Buddhist Monks battle deforestation in Cambodia

Cambodia has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates. But a group of Buddhist monks are stepping up efforts to save forests by publicly revealing wrongdoings and mobilising local villagers.


 

His memories often bring But Buntenh back to Cambodia thirty years ago. There were jungles as far as the eye could see. Centuries-old trees gave shade and provided shelter to birds and wild animals. The air was clean, nature gave the local people everything they needed. The forest near the village where Buntenh grew up was filled with wild pigs. “We were hunting them. During my youth, there was nothing as tasty as the meat of a wild pig,” the 36-year-old monk said, laughing.

The forests of Buntenh’s youth are long gone, and with it the wildlife and the birds that lived in it. The loss of it grieves the Buddhist monk, but he says he is committed to put an end to deforestation in Cambodia while there is still some jungle left.

It’s an extremely challenging mission in which Buntenh and his fellow monks, who are united under the group Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, regularly put their own lives at risk.

A large empty forest

On a recent early morning, Buntenh – wearing flip-flops, small glasses and an orange robe – walks through Prey Lang, one of the Southeast Asian nation’s largest and oldest evergreen woodlands. The sun shines through the canopy and from afar the crying noise of a motor saw sounds through the air.

Buntenh is on his way to a workshop, in which he and other monks teach the local people how to use social media to protect themselves and the forest. It is badly needed, he says, as the survival of Prey Lang – meaning “Great Forest” in Kuy, the local minority language – is under threat. Large parts of the forest have already disappeared to make space for plantations. In areas that are protected from such land concessions, illegal loggers cut down tree after tree.

“The people who cut down the forest think they are superior, but in reality they are stupid. Only the forest is superior,” Buntenh said. Sixteen years ago, he decided to join the monkhood. Now he is trying to convince the people that the world cannot exist without trees. “No one has told me that I should go out there to protect the forest, but for me it was a logical thing to do. I am doing all I can to save it. I plant new trees, I help the people who live from the forest, I am reminding the government of the promises they’ve made.”

It was just after the parliamentary elections of 2013 when Buntenh’s message inspired 23-year-old Horn Sophanny. Because Buddhist temples in Cambodia are the traditional place to study, Sophanny had come to a temple to satisfy his hunger for knowledge a few years earlier. But the elections changed everything. The majority of the seats were won by the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was accused of electoral fraud on a massive scale. Many Cambodians were furious and started mass demonstrations that went on for months.

“I had already known Buntenh from Facebook. But when he started his activist movement after the elections, I realized I could do something as a monk,” Sophanny said. He joined Buntenh’s activist network, which consists of some 5,000 monks. Since then, Sophanny has been at the forefront during protests and has shared all kinds of wrongdoings via Facebook.

Leaning against the pillar of a wooden house on the edge of Prey Lang, Sophanny says that it’s the task of the monks to protect the country and its people. That was already the case in the 1950s, when they had a leading role in the fight for Cambodia’s independence from the French colonizers, he noted. “We want current day monks to have the same type of role. It is our job to lead society to a better place. We are the symbol of compassion. The pagodas are the roots of our knowledge.”

 

 Buddhist monks collect images of illegal logging and spead them through social media

In Cambodia, where over 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, monks enjoy great respect. Their orange and red robes offer them a protection that other activists lack. The authorities are also unlikely to easily use force against them, and the monks use this freedom to collect images and videos of, for example, illegal logging and brutal police violence. These are then spread through social media.

Disappearing tigers and giant trees

In Prey Lang, Buntenh calls for the people to do the same. Men and women, both young and old, have come to the forest on scooters and agricultural vehicles. They listen closely when the monks explain why they shouldn’t be intimidated.

The voice of Buntenh sounds through a pair of crackling speakers. “We must speak out when someone is abusing our rights,” he tells the crowd. “The authorities think bad about us, but we are the ones that help you to save the forest. Do you know how Facebook works? You have to use it to tell what’s happening here.”

San Reth, a 63-year-old Cambodian who has lived near Prey Lang for his entire life, is happy with the support of the monks. “For a long time, we hoped a good man will stand up to save our forest,” he says.

 

 

For many years, the forest has been good for him and his family, Reth explains. “Life was good here. There were deer, elephants, tigers and cobras living in the forest. There were trees and plants that gave us medicines. From my house I only had to walk for a few minutes and I could find everything I need.”

Three years ago, on a half an hour’s drive from his house, the forest was home to trees with trunks so wide that “you needed four men to circle them,” Reth says. But today the same area is dead. The giant trees are cut down, smaller trees are defoliating and the soil is burned and filled with grey-colored ash. Soon a large plantation with only rosewood trees will be built here, the Cambodian man says with a sad face. The wood is meant for export to China.

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