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.
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."
P.O. Box 2510
Phnom Penh 3
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.
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.
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
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
Sanitsuda Ekachai, “Allowing Trees to Grow” in Seeds
of Hope: Local Initiatives in Thailand (Bangkok: Thai Development Support
Committee, 1994) 124–29.
on Religion and Ecology