Lesson
6

Examples of Buddhist
Environmental Action

1 of 9

Sulak Sivaraksa

We introduced Thai social critic and activist Sulak Sivaraksa in Lesson 4. In excerpts from a talk entitled Buddhism and Environmentalism, Sulak discusses issues of deforestation and water rights, as well as ways for communities to regain control of local resources.

Forests

The Buddhist response to deforestation is a clear example of the tension between anthropoentrism and a holistic understanding of the web of life and the importance of the forest. Traditional Buddhist communities revolved around a forest monastery and this wat was the center of political, spiritual, and educational  life. Living in harmony with the forest was the reality and there was not the forest/town division that existed in many European societies. However, once the process of industrialization began in Southeast Asia, forests became fuel-giving sources rather than life-giving sources.

In Thailand, the Royal Forest Department (RFD) promoted the destruction of forests in order to cultivate eucalyptus for the pulp and paper industries. First the government ordered the destruction of thousands of hectares of forests and then, sensing the damage and the pressure from outside groups, the government ordered the protection of certain forests.  Many of these newly protected areas were the homes of indigenous people and local people who had lived for generations in harmony with the forest but under the protective legislation could not maintain their livelihood.  The media characterized these people as "backward" and reckless in their use of natural resources; the government was the savior and local people became the aggressors. Currently there is a Community Forestry Bill under discussion in the Thai legislature. This Bill would lay out six categories for the classification of land  and could help meet the needs of indigenous people  but only if there is community participation in the process.  In Burma, the concept of community forests is used as propaganda in order to hasten the monoculture of eucalyptus; governments cannot be the only source of decision-making, it is imperative that local knowledge about sustainability is given primacy.

In August 2000, representatives of the Thai RFD  stood by as lychee trees were destroyed as part of an upland/lowland conflict in Pa Klang village over forest encroachment, water shortage, and chemical use. The Pa Klang village is largely populated by people from the Hmong ethnic group and the systematic discrimination against the residents of Pa Klang is representative of the treatment of many Hmong communities in Northern Thailand. Suradej Yangsaeng of Pa Klang village sees the potential for resolution if responsibility is taken for the destruction of property by the lowland people and the government issues a clarification of the status of Hmong land. He says, "As the issue of our ethnicity is widely attacked and we are being blamed all the time, I would like to ask what the state wants the Hmong people to do. It seems there is no way out of this situation. Now I am very concerned about the people in our village. The lychee trees and their farms are their only livelihood".  Yangsaeng also notes that the upland and lowland people rarely meet and have wrongly depended on the government to act as a fair mediator for the conflict.

In Siam, government attempts at forest conservation have thus far been half-hearted attempts at making up for sins of the past.  Moreover, the attempts at conserving forests have been at the expense of communities and the livelihood of working people. Environmentalism, as advocated by the government, is a farce and must be replaced by a new understanding of the mutually dependent relationship between all forms of nature.

A renewed interest in Buddhist tree ordination ceremonies is one way to raise awareness about local ecology and celebrate nature.  These ordination ceremonies are similar to forest robes ceremonies where laypeople present monks with clothes, food, and offerings for the temple.  At a tree ordination ceremony, the tree is sanctified by monastic robes and "the robes [stand] as a reminder that to harm or cut the tree---or any of the forest--- [is] an act of demerit.  These trees are important markers of the sacredness of nature but education is necessary to connect this sacredness with the everyday patterns of consumption, waste disposal, and water pollution.

For the future

Raising the consciousness about natural resources should start before a threat of destruction. Preventive measures such as  education and celebration are part of the Buddhist environmental movement in Siam.

The Moo Ban Dek school in Kanchanaburi was established to provide poor children with a nurturing environment for the development of heart, mind, and will.  The concept of education extends beyond intellectual cultivation to the development of civic participation, environmental education, and spiritual understanding.  Children at the school have a responsibility for self-government and self-discipline.  Each day time is set aside for doing chores, caring for animals and for swimming in the river.  "Nature" at Moo Ban Dek is not separate from "school" or "community" and environmental education is reinforced by science, civic education, and spirituality.

The annual Dhamma Walk is another way of spurring a change in the concept of nature and community. Initiated five years ago by Phra Sekhiyadhamma, a small network of socially engaged monks, along with NGO's in Southern Siam, the Dhamma Walk continues to be a unique event that brings together a diverse group of participants. The walk was organized to bring attention the Songkhla lake, Siam's largest lake and organize a network around the lake in order to provide a greater local voice in policy making.  The main issues concerning residents of the lake area were the depletion of fish, water pollution, reduced water levels, theft of water for urban and industrial uses, and loss of land.  The walk has been successful in starting a conversation about these issues but with issues such as the Pipeline looming in the near future, organizers of the Walk are eager to find new approaches for effective change. A similar walk takes place in northern Siam, maintaining the same commitment to forging relationships with local people and bearing witness to the effects of destruction and restoration at the walk sites. 

Local communities

Alternative communities  are one way for communities to regain control of local resources. The act of setting up a local currency system or a cooperative requires the participation of a large number of residents thus building the social capital necessary to sustain any large scale project.  Alternative communities also seek to transform economic relations by making consumers aware of the production cycle and encouraging economic transactions that are embedded in the social life of the community.  The Bia Kudchum is the local currency introduced last October in the Kudchum village of Northeastern Siam. The effects of the Asian Financial crisis linger on as a reminder of the fragility of a Thai economy dependent of international speculation.  A local currency system encourages local production and distribution. Each villager can withdraw 500 Baht worth of the Bia Kudchum to be used for local transactions. The Bia Kudchum cannot be converted into conventional money and is not meant to replace the Baht.  The relationship between local currency and environmentalism is not necessarily an obvious one. However, using natural resources for local production and distribution encourages the responsible use of resources with a constant attention to sustainability.

Another example of an alternative community in Siam is the Pak Moon Dam settlement community.   After years of protests and clashes with the police, the residents of Pak Moon suffered defeat in the effort to stop the dam.  They were promised compensation, both land and money, but have yet to collect it. The Bangkok Post reports:

Today, what is left of the once abundant and peaceful riverside villages is the grand edifice of the Pak Moon dam, which has been described by the World Commission on Dams as a financial and environmental disaster.

According to the commission's study, the 136-megawatt dam can produce only 21 megawatts of electricity. Out of 265 fish species recorded in the Moon river, only 96 remained after the dam was completed in 1994. The rapids were destroyed forever. The artificially created "fish ladder"-meant to allow fish to swim upstream of the dam to spawn-does not work. Income from reservoir fishing is exaggerated while the catch upstream of the dam has declined by 60-80% (Oct 23,2000).

Small businesses committed to ethical environmental practices are at the base of the deep ecology movement. 

Small businesses committed to ethical environmental practices are at the base of the deep ecology movement.  The need to find practical alternatives to the current system is one of our biggest challenges.  Although eco-consumption and eco-tourism can become warped representations of environmental ideals, they may be used as skillful means to help us achieve a critical mass of environmentally conscious people.

The movement to renew the relationship between humanity and all other forms of nature has had many successes and equally many defeats.   Human-centered discourse is slowly changing and there are many causes for hope: every time a tree is planted, every time a child swims in a river, every time we look upon each other with eyes of compassionate understanding, our commitment to interdependence is restored.

"Buddhism and Environmentalism," Sulak Sivaraksa -
www.sulak-sivaraksa.org


Sulak's web site