This project focused on the Olep ethnic group who live on the western fringes of an important national park in the west central part of Bhutan. Originally a nomadic hunter gatherer community, the Olep were encouraged by the government to settle in Rukha in the early 1970s, so that they could benefit from the development initiatives that were taking place in the country. With no experience of settled living and their earlier means of living off the forest no longer available, the community fell into extreme poverty. This project, run by the Tarayana Foundation, has developed skills and encouraged a self-help ethos that has successfully helped the community recover and prosper. Originally focusing on the village of Rukha, the project has spread to 150 other villages across Bhutan.


Project Description

Aims and Objectives

The project’s main aim was to empower the local community so that they could help themselves out of poverty. This was achieved through the key objectives:

  • Awareness creation of the roles, rights and responsibilities of the community members towards a future they wanted.
  • Education of the children as well as non-formal adult literacy programmes for the adults.
  • Capacity development.
  • Document the language and traditional folklore.
  • Promote local stewardship of their immediate environment.

Tarayana Foundation is a non-profit organisation working to enhance the lives of vulnerable individuals in rural and remote communities in Bhutan. It was founded in 2003 by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck (who remains Chair and President of the organisation). Although independent, Tarayana works with the Bhutanese government and the local communities to help achieve its objectives of improving rural prosperity.

Tarayana focuses on extremely remote areas that would otherwise be considered too difficult and isolated to work in. The Foundation worked around logistical and practical issues of reaching and serving these far-flung places. By doing this, they recognised small, marginalised communities as important groups to support in accessing opportunities and maintaining their unique culture. This is important as remote ethnic minorities often risk isolation and/or see young people leaving for more vibrant places.


Rukha is a small, remote village of 18 households (147 people). The people are from the Olep ethnic minority. The Oleps settled in Rukha in the early 1970s as part of a government programme to settle nomadic communities so that they could benefit from the planned development that was being introduced. The government gave the community three acres of farm land in addition to half an acre for house construction and kitchen gardens.

Families settled on the land in temporary, makeshift small houses made from bamboo with bamboo leaf mat roofs. The original expectation was that these houses would be replaced with more permanent housing. However, the community had little experience of settled living and lacked the skills to improve their houses. As a result, not only was the housing not replaced, it was not well maintained and fell into disrepair. The community’s background also meant that they lacked the experience and skills to sustain arable farming. Over several years, the farm remained partly cultivated with more fallow fields that fell out of agricultural use. The nearest school was many hours walk away and few children were educated.

After the initial three years of support from the Ministry of Agriculture, where terraces were made and basic farming skills taught, they were on their own. With the failure of reliable irrigation, the crops failed, and the lack of awareness regarding seed selection and storage, the villagers slowly fell into extreme poverty. At the time of a visit from Her Majesty in 2001, the living conditions had deteriorated significantly and there was evidence of poor health and malnourishment.

Key Features

The project’s philosophy was to encourage the community to lead their own development.  Tarayana’s role was to facilitate community involvement and engage key actors in helping the community to prosperity. Tarayana’s Field Officers worked and lived in Rukha with the community. This helped them understand the Olep lifestyle and concerns and build a relationship of trust.

The project used the Rural Participatory Appraisal Approach to engage the whole community in project planning as it did not require participants to be literate. Through this, the community formed a committee which drew up the project objectives and strategies. Housing improvement was given the first priority, concluding that better shelter was an essential basic need and the first step to feeling secure and confident. Other priorities included revitalising farming and starting up traditional handicraft businesses as a source of cash income.

Three sub committees were set up to oversee the three priority areas:

  • Housebuilding and renovation: The committee mobilised the relevant community members in receiving skills training such as carpentry, masonry, rammed earth and laying stone walls. The training and site supervision was provided by a master builder brought in from a nearby village. Additional labour was provided by trainees from the Construction Training Centre. Over a two year period, all of the bamboo houses in the village were replaced by two-story timber and mud houses built in the local traditional style. Tarayana provided materials (corrugated roofing sheets, timber, nails, etc.) The whole community took part in the construction. They drew lots to decide a fair construction schedule.
  • Revitalisation of traditional handicrafts: The committee oversaw training in traditional handicraft skills which included making cane and bamboo products and also many items made of maize cob sheaths.
  • Environmentally friendly farming: A committee was formed by women from each family to ensure that vibrant kitchen gardens were maintained by each household. Additional committee members were recruited to provide specialist skills and knowledge as required from time to time. These included a Field Officer and a specialist from the Department of Agriculture who supported them and provided training on environmentally friendly farming techniques that were sustainable.

