Community-Based Aquaponic Agriculture, Virtual Tourism and Community Awareness.
Community-Based Aquaponic Agriculture, Virtual Tourism and Community Awareness.
The project will take place along the Manas River basin in southern Bhutan which mostly falls under the administration of Royal Manas National Park (RMNP). As Bhutan’s first national park, established in 1966, RMNP is home to countless wildlife species and is a genetic depository of valuable plants. Some of the endangered wildlife species include the Bengal tiger, golden langur, Rufous necked hornbills, Asiatic water buffalo, Asian elephant, one-horned rhinoceros, Ganges river dolphins, and many more. The Manas River is also home to three species of rare migratory game fish: the deep-bodied mahseer, golden mahseer, and chocolate mahseer or Katle.
The abundant natural resources at RMNP face increasing threats from human development. The local population of 11,266 along the river basin experiences one of the highest incidences of poverty in Bhutan at 16.7%. Subsistence farming confronting poverty frequently results in the overexploitation of natural resources. Major environmental issues and challenges in the landscape include: human-wildlife conflict (crop depredation), unsustainable collection of non-wood forest products, shortages of drinking and irrigation water, solid waste management, and agricultural land being invaded by invasive alien species. Ecosystem services and natural resources will face additional pressure as the area welcomes new development programs focused on hydropower and the infrastructure to support these projects. These manifold threats make conservation of the Manas River drainage a priority along with the need for sustainable livelihood strategies for the communities who live along the river basin. Taking action in this region is crucial to sustain this landscape, the services it provides, and the diverse biological communities it supports. Moreover, conservation actions in this area can offer benefits to the nine other Bhutanese national parks and one Indian national park connected by biological corridors as well as downstream communities as the Manas River flows into the Bay of Bengal.

Bhutan’s greatest attractions as a tourist destination are its natural landscape and the unique cultural heritage that developed due to its unique terrain. Adventure tours bring guests closer to nature through single-day hikes, multi-day treks, mountain bike rides, and whitewater rafting trips. Many of these opportunities allow for encounters with wild animals in their natural habitats. These encounters most frequently occur with the more than 700 documented species of birds in Bhutan, but lucky visitors can occasionally glimpse one Bhutan’s 13 species of wild cats, the range-restricted golden langur or the unique takin among many others. The dramatic elevational gradients of the Himalaya make it possible for tourists to experience multiple, unique biological communities within a short journey. The River Guides of Panbang, located within Royal Manas National Park, is Bhutan's first and only community-based rafting company that specializes in high quality, environmentally responsible ecotourism. Native to the area, the river guides offer an opportunity for visitors to experience living landscapes with intact biological communities that also support local communities through rafting, trail biking, hiking, and cultural experiences.
Output 1: Community has a sustainable alternative source of livelihood via aquaponic agriculture
Output 2. River guides expand revenue streams by developing virtual nature tourism.
Output 3. Community members are educated about ecological processes and can implement aquatic conservation.

Conservation benefits:

Our development of virtual tourism will provide an alternative economic stream that further engages efforts towards and awareness for conservation by the River Guides and their community. Virtual tourism also has the additional conservation benefits of reducing the impact of travel and tourist traffic on these sensitive landscapes. Similarly, aquaponics, which combines re-circulating aquaculture with hydroponic agriculture, presents a sustainable, low-waste means of growing multiple food products. With these systems, waste products from fish are transformed into plant nutrients through microbial activity and uptake of nutrients by plants, in turn, provides clean water for fish. Creating and managing this balance between fish, microbial, and plant communities requires an appreciation of the ecosystem processes that sustain healthy aquatic environments. By using species of fish native to the local watershed, we will provide community members and virtual tourists the opportunity to further engage with aspects of the ecosystem that might otherwise go unseen and unappreciated. Both virtual tourism and aquaponics can link economic benefits with broader awareness that provides the foundation for local stewardship of natural resources. Our education and outreach program with local schools, community members, and the river guides will further emphasize these links between healthy rivers and people.

The primary beneficiaries of the project are the seventeen river guides ( and the Panbang community in Zhemgang, one of the poorest districts in the country. The project will provide the community with knowledge of a new method of farming that is both sustainable and resilient - aquaponics can efficiently produce high crop yields in small spaces. By learning aquaponics, not only can the community gain greater food security, they can supplement their incomes with revenue by selling nutrient dense products to their local community and beyond. The traditional business model of the River Guides depends on the visitors being physically present. This revenue source is not resilient to crises that halt local and international travel. Adding a virtual nature tourism experience to the Guides’ portfolio allows them to continue pursuing their primary profession as a viable source of income even in times of crisis. Offering a cost-effective virtual tourism experience also expands the potential market in times with fewer travel restrictions. Since foreign tourists are not permitted in the Royal Manas National Park, the virtual experience will expand the potential customer base to remote, international guests. These virtual experiences also increase accessibility to people who are unable to travel to the park for financial, physical, or other reasons.

Innovative approaches: Virtual tourism represents an emerging revenue stream for many popular destinations, especially for locations with limited access or capacity. Innovation in this market has accelerated with the global pandemic severely limiting travel across the globe. The experiences offered by the Panbang River Guides present an ideal opportunity to bring a Bhutanese adventure to a digital market.
Indeed, this digital experience may greatly expand and democratize the number and kinds of people who can access and interact with the landscapes and communities of Panbang through the river guides. In the future, we see many opportunities for developing virtual tourism in other communities and landscapes across Bhutan. While forms of aquaponics have been practiced by different cultures across the globe for centuries, modern techniques have adapted these ancient practices to dramatically improved sustainability and efficiency. By closing the loop between plants and fish living above and below the water’s surface, contemporary aquaponics can produce high crop yields in small spaces, while conserving water and wasting little energy. To date, this method of production has not been implemented in Bhutan, but the experience developing and demonstrating these techniques can serve as inspiration for similar projects across the country and beyond.
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Project Snapshot

Bhutan Ecological Society
Area Of Work:
Grant Amount:
US$ 45,000.00
Co-Financing Cash:
Co-Financing in-Kind:
Project Number:
Satisfactorily Completed

SGP Country office contact

Mr. Tenzin Wangchuk
Mr. Tshering Phuntsho
009752322424 (ext:330)


UN House, Peling Lam (Street), Kawajangsa, Thimphu, P.O. Box No. 162
Thimphu, Bhutan, 11001