New Internationalist

Faith In The Forest

Issue 279
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Faith in the forest. [image, unknown]
Faith in the forest. [image, unknown]
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES

Faith in the forest
All over the world people are defending the forests.
Here Joe Franke tells the story of the Thai monk who ordained trees to protect them;
while later in the article are other key flashpoints of forest resistance.

February 1994: Buri Ram Province, Thailand. I’m with an international group joining Phra Pachak Kuttijitto, a Buddhist monk and environmental activist, on a ten-day tudong or forest walk.

I’ve come here looking for a radically different perspective on activism. One of Phra Pachak’s tactics in his battles against illegal logging in these forests is to ordain trees as initiate monks. It’s an act of crazy wisdom, protecting the trees from illicit logging by wrapping them in the sacred yellow cloth.

Phra Pachak is a complex man with a checkered past. He was once married with children; a hard-drinking construction worker with a weakness for gambling. His life took a radically different turn after he was near-fatally shot while attempting to collect on a gambling debt. In hospital he had time to think about his life and was soon ordained as an initiate monk.

‘I began to wander, seeking out teachers all over Thailand. I walked through war zones with bullets flying all around. I slept in caves where the rats would piss in my rice bowl. I was a wild bull. I thought I had all the right answers. I built up a lot of power. Despite my increasing strength,’ he continued, ‘unease began to grow in me. It grew and grew until it became despair. Quite by accident, I came upon an abandoned monastery surrounded by a small forest. In this monastery there was one book. I opened it, and the first thing I read was: “Do not be satisfied or unsatisfied. Detach from praise or criticism. Practise non-self.”

‘This was the beginning of the right path. I stayed in that monastery and rebuilt it with the help of the people of a nearby village. It was there that I began to realize my duty to the forest. You cannot take the forest out of Buddhism. The Buddha reached enlightenment in the forest. I saw that we must exist as a leaf exists…’ – and with this Phra Pachak gently picks up a leaf from the forest floor and holds it up – ‘…we must take only what we need. And we must remember… impermanence.’ With this he gently opens his hand and lets the leaf return to the soil.

When Phra Pachak wandered into the forest in 1989, rural Thailand was in the throes of the Khor Jhor Khor Project, a massive scheme to resettle close to seven million people so as to make way for industrial eucalyptus plantations. Twelve villages in the area were next on the list for destruction, and these communities, lacking a spiritual teacher and desperate for someone to organize their resistance, begged him to stay.

Phra Pachak saw it as his duty to remain and honor their request. He asked the villagers to donate an area for a khet apaiyataan or ‘land of forgiveness’ where tree-felling and the harming of wildlife would be forbidden. It was in this area that he began to wrap some of the largest and oldest trees with the sacred yellow cloth of the Buddhist clergy. These ‘ordained’ trees have not been cut, because local people working for illegal loggers feel that this would be tantamount to killing a monk, one of the most unspeakable crimes imaginable.

During this period Phra Pachak also began working with the chiefs of the 25 villages in the district to build a community-based conservation organization. Small groups of sympathetic villagers and monks patrol an area of 20,000 rai (about 2,000 hectares) with walkie-talkies and cameras in an attempt to discourage illegal logging. Blockades have been put up in an effort to hamper the transportation of logs from the forest. The Royal Forestry Department and the loggers have not taken kindly to these activities: three villagers have been killed in confrontations with loggers, wells have been poisoned, and land mines set near the temple. A machine gun was fired into the temple while Phra Pachak was holding a service; miraculously, nobody was killed.

Despite the constant threat of arrest, Phra Pachak has continued his work. His goal is to show the authorities that humans and forest can co-exist, and that the people of the villages should be given a fighting chance to stay in the countryside instead of swelling the ranks of the impoverished masses flooding into Bangkok.

‘Once when I was walking from one end of Thailand to the other, a dog began to follow me,’ he tells us. ‘We walked together for days, and I shared what little food I had with him. In one village, I was given a large piece of pork and a bowl of rice. The pork I gave to the dog. He snapped it up, walked off and buried it and came back hoping to get the rice as well. He was so interested in getting my rice that when we left, he’d forgotten all about the meat he’d buried. These people who come to the forest to cut it over and plant eucalyptus have the same mentality as this dog. They are so filled with greed that they will never be satisfied.’

Pachak before he disrobed.
JOE FRANKE

Within six months of my tujong with him Phra Pachak had disrobed, ending 17 years as a monk; he had been forced underground and finally imprisoned. How did all this happen?

The pressure on him became intense after he publicly criticized the Thai Government on a speaking tour of Japan and then supported Chalard Vorachat, who was on hunger strike for greater democracy. The governor of Pachak’s home province made it clear that he intended to throw him in jail.

After a period of intense reflection at a temple during the Buddhist lent period, Pachak apparently made the decision to disrobe. He left a note in the temple’s guest register, saying simply, ‘This is to state clearly that I will end my life as a monk on this day, 19 July 1994’. He went back to Buri Ram, gathered the small amount of money he had, and disappeared.

It is widely speculated that his family was threatened or that a deal had been done promising the local forest protection if he quit the monkhood. In any case, the limited protection that his robes afforded him was now gone, and the state clobbering machine went into full throttle.

In January 1995 he was arrested on charges of illegal gambling but escaped through the police station’s bathroom window. A massive police hunt ensued, replete with lurid television reports. He was soon rearrested and has been in prison since, awaiting trial outside Bangkok.

It is painfully obvious why the government of one of the most powerful nations in Asia has spent so much time and energy assassinating the character and spirit of Prachak. There is a battle raging: at stake are the hearts and minds of the Thai people, and their belief in ‘progress’. We in the industrialized West should take heed, as the loss of creative solutions like Prachak’s could prove disastrous to us as well.

Joe Franke is the Director of Wat Forest Project, which aims to strengthen the role of monks and nuns in the Thai environmental movement. A legal defense fund has been established for Prachak, and donations will be gladly accepted. Wat Forest Project, 7435 SW 31st Ave, Portland OR 97219, USA.

We are not alone. The old adage to act locally but think globally could have been coined with the anti-deforestation movement in mind. Thousands of local struggles are under way against logging companies which are all too often in cahoots with corrupt politicians. Knowing that the movement is so international can make all the difference to campaigners’ will to carry on.

To view an amazing group of photo's on this theme please click here.

All these photos come from Still Pictures. Daniel Dancer’s aerial shot (top left) shows the impact of clearcutting in California: the battle to preserve the ancient forests is not confined to the Majority World. Mark Edwards’ pictures of dancers and artists in Cameroon show a community harnessing traditional culture to spread the word about saving the forest. Jorgen Schytte (top centre) documents Mauritanians’ determination to reclaim the desert. Nigel Dickinson (bottom three) has captured a demonstration in the Philippines together with two images of the Kenyah people of Long Geng village in Sarawak, Malaysia. They are blockading logging roads in spirited defence of the forests that have sustained them for centuries.

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