In addition to the three sub committees, the project also included:

Support for education, sanitation and health: A primary school was built in the nearby village of Migtana, which serves as the central location for three other villages. Tarayana covered daily meals for the 60 students enrolled there. A community learning centre was set up by the government to initiate Non Formal Education for adults, and the Foundation provided basic stationeries, learning aids and facilitated other sessions for the children. English classes were provided for young people.  Awareness raising activities also took place around:

  • Health, nutrition and sanitation.
  • Local environmental and natural resources management (water management, improved soil productivity, etc.).
  • The value of education.
  • Gender issues.

Access to credit: Community members wanted to access micro-credit to start up small enterprises. They took up Tarayana‘s micro credit programme to access 100.000 BTN (US$1,500) to purchase a power tiller. This served as the main transport service in the absence of any vehicle after the farm road was build.

Irrigation: Installing appropriate water pipes for agricultural irrigation and solving the previously inadequate water distribution. This piped water was also used for aquaculture.

Fishery: Smoked fish called Nga Dosem is a delicacy of the Oleps. Fish production started locally with the introduction of fingerlings from the Government fishery programme and it became a good source of cash income.

Solar electrification: Three local women installed solar home lighting systems for all 18 houses, the community shed and the learning centre. They were trained at the Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan in India, an institution that teaches community members to become ‘barefoot solar engineers’. A Rural Electronic Workshop was also set up in the village for repairs and maintenance of solar panels and the home lighting system.

What impact has it had?

Within two years, 15 houses were completed in Rukha; 33 men and 24 women were trained in carpentry and masonry skills. Tarayana facilitated the construction of 860 other houses as part of the housing improvement programme based on the Rukha model, in many remote rural villages.
The availability and variety of food increased and improved farming techniques led to surplus production that was sold in the market. With the increase in cash income, they could buy other necessary goods and services. The population saw an improvement in their access to health and education, along with increased employment opportunities through agriculture, handicrafts and selling smoked fish. A few of them also took up house construction work in other remote villages as carpenters and masons. The activities carried out to improve life in the village led to people working together that built social cohesion in the community.

How is it funded?

The United Nations Volunteers/United Nations Development Programme (UNV/UNDP) provided US$50,000 to start the project in 2006 for the duration of two years. The community contributed labour and land, while Tarayana contributed project facilitation, management staff and administration support.

In 2007, the Global Environmental Facility’s Small Grants Programme (GEF-SGP) Support funded the ‘Alternative Livelihood Options for the Indigenous Community of Rukha’ programme with US$31,845. This programme complemented the ongoing work in Rukha. Tarayana applied on behalf of the community and the funds were transferred to the community’s bank account. Tarayana helped use the fund according to the plan developed with the Oleps.


Why is it innovative?

  • Tarayana’s role as a grassroots facilitator in bringing together stakeholders to achieve a common goal and the focus on remote ethnic minorities are significant achievements within the Bhutanese context.
  • This project demonstrated the need to dissolve the sectoral silos in addressing the multi-dimensional nature of rural poverty.
  • It demonstrated that involving grassroots in project design, management and implementation improved the relevance of the interventions with better sequencing of activities.
  • Tarayana Foundation was able to bridge the gap between larger national initiatives and local realities.
  • The wide-ranging and people-centred nature of the project aims to address any issue within the community, instead of imposing an existing agenda that might not fit local needs.
  • Working together towards a common goal empowered the community to collaborate in solving housing and other collective issues.


What is the environmental impact?

  • The raw materials used in the construction of these houses were chosen based on what was already locally available. This reduced the need to import. For example, rammed earth was used in Rukha where mud was abundant. In the eastern part of Bhutan, the communities used stone as the main building material and bamboo in place of timber, as these were easily found in the area.
  • The GEF-SGP supported project helped introduce environmentally friendly technologies like improved fuel efficient cook stoves to locally designed solar dryers, locally designed basic improved hygienic facility for smoking fish with the help of the Livestock Extension Officer and solar home lighting systems to reduce the consumption of kerosene and resinous wood for lighting.
  • Tarayana facilitated the community to control land degradation, re-instated the irrigation system and trained the community in managing water and land effectively.
  • Local environmental and natural resources management was encouraged through the training of all households.
  • Natural and eco-friendly farming techniques including composting, mulching, crop rotation, companion planting etc. improved soil productivity. Open pollinated local seeds were used, seed selection, storage and exchanges between different villages was encouraged.
  • The use of relevant hand tools and implements were promoted.


Is it financially sustainable?

