A month ago, I had travelled to Pemagatshel. It was my first visit to this place. Like most of you, this remote southeastern dzongkhag was one among few that I had never been to before. The others were Gasa and Lhuentse.
So this particular visit made me think why a place like Pemagatshel remains absolutely secluded, backward.
The ride on the Pemagathsel road, after we diverted from the Samdrupjongkhar-Trashigang highway, was very bumpy, rough; to put it more accurately, scary ride. The road was too bad - very narrow, very dusty. Potholes were so common. It seemed like the road was not maintained for many years.
To the locals and travellers, this road was known as notorious for its bad condition and reckless trucks plying on the road. Incessant jumbo gypsum trucks ran along the road like it was a runway, blatantly ignoring the IMTRAT’s notice “This is highway, not runway”.
However, the infinite forest of coniferous and broad leaf kept me amazed all the time. And quite wondrously, they consumed all the mountains. 87.65% of the total area was under forest cover.
Being a resident of Thimphu, where I was used to looking at the thinly spread pine tree over the mountains, this forest of coniferous was a real treat to my eyes - so thick, so broad, so green and so lush.
Amidst the slopes of those deep mountains and dark forest, a few pockets of human settlements have rested forlorn, which brought a deep melancholic feeling to my heart. They appeared to me like God’s rare handiwork.
After four hours of rough and scary ride, I could finally spot Pemagatshel valley. From the top, it has amazing views looking at scattered settlements. The shape and landscape of the valley was like a bowl, like a lotus flower. Several strings of sharp-edged slopes like lotus petals fell around into the bowl, which was dressed by blissful villages.
Truly, quite accurately, it’s Pemagatshel, meaning “Blissful land of the lotus”.
Then suddenly, an ominous scene right in the middle of the valley, right in the middle of human settlements appeared to steal the scene. The Gypsum Mining, an area of 26.77 hectares in Khothakpa, was an eyesore. It was ripping apart the “Land of the blissful lotus” and its pristine environment.
Looking at it, I just felt a twinge of disappointment and frustration. The mining looked like a cancer digging deep into a human body and ripping apart his flesh. Entire valley echoed, trembled with the sound of the monstrous machines grinding mercilessly at the sites.
After a little while, it put me into such a miserable mood. I felt so bad I almost cried. There’s no doubt that it was a beautiful sunny day. But the villagers couldn’t feel it, as the dust in the sky was obscuring the sun like the day was under the solar eclipse.
Peach plants were blossoming everywhere, but the dust had mired them, suffocated their growth. The clothes drying up outside had collected fresh dust. Roofs and tree leaves were coated with layers of dust. The day was bitterly hot.
Coming to Pemagatshel, I felt like I was not in Bhutan. It was as though I had just stepped in a mining-obsessed state, where the development philosophy was not GNH but greed and materialism, where they wouldn’t mind extracting wealth at the cost of destroying their pristine environment and ruining their own people’s health and life.
How long Pemagathselpas have stopped seeing beautiful days? How long they have missed the clear view of the sun, stars, and moon? How long they were suffocated with the dust-filled air. How long they have been tolerating this unlikely heat? How many lives of the local people were affected by the mining?
Enough is enough. For, you cannot bruise and wound a place more than this. For, you cannot give more sufferings and pains to the innocent people than this. However, the most important question to ask is: How long this will go on?
The locals have been bearing the ills of these environmentally degrading venture for the past three decades. The mining brought more harms than fulfilling its objective of utilizing the reserve for economic development of the area and optimization of revenue to the Royal Government of Bhutan.
If we look at the statistics, the contribution of mining sector to the nation’s economy was very insignificant, at a mere two percent. The gypsum mining was started at Pemagatshel in 1983, and quite ironically, according the website of Dzongkhag, the Pemagatshel still has second highest level of poverty at 26.9 percent after Lhuentse.
Mining is an undesirable economic venture, which doesn’t serve the community, local people or the interest of the nation. It benefits a handful of people.
The wound was too deep, but not too late to fix. Pemagatshel still will be a better place, the land of the lotus flower. The current auction lease of Khotakpa will expire on December 31, 2018. The government should stop such harmful venture. But most importantly, the people of Pemagatshel should knit together and say NO to mining.Say it loud, and say it bold.