Engaged Projects in Asia

 

Mlup Baitong Buddhism and Environment Program

Mlup Baitong is a non-governmental (NGO) environmental organization in Cambodia seeking to conserve natural resources and foster sustainable development. Mlup Baitong promotes environmental awareness and community-based natural resource management through environmental education, training, and advocacy. Through its Buddhism Environment Program, Mlup Baitong has established a network of several hundred monks and fifteen pagodas in the Cambodian provinces of Kompong Speu and Kompong Thom. Rooted in a Buddhist environmental ethic, this program is designed to promote environmental awareness and ecological practices at the grassroots level by providing monks with training in Buddhism and Ecology and by supporting conservation and sustainability initiatives at pagodas. Such initiatives include seedling germination, tree planting, and water and wood management. The Buddhism Environment Program is one of many programs offered by Mlup Baitong. Others include: Women and Environment Program, School Environmental Education Program, National Park Assistance Program, Community Forestry Program, Community-based Ecotourism Program, Radio and Environmental Advocacy Program, and Environmental Education Resource Center Program. Mlup Baitong programs are run by its twenty-five local staff members and numerous volunteers.

History
In the face of widespread and rapid deforestation in Cambodia, Mlup Baitong was established to promote environmental awareness and education at the grassroots level. It received its NGO status in 1998. Since its founding, Mlup Baitong has grown to address a variety of environmental issues, including wildlife conservation and habitat protection, environmental education curriculums, and community-based natural resource management. In Cambodia, the pagoda is the physical and spiritual center of most rural villages and the Buddhist philosophy supports the conservation of resources and the idea of living in harmony with nature. The Buddhism and Environment Program developed as a result of links with a pagoda in Kompong Thom that was playing an active role in outreach to the local community. The Head monk of this pagoda, Venerable Ly Kom, was responsible for germinating and providing hundreds of tree seedlings to local villagers each year in order to improve their livelihood. Mlup Baitong started by supporting this pagoda and helping Venerable Ly Kom share his ideas with monks in other areas. This was the beginning of the Buddhism and Environment network.

Mission Statement "Mlup Baitong seeks to increase conservation and environmental awareness through education, training, advocacy, and other environmental services to support the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources for the benefit of Cambodia."

Contact Information
Mlup Baitong
P.O. Box 2510
Phnom Penh 3
Cambodia
Ph: ++855.23.214.409
Fax: ++855.23.220.243
Email: mlup@online.com.kh


Thai Ecology Monks

Particularly over the course of the 1990s, monks in Thailand have started to take an active role in protecting the environment. Known informally as environmentalist, or ecology monks (phra nak anuraksa), this small but visible percentage of Thai Buddhist monastics feel compelled to address environmental issues as part of their religious duty to help relieve suffering. Seeing a direct connection between the root causes of suffering (greed, ignorance, and hatred) and environmental destruction, ecology monks consider environmental activism to be well within their purview as Buddhist monastics. Drawing on Buddhist principles and practices, ecology monks have adapted traditional rituals and ceremonies to draw attention to environmental problems, raise awareness about the value of nature, and inspire people to take part in conservation efforts. Ceremonies such as tree ordination rituals (buat ton mai), in which trees are blessed and wrapped in saffron robes to signify their sacred status, are part of a larger effort to foster a conservation ethic rooted in Buddhist principles and bolstered by Buddhist practices. Monks such as Phrakhru Pitak Nanthakun, Phrakhru Manas Natheepitak, and Phrakhru Prajak Kuttajitto have organized a wide variety of grassroots conservation initiatives, including tree ordinations and planting ceremonies, the creation of wildlife preserves and sacred community gardens, long-life ceremonies for ecologically threatened sites or natural entities, and initiatives in sustainable community development and natural farming. Ecology monks have taken stands against deforestation, shrimp farming, dam and pipeline construction, and the cultivation of cash-crops. Phrakhru Pitak, one of the most active ecology monks, has formed an umbrella non-governmental organization called Hag Muang Nan Group (Love Nan Group) to coordinate the environmental activities of local village groups, government agencies, and other NGOs in his home province of Nan. As respected leaders of Thai society, monks have a crucial role to play in transforming environmentally destructive attitudes and policies. Similarly, the centrality of the temple in Thai village life makes the conservation efforts of rural monks especially effective; thanks to ecologically-minded abbots, forest monasteries in Thailand.

