of the governmentality concept, is employed as a conceptual framework for understanding environmental discourses in the country. The cases of ‘Bhutan for Life’, a policy plan for implementing conservation funding, and the ecotourism this plan promotes, are examined to understand how neoliberal discourses interact with a Buddhist worldview, a history of state paternalism, and the Gross National Happiness agenda, all of which constitute competing rationalities contributing to Bhutan’s unique environmental governance approach. Chapter 7 takes us to the community level, examining three ecotourism cases in the country, in order to explore ecotourism discourses present in each. Haa Valley homestay, the Phobjikha Homestay network, and the Phajoding Eco-Camp serve as select sites for this analysis. Drawing on Dwelling theory, the chapter shows that ecotourism conflicts with pre-existing local perceptions and values related to the environment. Divergences related to social and human-environment relations thus develop from enrolment in ecotourism programs, with contestations between the explicit goals of GNH and embedded communitarian values. Finally, Chapter 8 probes environmental subjectivities via a case study of Shokuna herders in the highlands of Haa Dzongkhag (district). Through a landscape ethnoecological approach, an animated cosmological landscape is revealed through the process of storying, highlighting particular perceptions and subjectivities related to a truth environmentality. Foucault’s ‘art of distributions’ (1977) are used as a scaffold for analysing this environmentality showing how subjectivities manifest through belief in a cosmological hierarchy, perceptions of an animated landscape, and a reversal of western technocratic and managerial perspectives. As such, herders within the landscape have developed specific beliefs, behaviours, and resource acquisition patterns attuned with a particular ‘environmental’ subject. These four chapters are interconnected, acting in a nested manner to develop a multiscalar analysis of Bhutan’s engagement with and contestations around environmental discourses. As such, these chapters aim to provide a nuanced analysis of the problematic situation facing the country in which ecotourism, and its associated neoliberal rationale, challenge existing societal norms and values. With the ecotourism sector being appraised as an ideal strategy for the country it is critical to explore contestations that emerge with its adoption in order to provide a realistic assessment that addresses broader cultural impacts. In terms of theoretical contributions, this work:

  1. Illustrates the variegated nature of a novel governance constellation in Bhutan and how this manifests in a situated form of biopower embodying non-western (Buddhist) spiritualities;

  2. Underscores local specificities that account for discrepancies in the vision and execution of neoliberal conservation but goes beyond this to express other rationalities that also exists within a variegated environmentality framework. I show that indigenous efforts prove critical when re-interpreting conservation strategies and warding off external dynamics, such as foreign agencies and global capitalist actors, that promote possibly dangerous trends putting at risk the goals of the GNH agenda;

  3. Addresses the discursive nature of the ecotourism sector through a rarely employed dwelling lens, which is used to interpret indigenous perceptions of the landscape and their relation to it in order to reveal local contestations to neoliberal logic. While neoliberalism and ecotourism promote dualist perspectives in terms of humans and/vs nature, dwelling theory resonates with Buddhist and Bhutanese worldviews in which these divides are less concrete;

  4. Contributes to GNH studies by juxtaposing the ideal of GNH with the neoliberal conservation paradigm, revealing opportunities for adapting the country’s ecotourism strategy;

  5. Provides an analysis of underexplored truth environmentalities based on cosmological subjectivities.

The political ecology of conservation in the country reveals a complex constellation of external and internal forces/actors that promote discourses of sustainability and wellbeing, with a concerted effort to respond to demands of the international community while maintaining a cultural identity grounded in spirituality and the concept of GNH. Driven by a need to facilitate development for a largely impoverished population, and the desire to uphold a reputation for strong environmental protection, Bhutan adopts particular strategies (payment for environmental services (PES), ecotourism, and green tax structures) that align with a neoliberal conservation model. However, this adoption is conducted without a critical eye to underlying rationalities that drive such strategies. As a result, discursive processes promote particular environmental subjectivities and novel perceptions that cultivate new social and human-environment relations putting at risk the broader goals of the GNH agenda.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Büscher, Bram, Promotor
  • Fletcher, Robert, Co-promotor
Award date1 Nov 2019
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463950121
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019


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