Progress in Bhutan has yet to reach the whole nation. Many people in remote regions of this small country still have barely enough to live on. Helvetas is helping to overcome rural poverty in Bhutan through a project to improve agriculture and develop markets.
Within the space of only 10 years, Bhutan has succeeded in shrinking its poverty rate from 25% to 2%. And yet little has changed in certain regions. The villages here look the same as they did fifty years ago, and the villagers have been working the land the same way for generations. In Zhemgang and Sarpang, for example, districts along the Indian border that until recently were cut off from the rest of the modernizing country, 45% of all households are poor or very poor. Helvetas helps fight rural poverty here through an agricultural project.
Mobile telephony and new roads have brought these two districts closer to modern Bhutan. Their farms now have a wider range of marketing channels for their produce. But they have to adapt their production to a more demanding market. Every year, with Helvetas’ support, 1,000 of the poorest farming families are improving their production of traditional commercial products such as oranges, ginger, cardamom, butter and cheese.
The farmers are forming collectives to pool their forces, running small warehouses jointly and taking charge of local infrastructure, e.g. for simple agricultural roads. They take courses in making the most of market mechanisms. Now that they are organized, they are acquiring more leverage in the new marketing chains and working with traders and carriers to improve their sales. In a word, the farmers’ cooperatives help farming families break out of isolated subsistence farming and into market-oriented production. In particular, we support women actively seeking jobs in the governing bodies of these communities.
Because the state intervenes heavily in economic development with its five-year plans, local and regional officials are invited to closely observe and follow this Helvetas project so as to ensure that sound economic approaches spread beyond the poorest households of the Zhemgang and Sarpang districts to other disadvantaged parts of the country.