Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Friday, 11 September 2009 11:47 UK

Bhutan action over prayer flags

Prayer flags in Bhutan
The Buddhist faith attaches huge symbolic importance to the use of flags

The Bhutanese government has warned its citizens not to cut down thousands of young trees every year to make poles for hoisting Buddhist prayer flags.

It said that the felling of trees is a threat to the tiny kingdom's beauty and undermines the government's duty to promote "Gross National Happiness".

The flags are flown by Himalayan Buddhists to help the dead find the right path in their next life.

They believe that the more flag poles put up for the departed the better.

Buddhist monks say fresh poles must be used each time.

Government figures show that between June 2007 to June 2008, 60,178 trees - about 165 every day - were felled to meet the demand for poles.

About 550 trees were felled daily for other uses.

'Merit earned'

"There's an immense pressure on the forest," forestry department spokesman Gopal Mahat told the Kuensel newspaper.

Forestry in Bhutan
The government has a constitutional duty to protect forestry

"We can't stop granting permits, especially for important religious rites because it involves sentiments," he said. "The demand is for straight, young trees, which have the potential of becoming crop trees."

Many Bhutanese Buddhists believe that the ideal number of prayer flags for deceased people is 108, preferably made from freshly cut trees.

"If you reuse an old flag pole, you aren't putting in enough effort, which means the merit earned is compromised," Buddhist monk Gyem Tshering told Kuensel. "Ideally, you should hoist 108 flags, but if you can afford more, it'll help the dead find the right path."

Officials warn that this approach means that most of Bhutan's forest will be gone within the next 20 years and that trees are already being cut down deeper and deeper within forests.

The problem has become so serious that forestry officers in the capital Thimpu have restricted the number of prayer flags posts to 29.

Plans are also afoot to persuade people to switch to bamboo for prayer flags, but a similar initiative recently launched to encourage people to use steel was unsuccessful.

Bhutan's constitution, which emphasises the importance of Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product, stipulates the country must have at least 60% forest cover.

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