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Cambodia: Guardian monk devotes life to protecting local forest from exploitation, destruction08:32

Cambodia: Guardian monk devotes life to protecting local forest from exploitation, destruction

Cambodia, Oddar Meanchey
April 8, 2020 at 02:22 GMT -00:00 · Published

"People come here and burn. They come inside the forest with the aim of hunting animals, collecting tree resin, mushrooms and timber, and since it's bushy, they decide to burn the forest to move around." This is how Venerable Bun Saluth, a Cambodian Buddhist monk who has devoted his life to protecting his local forest, describes the daily fight against illegal loggers and poachers in the Oddar Meanchey province of Cambodia, speaking earlier this year.

Bun Saluth's mission to safeguard his region's evergreen forests dates back to 2001, when he returned from a long journey to Thailand. During his stay in the neighbouring country he came into contact with a group of 'ecology monks', inspired by Engaged Buddhism which had been active since the 1990s.

The conservation strategies implemented by the monks to protect Thailand's wildlife inspired him to consider more deeply the importance of preserving natural resources in his native Oddar Meanchey.

"This is such a necessary matter because in this world there are activities of deforestation and damage to biodiversity, which make climate change act very quickly," he says.

"If there are no natural resources and wildlife, we won't be able to live. This is a very important message. That is why I think that as a monk who lives in this world, I don't want to be a burden to the planet," he continues.

Over the past four decades, a growing demand for timber, used as construction material and fuel, has been threatening Cambodia's forests. In 1975, trees covered 73 percent of the country's surface, with this figure dropping to 46.8 percent in 2018. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2001 and 2018 the country lost 2.17 million hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 25 percent drop since 2000. Between 2013 and 2018, nearly 85 percent of cover loss occurred in natural forest.

In 2001, Bun Saluth established the Monk's Community Forest, or MCF, a community-managed forest conservation site which today stretches over 71 square miles in the northwestern part of the country.

Volunteers from his pagoda and villagers embarked on the project, and his monks acquired legal protection rights over the forest soon after.

In the beginning, Saluth encountered resistance from locals, who believed that the monk was seeking to establish personal property in the area. Illegal encroachments and tree cutting in the forest continued.

Eventually, by 2008 the monk won people's support and villagers started managing their natural resources in a more sustainable way.

The group defined the forest's boundaries, set up patrol teams, organised residents into special committees and raised environmental awareness.

The Monks Community Forest project encountered numerous challenges over the years. In 2008, the increase of land prices in the country resulted in further land grabs, while in 2017 the construction of a hydropower dam by the government is said to have caused the flooding of 6,000 hectares. Bun Saluth blamed the reservoir for submerging several historical temples and causing the loss of wildlife habitats, but the monks were successful in negotiating compensation for all affected residents.

Since then, as seen in pictures shot earlier in 2020, villagers and monks have been working closely through forestry committees to prevent illegal logging and poaching, as well as to ensure communities have access to the forest's resources.

When villagers run out of rice, the forest provides them with mushrooms, ginger and fruits, which serve as an extra source of income for families.

Part of the job is organising patrols, carried out by members of the MCF and village leaders who join forces as they try to deter timber thieves, wildlife and marine life poachers.

During their rounds, teams navigate rivers on small motorboats to monitor the area and keep an eye out for illegal activities, including fishing. Offenders use the forest waterways and park their empty boats before disappearing into the bushes, where they place traps for animals, as Bun Saluth explains. If they come for fishing, they remain in their boats, turn off the engine and cast their nets.

Watch posts are also set up to safeguard wildlife. To ensure continuous monitoring, monks on patrol spend their nights inside a small wooden house enriched with portraits and a statue of the Buddha.

"We sleep over there, and we wait. If we heard animals screaming at night, that's it. Because animals, when they are caught, they don't give up right away. They will scream first," says Bun Saluth, who believes the only way to catch illegal poachers is to wait for them inside the forest.

When patrolling in broad daylight, teams often discover extensive areas impacted by illegal logging and retrieve animal traps, including snares and electrical shock devices. For the monks, there is nothing left to do but to walk in the forest scorched by bushfires and assess the extent of the damage.

Patrol activities often include extinguishing fires started by loggers as they try to make their way into the forest. But this is not the only reason, according to Saluth.

"They want to threaten me, because in this area I have always banned (them from entering) and whoever comes in, and I will always do it," he says.

Fires pose a big threat to the monks, he explains. "It's very risky for us, especially because of intoxication. And the more we inhale smoke, (the more) it causes problems." The only tool they have to put out fires are tree branches, but when the blazes grow out of control, monks have to run away.

Today, the Monk Community Forest consists of over 20 temples, a water source and historical villages, and is managed through 47 committees and by around 3,447 members. In 2019, the Cambodian government authorised the MCF to extend from 18,261 hectares to 30,251 and officially renamed it as Sangrukhavoan Wildlife Sanctuary, which now covers Anlong Veng, Chong Kal District and Samraong.

According to Bun Saluth, some loggers could be from the local community, but he believes there are also people coming from other areas as he laments that there are still too few patrols. But despite the illegal activities and the attacks, Bun Saluth emphasises the non-violent nature of this project, and believes religion must be a tool to educate offenders about the value of protecting the environment.

The management of natural resources has a strong connection with Buddhist spirituality. "In the life journey of Buddha, there is life only in the forest."

