In the rural northeast, villagers turn to the power of monks' robes to
defend their natural resources
Brown for TIME.
ECO BUDDIHISM: Near Chiang Mai, villagers ordain trees.
By ROBERT HORN Wang Pa Dun
If the developers have their way, the village of Wang Pa Dun is doomed.
A hardscrabble hamlet of 100 or so families in northeastern Thailand,
Wang Pa Dun is nestled beside a small mountain. A quarry company has won
a government concession to blast the mountain apart for its limestone.
"The mountain is our source of water, our source of food," says Prayung
Komchai, the deputy village headman. "We won't let this happen." The farmers
have already protested to the district chief, but he opposed them. They
filed lawsuits, but the court refused to hear them. They petitioned the
Prime Minister, but he sent them back to the district chief. To defend
their precious mountain, the farmers of Wang Pa Dun have instead put their
faith in an unexpected savior: a thin ribbon of cloth.
On a blistering morning last April, the first day of the Buddhist New
Year, the chanting of sutras echoed through the forest as monks from the
local temple joined farmers, lawyers, environmental activists and two
senators from Bangkok at the foot of the mountain. The holy men unfurled
a strip of saffron cloth and wound it more than three kilometers around
the base of the mountain. With a final blessing, they tied the two ends
around a tall stand of bamboo. Symbolically swathed in the robe of the
Buddha, the mountain was thereby made sacred. "To ordain the mountain
is the same as ordaining a person," explains Paiwan Pitak, a rice farmer.
"No one will dare to harm a monk. No one has come to destroy the mountain."
Ordaining trees, a practice unique to Thailand, has saved forests from
being logged in other parts of the country. "It's an ancient solution
to a modern problem," says Sanitsuda Ekachai, a Bangkok Post columnist
who often writes about religious issues. And Thailand's environment needs
all the help it can get. The Chao Phraya River basin is a biological disaster;
the Gulf of Thailand is contaminated with cyanide, mercury and other heavy
metals. In the north, dust from a lignite power plant has made tens of
thousands ill, while on the eastern seaboard, the country's industrial
showcase, children at one school wear gas masks to filter out fumes. According
to the Thailand Development Research Institute, a quasi-governmental think
tank, more than half the country's factories pollute, and few treatment
facilities exist for the 1.3 million tons of toxic waste produced in Thailand
each year. "Growth at any cost has turned Thailand into an ecological
disaster area," says Lyn Goldsworthy, Southeast Asia project manager for
In the 1960s, nearly 60% of the country was forested. Goldsworthy says
the figure has shrunk to 17%. Many animal species are now endangered,
including the elephant, Thailand's national symbol. The destruction of
watershed areas has intensified both droughts and floods. As a result,
the government banned tree-cutting in 1989but logging continues
So villagers are relying on their religion. Trees have traditionally been
robed to propitiate the spirits believed to dwell in them, an example
of the Thai blend of animism and Buddhism. But in 1988, when loggers threatened
to harvest a forest in northern Nan province, a monk named Phra Manasnati
Pitak ordained trees in order to protect them. His action saved the forest,
and soon other communities were following his example. "It's an effective
strategy," says Thongbai Thongpao, a senator and human-rights lawyer.
Not always. When the Yadana Pipeline, a $1.2 billion project to pipe gas
from Burma to Thailand, was being built in the mid-'90s, monks ordained
trees along the construction site. The authorities simply recruited another
group of monks to disrobe the trees. In Buriram province near Cambodia,
monk Prachak Kuttijitto organized villagers to protect trees in an area
covering 2,000 hectares against loggers. In response, opponents machine-gunned
his temple while he was giving a sermon. Prachak eventually left the clergy.
The trees were felled. "Saving the forest takes more than just putting
robes on trees," says Sulak Sivaraksa, a Buddhist scholar and social critic.
"The community has to be committed to guarding the forest." Even then,
there are no guarantees. "It should work if the loggers are Buddhist,
and in Thailand most people are Buddhist," says Mingsarn Kaosa-ard of
the Thailand Development Research Institute. "But sadly, some people worship
money more than religion."
That's also the case in Wang Pa Dun, where the community is not unanimously
committed to saving its mountain from becoming a mound of limestone gravel.
The villagers say their own headman, and those of neighboring hamlets,
are not on their side. Rice farmer Paiwan, a member of the village council,
claims one district official tried to bribe him into supporting the company.
"They offered me 100,000 baht ($2,400). Then 400,000 baht ($9,800)," he
says. "They could offer me 4 million, but I wouldn't take it. I'll never
betray my village for money."
Before the year is out, Thailand will be holding national elections. Some
candidates for parliament are already doling out cash in the countryside
while portraying themselves as advocates of democracy and political reform.
What Thailand really needspolitically, socially and environmentallyare
more people like the farmers of Wang Pa Dun, who can't be bought and who
will use all the tools available, even the ancient ones, to protect their
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