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Articles & Stories

Bhutan’s GNH forestry policies changing sawmilling across the Himalayan country

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bhutan’s GNH forestry policies changing sawmilling across the Himalayan country

“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan, once said. In 1972, he conceived and enacted Bhutan’s development philosophy that is known as Gross National Happiness, or GNH for short.

This policy of determining policy and managing how development would occur in the country is different than simply looking at things from a GPD perspective. To learn more about how Bhutan’s forestry, logging and sawmilling industries are abiding by GNH principles, I visited Mr. Deo Kumar Biswa, General Manager of the Business Development & Marketing Division of a government owned company, Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited (NRDCL). 

Logs are sold at regulated prices to private sawmilling firms, while the NRDCL sawmills unwanted logs into usable timber

This Corporation is in charge of carrying out logging operations as per the forestry policy, and controls all commercial logging and carries out replanting activities in logged and barren areas of the country. They manage the logging process, and then sell the logs to private sawmills at regulated prices. Bhutan is a country with rich natural resources, a small population of around 750,000, and there are only about one hundred private sawmills in the country currently. However, there is a big demand for timber, as traditional Bhutanese architecture uses timber as a principle structural element.

“We have a very lofty ideal set by the constitution of Bhutan – at any point in time, we should maintain at least 60% forest cover,” shares Mr. Biswa. Currently, forests covers around 70% of the country.

The entrance to the NRDCL in Thimphu where national forestry policies are enacted

“We were mandated from the beginning to take care of the natural resources, mainly timber,” he continues. “We have a huge mandate to give back to nature, which means that we spend quite a substantial amount of money for replantation and reforestation programs. We are quite cautious and mindful of replenishing what we extract.”

As environmentally sound as their forestry conservation and logging policies have been, the Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited is quite concerned by the current level of many outdated technology being used by private sawmills to convert carefully grown and logged trees into sawn timber. Older, traditional Indian-made sawmills are still used by a majority of sawmillers in Bhutan, which require significant energy to operate, have low recovery rates (the ratio of original timber in the log to usable timber after sawing), and frequently contribute to workplace accidents.

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"We have a huge mandate to give back to nature, which means that we spend quite a substantial amount of money for replantation and reforestation programs."

After members of the Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited visited wood-related trade shows in India a few years ago, they discovered new sawmilling technologies that would be more in line with Bhutan’s GNH guidelines – less wasteful of the raw wood material, consume less energy, and be safer to use.

“Quite a number of players from the region and from abroad were displaying their technology,” Mr. Biswa recalls. “We had some discussions with these people and we got quite a lot of advice.”

The Wood-Mizer sawmills that caught their attention have perfected the technology of using thinner blades to cut timber. Smaller blades require less structural steel to be used in the machinery, smaller motors can be used, and a thinner kerf (the amount of wood removed by the blade during sawing) gives the user higher yields of usable and sellable timber from every log.

"The Wood-Mizer sawmill, we feel that this is so far the best technology, in terms of recovery percentage, and in terms of the robustness of the machines.”

The timber savings of thin-kerf sawmills is already well recognised in the country. Mr. Karma Thinley is the Project Director of a massive government academy being built on a mountaintop nearby Paro valley. The whole project will require 28,000 cubic metres of timber to be sawn on-site over the course of the next 8 years, and so finding the right sawmill for the job was of vital importance to the project’s success.

“We looked at all the cost/benefit analysis, advantages, disadvantages,” Mr. Thinley shares. “We found that it was better for us to invest in a Wood-Mizer, where the wastage percentage is much lower. We find a difference of almost 15-20%, in terms of waste reduction. And, when we did a calculation on the costs of the wastage of timber, we found that approximately one third of the total timber requirement for the project, just from the waste alone, we can recover the cost of by investing in the Wood-Mizer.”

In order to promote the adoption of smarter sawmilling technologies among private sawmill companies, the Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited had to think about more proactive strategies, so they bought a Wood-Mizer LT70 sawmill themselves.

“The government thinks that somebody should do proper value-addition study on wastage through sawing by using the old machines and cater to individual customer requirements,” Mr. Biswa shares. “That is the whole reason why we had to come up with a sawmill. We thought that this would be the ideal investment for us. And of course this is one thing we can actually trust in terms of recovery and lowered waste.”

“Value addition is something that we are very mindful,” he continues. “Whatever we have done by getting this technology, the Wood-Mizer sawmill, we feel that this is so far the best technology, in terms of recovery percentage, and in terms of the robustness of the machines.”

The LT70 Wood-Mizer deployed by Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited is a top-tier professional sawmill sold by Wood-Mizer, a company that originated in the United States in the early 1980’s, and has since sold more than 60,000 sawmills worldwide. This particular model bridges the gap between the company’s range of smaller, mobile sawmills for medium-sized companies and their higher production industrial sawmill range designed for more automated production.

The LT70 requires only one operator, who uses hydraulic and electric functions to load, turn, and then saw logs as required, all from the comfort of the operator seat. Another worker removes boards by hand and stacks the lumber, although automated board removal systems are available from the company. The operator uses the sophisticated onboard computer to pre-set board sizes, so no manual calculations are needed, and production can continue without slowing down when the operator wishes to change a board size.

Mr. Passang is a sawmiller who has become Wood-Mizer’s representative in Bhutan, and uses thin-kerf equipment in his own furniture and door factory just outside of Thimphu. He has been very instrumental in the current level of adoption of new sawmilling technology in the country.

“The whole idea is to make a maximum out of our resources,” shares Mr. Passang. “And this particular technology – Wood-Mizer technology – is actually saving our resources. For instance, when building a house we may require ten trees. With this technology, we require eight trees, or may be seven trees. The remaining three trees remain there unfelled for the next generation to utilise. And this will conserve our resources for the future generation.”

Mr. Deo Kumar Biswa of the Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited (NRDCL) in Bhutan

What was very interesting to me was to see a government organization leading the way in technological advance, whereas in many other places around the world, it is often the private sector leading the way. But in Bhutan’s case, their remoteness and their proactive approach to improvement and care for the environment is creating an environment where the government is not only leading, but leading by example, having set up their own sawmill to demonstrate the benefits.

But this kind of policy decision is not limited only to Bhutan. As reported in The Star, Kenya in April, 2016, the Kenyan Forestry Service issued new rules in order to more effectively combat illegal logging operations, by requiring licensed sawmillers to use thin-kerf sawmills only.

“In the new rules by KFS, saw millers licensed to cut trees in gazetted forests must use the Wood-Mizer machine as opposed to ordinary saws. KFS says the new machine produces more timber from a log than ordinary ones.”


For governments feeling pressure to make more of their resource and reduce waste, thin-kerf sawmills will be the future.

For more information:
Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited www.nrdcl.bt
The Star, Kenya article



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