Tue, Jul 30, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Pray and protect

Buddhist monks use faith to save forests in Cambodia

By Rina Chandran  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, ANLONG VENG, Cambodia

A Cambodian woman catches a live tarantula from a burrow last March at Skun town in Kampong Cham province. While a plate piled high with hairy, palm-sized tarantulas is the stuff of nightmares for some, these garlic fried spiders are a coveted treat in Cambodia, where the only fear is that they may soon vanish due to deforestation and unchecked hunting.

Photo: AFP

As a Buddhist monk, Khoeum Saray’s day is governed by a ritual of prayer, meditation, alms and temple chores. With one big exception — he also patrols a sprawling Cambodian forest and shows villagers how to protect it.

Khoeum Saray is among a dozen or so monks managing a project that is hailed as a model for conservation in a nation with one of the world’s fastest rates of deforestation.

The Monk’s Community Forest, established in 2002 by Bun Saluth, chief monk at Samroang pagoda, sprawls over 71 square miles in the country’s northwest, on what was once a bloody battlefield under the Khmer Rouge.

Today it is the largest community-managed forest conservation site in Cambodia, benefiting nearly 4,000 people in six villages. And proponents say it shows that religion can be a powerful tool in protecting the planet.

“Earlier, the villagers were cutting down trees and encroaching on forest land. Gradually, we made them understand the importance of protecting the forest — for the environment and for themselves,” said Khoeum Saray.

“There is a deep connection between Buddhism and the environment. As monks, we are not interested in making money, so people trust us, and we can spread the word widely,” he said, seated on a wooden bridge above a stream in the forest.

Their efforts have helped conserve several threatened species, including the sun bear, gibbon, leopard and pangolin in the forest’s dense evergreen and semi-evergreen canopy.

Using religion to drive conservation is one of the most effective models globally, according to Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology, amid ever-increasing pressure on natural resources from fast-growing populations and industry.

Religious leaders — from Pope Francis to Indonesian imams — have called for action to protect the environment.

Buddhists meditate in forests and consider them sacred, believing the Buddha was born in one and enlightened in another, said Chantal Elkin, a director at the non-profit Alliance for Religions and Conservation.

They are at the forefront of harnessing faith to save nature.

“The world’s religions are regarded in some ways as the first environmental campaigners, as every theology speaks of a respect for nature, and a duty to care for the earth,” said Elkin, who wrote a Master’s thesis on Buddhism and conservation.

“Monks see it simply as their duty to conserve forests.”


The impoverished Southeast Asian country endured decades of conflict, particularly under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

After the regime fell, disputes followed over precious land, exacerbated by the destruction of property records.

From the early 2000s, Cambodia began awarding large economic land concessions for mines, power plants and farms to foreign companies to spur growth and reduce poverty.

Such deals covered more than a tenth of the country’s land by 2012, human rights lawyers estimate. More than 770,000 people were displaced and an untold number of trees felled to make way for plantations of rubber, sugarcane and timber.

Between 2001 and 2014, Cambodia lost 1.44 million hectares (5,560 square miles) of forest, one of the world’s fastest rates of deforestation, according to the NASA Earth Observatory.

The government issued a decree in 1993 to set up “protected areas” as a way to preserve land, forests and coastal zones.

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