  • The Rukha project is financially sustainable as the community now has the skills to earn cash income. Their confidence has been built; all their children are able to access free education provided by the Government.
  • They are able to look after and build their own homes and have also understood the concept that together they can reach greater achievements.
  • The community has understood that they are primarily responsible for their own well-being and that much good can be done by working together. This in itself is a big step towards sustainability. They no longer wait for support from the outside and have the confidence to tackle one common issue after using local solutions.
  • Residents from Rukha are now working as master carpenters in other districts and villages (some hired by Tarayana). Master carpenters are paid well and are in high demand.
  • The community makes bamboo products on order and is conversant in the processes of pricing and marketing their products after the initial years of hand-holding done by the Tarayana Rural Crafts.
  • Increased agricultural yields have resulted in the Oleps eating better while selling the surplus for cash.


What is the social impact?

  • Community cohesion: The project brought together the whole community to achieve a common goal, despite differences in ages and gender.
  • Capacity-building: Training in financial literacy resulting in increased savings, artisan crafts, entrepreneurship, book-keeping, house building skills, carpentry, hygienic preparation of smoked fish, agriculture, etc. has increased the overall knowledge and capacity of Rukha. In addition, three women were trained as barefoot solar engineers at the Barefoot College in Rajasthan for six months and are members of the Barefoot Solar Engineers Association of Bhutan.
  • Learning opportunities: The community learning centre and the improved access to school means more education opportunities for both children and adults. And thanks to the solar panels, children have light and more time to do their homework.
  • Nutrition and health: The consumption of a more varied diet has helped improve the family’s nutritional intake. The community also learned how to make nutritious meals using different vegetables. Initiatives around health and hygiene, water and sanitation, HIV/Aids and other health issues, along with the importance of education and gender equality have helped raise awareness around these important issues. Traditional firewood stoves for cooking emitted a lot of smoke, often causing respiratory problems. These stoves were replaced with the fuel-efficient smokeless stoves.
  • Decreased inequality: Gender equality improved as women were empowered through training and economic opportunities, along with better access to information and knowledge. The elders and many men of the village admired the fact that women gained new skills. They were particularly impressed that it was the women who provided solar power to the village.

Tarayana was able to demonstrate that with opportunity and coordinated facilitation, all community or section of society could become empowered and capacitated to drive their collective developmental agenda.

From a poor and impoverished, highly indebted and food insecure community a decade ago, the Oleps of Rukha are enjoying a better quality of life. They are also better able to articulate their aspirations to their elected leaders. The community also built a common temple in their village of their own accord, mobilising support from others for the statues and altar, but putting in their collective labour to bring the temple to fruition.

While there is still much to be done, they are on a sustainable development trajectory that can only bring them more collective prosperity and well-being.



  • Geographical isolation and the rugged mountainous terrain remain one of the greatest difficulties in serving these remote communities.
  • This in turn makes the cost of service delivery very expensive particularly the cost of transportation of both good and services.
  • Having lived in isolation for so many decades, the Oleps were hesitant to express their needs and desires. Tarayana had to work hard to gain their trust. Living and working with the Oleps, the Field Officer became a familiar figure in the community.
  • Community mobilisation is challenging, as every small community has their own dynamics. The project focused on dialogue and patience to understand local traditions. This helped overcome some of the barriers that were linked to cultural misunderstandings or a fear of change.
  • Funds for housing are difficult to obtain although having a decent roof over one’s head is one of the basic needs in addressing poverty particularly in rural communities. We have seen the importance of having a home, around which all else like civic awareness, access to education, health and hygiene, food and nutrition security, water and sanitation, better farming and green technologies, can be anchored.


Lessons Learned

  • Building up local skills is at the heart of development. In fact, the community can solve many issues when they can get support to develop the skills they need.
  • Proper consultation is key to the success of the project. Taking time to understand the needs of the population and assessing their capacity to carry on activities is crucial.
  • When the organisation’s staff live and work with the community, this provides a clearer understanding of local issues and helps build strong links with the community.
  • It is important to research and understand the funding opportunities at hand. Each donor has to be approached differently and it is essential to make the most of what they could offer.
  • We have learnt to understand the increased administrative burden with each small project implemented hence moving more towards programmes approach while working for budgetary support.
  • Small communities can handle big programmes if they are given the opportunity.



The Project Manager carried out monthly visits to the Rukha, involving four hours of drive followed by eight hours on foot, each way. The mid-term monitoring and evaluation visit was jointly carried out by representatives of the donor, member of the Tarayana Executive Committee and the project management. The project end evaluation was carried out by an independent consultant hired by the Poverty Unit, UNDP. The project was viewed as very positive in addressing multi-dimensional poverty as seen in remote, rural corners of the country.



This model is currently being replicated in 150 villages across Bhutan in 15 of the total 20 districts. Additionally, Tarayana has signed an MOU with the Royal Government’s Gross National Happiness Commission (Planning Commission) in January 2015, as a partner in implementing the ‘Rural Economy Advancement Programme’ Phase 2 (REAP-2). Tarayana had very successfully piloted in three remote villages during the first phase of REAP.