A monk can maintain his gentle, soft-spoken ways while still delivering the hard line: “You chop down a tree, and you kill a monk,” said the Venerable Heik Sopheap, executive director of the Association of Buddhists for the Environment.
Buddha teaches reverence for nature, and monks are integrally tied to the forest, he said, reiterating a message central to ABE’s new partnership with Washington-based Conservation International.
The two organizations joined forces in early August in the central Cardamom protected forest in southwestern Cambodia to train nine monks living in Koh Kong province’s Thma Bang district how to deliver the message of environmental conservation to their neighbors.
“Buddha was born in the forest. ..he achieved enlightenment in the forest and parted ways in the forest,” said Heik Sopheap, who began ABE in 2005 in order to more closely link dharma, or Buddhist teaching, with environmental activism.
Wayne McCallum, CI community engagement adviser, said the monks will participate in wildlife blessing ceremonies and ceremonial walks through villages in the central Cardamom mountains, home to the largest contiguous rainforest on mainland Southeast Asia.
“The main purpose is to make people pause and consider the karmic implication of catching a pangolin or selling a bit of the forest,” he said.
Pangolins are scaly anteaters that live in the Cardamoms whose population is decreasing rapidly elsewhere in the region.
The year-long pilot project is small—costing only $4,000 and focusing on just Russei Chrum commune—but the groups are hoping to expand their efforts across the central Cardamoms in the future, McCallum said.
ABE has spearheaded various environmental efforts that include a team of fire-fighting monks in Kompong Chhnang province and a program by which trees undergo the traditional ordination ceremony to become monks—a ceremony completed with tree trunks donning saffron robes.
McCallum said they are discussing whether the forest ordination program would be effective in the central Cardamoms.
“They want to ordain the whole forest,” he said.