"Buddha wanted to teach everyone in his world to be able to live along with the forest because the forest and wildlife have always lived along with us," he explains.

Cambodia: Guardian monk devotes life to protecting local forest from exploitation, destruction08:32
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"People come here and burn. They come inside the forest with the aim of hunting animals, collecting tree resin, mushrooms and timber, and since it's bushy, they decide to burn the forest to move around." This is how Venerable Bun Saluth, a Cambodian Buddhist monk who has devoted his life to protecting his local forest, describes the daily fight against illegal loggers and poachers in the Oddar Meanchey province of Cambodia, speaking earlier this year.

Bun Saluth's mission to safeguard his region's evergreen forests dates back to 2001, when he returned from a long journey to Thailand. During his stay in the neighbouring country he came into contact with a group of 'ecology monks', inspired by Engaged Buddhism which had been active since the 1990s.

The conservation strategies implemented by the monks to protect Thailand's wildlife inspired him to consider more deeply the importance of preserving natural resources in his native Oddar Meanchey.

"This is such a necessary matter because in this world there are activities of deforestation and damage to biodiversity, which make climate change act very quickly," he says.

"If there are no natural resources and wildlife, we won't be able to live. This is a very important message. That is why I think that as a monk who lives in this world, I don't want to be a burden to the planet," he continues.

Over the past four decades, a growing demand for timber, used as construction material and fuel, has been threatening Cambodia's forests. In 1975, trees covered 73 percent of the country's surface, with this figure dropping to 46.8 percent in 2018. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2001 and 2018 the country lost 2.17 million hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 25 percent drop since 2000. Between 2013 and 2018, nearly 85 percent of cover loss occurred in natural forest.

In 2001, Bun Saluth established the Monk's Community Forest, or MCF, a community-managed forest conservation site which today stretches over 71 square miles in the northwestern part of the country.

Volunteers from his pagoda and villagers embarked on the project, and his monks acquired legal protection rights over the forest soon after.

In the beginning, Saluth encountered resistance from locals, who believed that the monk was seeking to establish personal property in the area. Illegal encroachments and tree cutting in the forest continued.

Eventually, by 2008 the monk won people's support and villagers started managing their natural resources in a more sustainable way.

The group defined the forest's boundaries, set up patrol teams, organised residents into special committees and raised environmental awareness.

The Monks Community Forest project encountered numerous challenges over the years. In 2008, the increase of land prices in the country resulted in further land grabs, while in 2017 the construction of a hydropower dam by the government is said to have caused the flooding of 6,000 hectares. Bun Saluth blamed the reservoir for submerging several historical temples and causing the loss of wildlife habitats, but the monks were successful in negotiating compensation for all affected residents.

Since then, as seen in pictures shot earlier in 2020, villagers and monks have been working closely through forestry committees to prevent illegal logging and poaching, as well as to ensure communities have access to the forest's resources.

When villagers run out of rice, the forest provides them with mushrooms, ginger and fruits, which serve as an extra source of income for families.

Part of the job is organising patrols, carried out by members of the MCF and village leaders who join forces as they try to deter timber thieves, wildlife and marine life poachers.

During their rounds, teams navigate rivers on small motorboats to monitor the area and keep an eye out for illegal activities, including fishing. Offenders use the forest waterways and park their empty boats before disappearing into the bushes, where they place traps for animals, as Bun Saluth explains. If they come for fishing, they remain in their boats, turn off the engine and cast their nets.

Watch posts are also set up to safeguard wildlife. To ensure continuous monitoring, monks on patrol spend their nights inside a small wooden house enriched with portraits and a statue of the Buddha.

"We sleep over there, and we wait. If we heard animals screaming at night, that's it. Because animals, when they are caught, they don't give up right away. They will scream first," says Bun Saluth, who believes the only way to catch illegal poachers is to wait for them inside the forest.

When patrolling in broad daylight, teams often discover extensive areas impacted by illegal logging and retrieve animal traps, including snares and electrical shock devices. For the monks, there is nothing left to do but to walk in the forest scorched by bushfires and assess the extent of the damage.

Patrol activities often include extinguishing fires started by loggers as they try to make their way into the forest. But this is not the only reason, according to Saluth.

"They want to threaten me, because in this area I have always banned (them from entering) and whoever comes in, and I will always do it," he says.

Fires pose a big threat to the monks, he explains. "It's very risky for us, especially because of intoxication. And the more we inhale smoke, (the more) it causes problems." The only tool they have to put out fires are tree branches, but when the blazes grow out of control, monks have to run away.

Today, the Monk Community Forest consists of over 20 temples, a water source and historical villages, and is managed through 47 committees and by around 3,447 members. In 2019, the Cambodian government authorised the MCF to extend from 18,261 hectares to 30,251 and officially renamed it as Sangrukhavoan Wildlife Sanctuary, which now covers Anlong Veng, Chong Kal District and Samraong.

According to Bun Saluth, some loggers could be from the local community, but he believes there are also people coming from other areas as he laments that there are still too few patrols. But despite the illegal activities and the attacks, Bun Saluth emphasises the non-violent nature of this project, and believes religion must be a tool to educate offenders about the value of protecting the environment.

The management of natural resources has a strong connection with Buddhist spirituality. "In the life journey of Buddha, there is life only in the forest."

"Buddha wanted to teach everyone in his world to be able to live along with the forest because the forest and wildlife have always lived along with us," he explains.

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