Holding burning incense sticks in his hands, Buddhist monk Bun Saluth chanted a ritual normally held for Cambodians seeking good luck. But this time the subject blessed by his holy water was not a person. It was a three-metre python he bought from a farmer who was about to sell it as food.
“Go, go, and be safe,” the monk said as he watched the snake slither to freedom in a protected forest area in Oddar Meanchey province in northwestern Cambodia.
Bun Saluth is not just a typical Buddhist monk. He is on a crusade to preserve an 18,261 ha forest area in the province. Over the past eight years, he has come to the rescue of dozens of wild animals from traders, and also leads a volunteers’ patrol to prevent illegal logging. It’s a mission which has earned him an award from this year’s Equator Initiative, a UNDP prize for efforts to conserve global biodiversity for poverty reduction.
Ven. Bun Saluth received strong words of encouragement from the initiative’s organizers for his efforts.
“We commend you on the remarkable work of your initiative. You have provided us with a strong demonstration of the ingenuity of community-based work currently being undertaken in the tropics, often against tremendous odds,” Eileen de Ravin, manager of UNDP’s Equator Initiative, wrote in a letter informing the monk about the award.
Ven. Bun Saluth began his environmental mission in 2002. Then peace had just returned to Cambodia after nearly 30 years of armed conflict. The province, once a major battle zone, became an attraction for migrants and people with business interests seeking free land. Slowly, the trend began to take a toll on the forest. He said he had to act to put the breaks on further forest destruction – even if it sometimes meant pitting himself and his forest guardians against gun-wielding poachers.
“When Buddha was still alive, he used trees and caves as lodging to obtain enlightenment. In this way, he has taught us to love the natural resources and wild animals,” Ven. Bun Saluth, 39, said during a recent patrol of the site known as Monk’s Community Forestry (MCF). It is with this spirit that he protects the flora and fauna in his local area.
Under his leadership, six villages have come together to protect the area – currently the largest community-managed forest conservation site in Cambodia. It is a sanctuary to some of the country’s threatened species. The villagers rely on it for non-timber forest products such as mushrooms, tree resin, wild ginger, wild potato, and bamboo, that they collect every day to support their families.
Chhieng Ri, 26 and father of two, said he earned on average US$130 a month from trading mushrooms and tree resin. That is a handsome amount in a country where one-third of its 13.4 million people scrape by below the national poverty line of US$.60 a day.
“It would be very difficult for our lives had it not been for this forest. Some villagers, when they run out of rice on a certain day, they can just go into the forest to pick mushrooms or wild ginger to sell without having to borrow money from others,” he said. He and his family migrated from Kampong Thom province in 2007.
In the early days of his mission Ven. Bun Saluth had plenty of doubters. Many villagers thought his efforts were a business interest in disguise.
“In those days, the people were quite angry with him. They wanted to clear the forest to use the land for growing rice but he prevented them. We thought that he was looking to put his personal ownership on this forest,” said Sam Bun Chhoeun, 60, a village chief.
“He had to do a lot of explaining to the people about the link between the forest and the oxygen we breathe to stay healthy, and that the forest is the home to wild animals that need to be protected,” he said.
The Cambodian government’s Forestry Administration formally granted the MCF legal status as a community-managed forest in 2009.
It is now one of 13 community forest sites chosen for Cambodia’s first carbon credit project under the UN-led programme Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).
The project involves some 58 villages that have agreed to protect over 68,000 ha of forest land in the province. It is expected to sequester 7.1 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide over 30 years, said Amanda Bradley, director of Community Forestry Partnership programme at Pact, an international non-governmental organization. Pact is one of several partners involved in the REDD project in the province.
Ms. Bradley said the Monk’s Community Forestry stood out in setting a precedent for demonstrating that communities can effectively manage large areas of forest.
“This is a huge track of evergreen, deciduous forest that’s very well protected and it’s a great resource for the villagers that live around that area,” she said. “The venerable is definitely setting a great example for this type of community forestry management linked with REDD that has a lot of potentials. He’s a selfless leader, very dedicated.”
Ven. Bun Saluth was held down by a bout of malaria when he received phone calls one July day telling him about the award before the award letter reached his hands.
“I was speechless and almost went into a shock,” he recalled. He said he could not think of a better way to use the prize money of US$5,000 other than to invest it in furthering his mission - “only that but nothing else.”
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