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Saffron Savior

Patrick Brown for TIME.
ECO BUDDIHISM: Near Chiang Mai, villagers ordain trees.

In the rural northeast, villagers turn to the power of monks' robes to defend their natural resources

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 Greenpeace.

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 1989—but logging continues unabated.

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 needs—politically, socially and environmentally—are 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 homeland.

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