Friday, September 05, 2014

Cambodia: Monk-led environmental activism

In desperate need of electricity, Cambodia is ploughing ahead with Chinese-funded dam projects that are ravaging the environment. But a movement is harnessing the trust placed in monks in a bid to save the country's pristine forests.

The contrast here is shocking; emerging from the forest, this religious procession advances into what looks like a war zone. Only the largest trees, their canopies towering above the devastation below, their enormous buttresses too large for loggers, still stand. Around them lies smouldering land that is being cleared for a banana plantation. The monks pause, then make their way towards the remaining goliaths – to ordain them in the hope that their blessing will make others think twice before reaching for the chainsaw.

...Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish-British man who moved to Phnom Penh in 2002, found a job as a trainer and translator in a large Cambodian company and has lived in the country ever since. When rumours of the dam began to resurface in 2010, he realised the valley could be lost forever.

In any other country in the world this dam would simply not go ahead, the valley would be declared a world heritage site,” he says. “Why destroy an area that size for just 100MW of power?” Spain, he says, is constructing solar panels which, covering an area of just two to three hectares, can provide 50MW of power, “and this [dam] could flood up to 20,000 hectares of protected forest! It doesn’t make sense”.

However, he has learnt in his time in rural Cambodia that the power of Buddhism is strong and the respect shown to monks enormous. In a system built on corruption at every level, from police to politicians, monks are among the few people trusted by the citizenry. And it is this trust that he believes could be built on, creating a Buddhist movement led by monks that might help save the valley and surrounding forests.

In April last year, Cambodia’s most famous environmental activist, Chut Wutty, was murdered [among many others]. For years, Chut Wutty had fought to expose illegal operations in the Cardamom and regularly took journalists in to see such activities for themselves. It was during one such trip, to expose the illegal logging of rose wood, that he was shot dead by a military police officer protecting the operation.

Chut Wutty believed in the power of the monks and often worked in collaboration with them. After the shooting, Gonzalez-Davidson, who says he has received death threats for his own activism, contacted a close associate of Chut Wutty to ask if he knew any monks who would be interested in leading a tree-blessing movement in the Areng valley.

Step forward Brahm Dhammasat. At 42 years old, the monk has seen a lot of change in the Cardamom. His home is Aural village, a two-day walk north of Areng, on the slopes of Cambodia’s highest mountain, Phnom Aural. His valley is much easier to access than Areng and, despite being part of a wildlife sanctuary, has also been devastated, in this case by logging and sugar cane plantations.

Ever since I was a child I have seen how the world has been changing around me and the destruction of the environment has increased more and more,” the monk says. “I want that to change and see the world become more sustainable, where people are dependent on nature and nature is dependent on people. If that doesn’t happen, the cycle of life will be broken and there will be no more species left on our planet.” Gonzalez-Davidson persuaded Brahm Dhammasat to go to Ta Tay Leu, which is outside the valley but inside the CCPF, to lead the first tree ordination in this part of the Cardamom. This is a test run before the monks are sent in to the Areng valley itself, a much more fraught undertaking.

Monk-led environmental activism has proved successful in another forest, in northwest Oddar Meanchey province. In 2002, a monk called Bun Saluth prevented its destruction by teaching people about the importance of natural resources. The result was the legal protection of 18,261 hectares of evergreen forest now called the Monks Community Forest.

Susan Darlington, professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Hampshire College, in the United States, and author of the book The Ordination of a Tree, which looks at the Thai Buddhist environmental movement and its activist monks, explains: “If the monks and organisers work closely with the community involved, including them in the planning and implementation of the blessing and concurrent projects for protecting the surrounding forest, the rite would help cement a commitment to conservation. People need to feel they own the rite and the project, and understand how it benefits them in the long run".

Gonzalez-Davidson, who has quit his job in Phnom Penh and is registering an NGO called Mother Nature to help continue the movement in Cambodia, remains realistic. He knows he is facing an uphill struggle and that this spiritualist activism is just one of the tools that can be used to save the valley and prevent further destruction of the surrounding forest. He also knows the real fight must come from the local people themselves and hopes the monks can be the driving force to make them realise this.

Extracts, full text

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