History
Although evidence of environmental activism on the part of individual monks can be traced back to at least 1975 when Phrakhru Pitak Nanthakun began to promote forest protection in his home village of Kew Muang in the northern Thai province of Nan, the phenomenon of "ecology monks" seems to have emerged most clearly in the late 1980s. In 1988, Phrakhru Pitak formed the Kew Muang Conservation Club in his home village and soon broadened his conservation efforts to other villages as well. In 1989, he coordinated environmental trainings and forest treks for more than 200 novice monks. Phrakhru Manas Natheepitak, the abbot of Wat Bodharma, adapted the traditional monk ordination ritual to sanctify trees in the late 1980s as part of a successful effort to halt logging near his forest temple in northern Thailand. With the success of Phrakhru Manas’s forest protection campaign, the practice of ordaining trees has spread. In 1989, Phrakhru Prajak Kuttajitto began ordaining trees in the Dongyai Forest of northeastern Thailand. In 1991, a large gathering of monks and laypeople ordained trees in the southern province of Surat Thani to prevent the decimation of a rainforest. Later that year, Phrakhru Pitak performed his first tree ordination ceremony in Kew Muang, along with an adaptation of the phaa paa ceremony in which lay people accrued merit by offering tree seedlings to the monks instead of the traditional offerings of money or goods. That same year, Phrakhru Pitak formed the Hag Muang Nan Group. In 1993, he helped organize a ritual blessing of the Nan River, which led to the creation of a fish sanctuary in a certain segment of the river. Since then, other ecology monks have performed similar rituals and created at least nine more fish sanctuaries along the river.

Bibliography

Susan Darlington, “Not Only Preaching—The Work of the Ecology Monk Phrakhru Nantakhun of Thailand” in Forest, Trees and People Newsletter 34 (1997): 17–20.
_____. “Tree Ordination in Thailand” in Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, eds. Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000): 198–205.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, People and Forests” in Seeds of Hope: Local Initiatives in Thailand (Bangkok: Thai Development Support Committee, 1994) 72–83.

Pipob Udomittipong, “Thailand’s Ecology Monks” in
Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, eds. Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000) 191–97.


Wat Plak Mai Lai Forest Monastery

Wat Plak Mai Lai is a densely-wooded forest monastery outside of Bangkok in Thailand. Thanks to Abbot Phra Acharn Somneuk Natho’s “non-interventionist” approach to forest management, Wat Plak Mai Lai is the last remaining natural forest in Thailand’s Nakhon Pathom Province. In contrast to the Thai Forestry Department, which contends that for-profit tree plantations are the best solution to deforestation, Phra Acharn Somneuk believes in letting nature restore itself. At Wat Plak Mai Lai, Phra Acharn Somneuk has demonstrated that his hands-off approach to reforestation works. The temple site, once stripped of its natural forest cover, is now thickly wooded, providing a stark contrast to the cash crops that surround the monastery. The forest at Wat Plak Mai Lai demonstrates the recuperative powers of nature, thus challenging the for-profit forestry policies of the government. As a result of the abbot’s approach to reforestation and his efforts to include local villagers, the burning and clearing of trees around the temple has ceased. In addition to serving as a reforestation demonstration site, the monastery provides an environment conducive to meditation. According to Phra Acharn Somneuk, the forest transmits the dhamma: when one refrains from greed, grasping, and intervention, balance is naturally restored

History

When the land was donated by a Chinese merchant in 1937 to become a temple site, it was desiccated and infertile after serving as a tobacco plantation. Although the first abbot let the trees grow back naturally, the second and third abbots cleared the forest for fuel. The fourth abbot let nature take its course again but left the monastery after a few years. Phra Acharn Somneuk became abbot in the mid 1980s, when the land around the monastery was sparsely wooded. After planting a variety of tree saplings, the young abbot concluded that the forest would recover best if left alone. In contrast to governmental reforestation policies, Phra Acharn Somneuk believed that community involvement and minimal intervention was the best approach to reforestation. Local villagers were invited to share their knowledge about medicinal herbs and participate in workshops at the monastery. Eventually, the villagers stopped clear-cutting and the land recovered its dense forest cover.

Bibliography
Sanitsuda Ekachai, “Allowing Trees to Grow” in Seeds of Hope: Local Initiatives in Thailand (Bangkok: Thai Development Support Committee, 1994) 124–29.


From Forum on Religion and Ecology