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Volunteering at the Royal Botanic Garden, Thimpu, Bhutan

Volume 3 Number 1 - December 2003
Christopher Watt

I was able to take six months unpaid leave as an IT specialist working for British Airways and work as a BGCI volunteer at the Royal Botanic Garden in Thimpu in Bhutan.

Bhutan is a tiny country nestled in the eastern Himalayas. For centuries it was closed to outsiders, only admitting visiting guests from 1975. Under the reign of the current King, it has moved from this self-imposed exile and developed links with the outside world.

Its unique flora has been researched over the last few decades by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, U.K. The country has been identified as one of only a dozen biodiversity 'Hotspots', making the study and conservation of its flora particularly important and the National Biodiversity Centre was set up to conserve and study the flora.

The country's first botanic garden was inaugurated by the Queen of Bhutan in 1999 - the silver jubilee of the King. The garden has been developed in an area which was initially an abandoned pasture; it has had its soil and drainage improved, and a planting and building programme is progressing, assisted by technical advice from the U.K. and Japan. The many native species of Rhododendron and orchid form the centrepiece of the garden with various introduced flowering, medicinal and economic plants. The dominant tree around the garden, the Tongphu or Blue Pine (Pinus wallichiana) frame the mountains of the Himalayas that can be seen from viewpoints in the garden. Other trees which have been collected for the Garden include the Chir Pine Pinus roxburghii and species of Quercus and Acer.

My main role was to adapt BG-Recorder 2000 to the needs of the garden and train garden staff in its use. BG-Recorder is a universal software package based on Microsoft Access which has been developed by BGCI for its members for the management of living plant collections.

Before I left for Bhutan I developed a number of objectives for the placement via discussion with the Garden Director, Ms Sangay Dema and Sangay's line-manager, Dr Ugyen Tsewang, Director of the National Biodiversity Centre. As well as adapting BG-Recorder 2000, I was to develop a web-site for the garden and train staff at the Garden and at the National Biodiversity Centre in the use of MS Access. Where time allowed I would also give ad hoc training on systems like MS Powerpoint and in general 'be a useful temporary member of staff'.

When I arrived I realised that the garden needed to increase its capability in collecting and managing plant records. As the garden had only been started comparatively recently, details of accessions in the garden had not been written down, the three professional staff at the garden concentrating mainly on horticulture, completing building work and collecting plant species for display. Moreover the garden itself had not been fully mapped into different  areas. However the staff were aware that having written records of accessions were important, as was having a detailed map of the garden.

I spoke to Sangay after I arrived to develop a detailed weekly plan. My first few weeks concentrated on working with Mr Sithar Dorji on developing forms to record plant accessions and formalising a map of the garden. These  were then used on expeditions to collect  material for the arboretum and also to record details about existing accessions. After this we concentrated on the database. I developed the user interface of the database so that the forms on screen matched those of the garden's paper forms. I also made a set of reports to look at such things as the number of different plants in each location within the garden and the condition of plants. This was done in conjunction with Sithar, making sure that the most appropriate information was available without making the system too complex to use.

By this time some written data had been collected on new and existing accessions which was used to train Sithar and Sangay on a one - to - one basis; a mix of practical work and question - and - answer sessions. At this point I visited the east of the country which gave them an opportunity to enter more details during my absence which consolidated the database. In spare moments I developed the web-site (www.geocities.com/royalbotanicgarden_bhutan). In the last few weeks I did more detailed one-to-one training on MS Access programming with Mr Rinchen Dorji, the information officer for the National Biodiversity Centre. A student volunteer called Wangmo, who had computer training, was given assistance in managing the garden's web-site using MS Front page.

The Bhutanese arranged accommodation for me and most vitally a working visa. Without the visa the placement would have been impossible. They also arranged transport to and from the Garden while I covered the cost of flights to Bhutan and living costs.

Despite very little background in botany, I was able to use my experience in databases to train staff in how to record accession data electronically and develop reports that enable the staff at the garden to quickly get access to information about the plants. Because of limited budgets and experience in Bhutan, such outside help was valuable and the garden was pleased to welcome a volunteer who came forward to assist them in a sometimes  overlooked aspect of a garden's work.

Working in Bhutan was an amazing experience, a total contrast from the world of a blue-chip company. I was particularly grateful for the chance to visit the east of the country, where the western world has not yet reached. In the east, the majority of the population lives a  predominantly rural, self - contained life as subsistence farmers without motor cars, TV or material pressures. I also had the opportunity to go on a trek through the Himalayan Mountains with some other expatriates. As a very keen climber and mountaineer, this was a dream come true!

The county - traditional, rural, devoutly Buddhist - has been described as 'The last shangri-la'. It attracts a small number of visitors a year who are fortunate enough not only to appreciate the incredible diversity of its plant and animal life, but a way of life largely unspoilt by the influence of the west. The development goal of the country is 'Gross National Happiness' - a lucky nickname for a philosophy that looks at ways of life, access to health care and education and indeed spiritual contentment as the touchstones of society.

The Garden, in explaining and preserving the unique plant biodiversity - is a step along that road.

Christopher Watt
BA Waterside, Asia House, HDA3
Heathrow Airport, LONDON UB7 U.K..
Tel:+44 (0)208 738 7992
E-mail: christopher.j.watt@britishairways.com
Internet: www.chriswatt.net/bhutan



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