Aural district, Kompong Speu province – To look at Prum Dhamm Cheat, you wouldn’t know that loggers were illegally cutting his forest or that hunters had shot most of his peacocks.
Sitting outside one of the meditation huts he has built in the three years since he claimed this piece of forest as his own, the monk looks at the trees and smiles.
“I want people to know me as the ecological monk,” he says. “I want to be like Buddha, who always lived in the jungle. Because if we have no environment, how will we live?”
Environmentalists have long decried the extensive logging in the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, where Prum Dhamm Cheat has founded his Environmental Buddhist Center. Earlier this month, the government responded by dropping paratroopers into the area to destroy equipment and shut down several illegal saw mills.
But since then, the roads leading to the Environmental Buddhist Center are again clogged with ox carts loaded with timber.
Following signs Prum Dhamm Cheat has posted leading to his forest, one passes large fields where dozens of stumps stick up from the ground and only the occasional tree still stands.
In other places, some less than 5 km from the monk’s meditation center, smoke still rises from scorched trees and grass set on fire by loggers. Then the trail comes out on a clearing where a fountain and close to a dozen hand-painted signs, bearing phrases such as “We love tree, we plant tree, we conserve tree,” have been erected.
A colorful, eccentric hermitage and several more modest huts stand nearby. Where Prum Dhamm Cheat’s geese, dogs, a cat and two gibbons go about their business. There used to be five peacocks, the monk says, but hunters have killed three; one is missing and another he found hiding with several chickens in nearby Sre Chrab village in Trapeang Chou commune.
Prum Dhamm Cheat says he is saddened by the destruction observed on the way here, but he is even more determined to protect this 2- to 3-km piece of forest.
“I feel sorrow for my nation,” he says. “They do not cut for food. It is for money.”
The 33-year-old monk says his passion for the environment was cultivated when he was child. He was taught about the importance of Cambodia’s natural resources in school, and when he finished his studies, he knew he wanted to do his part.
He lived in the jungle in Ratanakkiri province for several years, and at the urgings of a fellow monk, he took up residence in a cave in Mondolkiri province.
In Mondolkiri, he planted trees and tried to teach local villagers the importance of protecting the forest. He estimates he has planted 3,000 to 4,000 trees with his own hands.
But then the pagoda he was affiliated with became embroiled in a political battle between Funcinpec and CPP supporters. The pagoda was eventually dissolved, and in the aftermath, he decided to move back to Aural where he was born and his parents still live.
After a bit of wandering, he decided to build his Environmental Buddhist Center about 5 km from Sre Chrab and 10 km from the larger Spean Dek village.
Initially, local authorities tried to prevent him from settling there, he says, but now he is accepted by local villagers and officials. He often goes into Sre Chrab and Spean Dek to speak with locals, some of whom admit they cut the trees to make money.
Piles of freshly cut wood are piled in front of villager Chhou Khoeun’s home in Sre Chrab and a hand saw lies under the table where he sits.
He says the wood is firewood—it was dead when it was collected—but villagers get one to two orders from “rich people” for cut timber each month. When that happens, he rents a chainsaw from another villager, and the wood he cuts gets piled into a truck or van and taken to Kompong Speu provincial town or Phnom Penh, he says.
With the manual saw, he can cut about one tree per day compared to five with the chainsaw. The chainsaws, he says, are stored in a secret place, “Otherwise they will be confiscated.”
Chhou Khoeun says villagers know it is wrong to cut the forest and believe if the forest is destroyed, there will be no more rain. But they do it anyway.
“If we don’t cut it, we will have no food to eat,” he says, blaming the drought that has decimated Kompong Speu this year. But upon further questioning, he admits he’s been cutting trees for years for extra money.
Prum Dhamm Cheat says local villagers often heed what he tells them but are frustrated when they see outsiders cutting the forest and enjoying the benefits when they cannot.
“They want to be rich men,” he says. “The local villagers have the opinion: ‘We are local villagers. Why can’t we cut the forest?’”
The monk says he encounters illegal loggers on his land all the time. The monk says he usually invites the loggers back to his home and feeds them while trying to explain why cutting the trees is hurting the country.
“They promise not to cut the trees in the future, but not all of them stop,” he admits.
To counter this, Prum Dhamm Cheat plans to build meditation huts throughout the forest, where visiting monks and nuns will sit and meditate while also keeping watch over the area around them.
When loggers see the religious figures, he hopes, they will turn around and leave the forest alone.
Already, two nuns live with him, and Prum Dhamm Cheat has taken on a student from Spean Dek so someone will take care of the forest when he moves on.
“We have to educate the students living here,” the monk says.
Nun Sin Yon, 60, admits life at the Environmental Buddhist Center is hard as she prepares a sparse lunch. Food is scarce, the walk to the closest market in Spean Dek is long, and loggers ignore the signs Prum Dhamm Cheat has erected and continue to cut the forest around them.
But in the three months since she arrived here from Udong, she says she has gained an appreciation for what the monk is doing.
“I’m very impressed with what the monk has done,” she says. “If he stays, the wildlife will have a place to stay.”
Prum Dhamm Cheat says he has been accused of working for NGOs, but he says this is untrue; he works only for the forest and environment.
“I don’t want to do anything political,” he says. “When the environment is destroyed, the earth will be destroyed.”