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Fifteen years on, and the Cambodia Monks Community Forest captivates the next generation

August 22, 2016:

Ven Bun Saluth had a vision of a forest where the trees were as sacred as monks

It is nearly 15 years since Venerable Bun Saluth, the head monk of Samraong Pagoda in northern Cambodia, near the Thai border, started to walk his local forest asking illegal loggers and hunters to protect the local biodiversity.

Since then, a sea change has occurred.

In 2001 local communities had almost no understanding of conservation and its importance. Yet, impressed by the monks’ efforts to honour Buddhist precepts and to protect the living resources of the forest, many villagers volunteered to patrol with the monks.

"We are now seeing the new generation of youth living in the 8 nearby villages also becoming involved in protection efforts," said ARC's Cambodian project manager, Chantal Elkin, of the vision that became known as the "Monks Community Forest".

Older members of the patrol teams help these young villagers learn about the importance of the community forest, as well as the local regulations that govern its protection, and where the most important conservation forest sites and wildlife corridors are located.

"In 2015, approximately 50 young people began to participate in patrolling activities," she said.

Short video in French

Forest Patrols

Most days and nights there are teams of monks and village volunteers patrolling the 18,261 hectares of rare lowland evergreen forest. In 2015 they did this for 288 days of 365.

Wildlife camera traps in the monks community forest
• Illegal hunting: Patrol teams removed 1,654 snares from the forest and confiscated 16 guns in 2015. When hunters were caught, the patrols asked them to sign agreements committing themselves to never hunting again in the community forest. Ten such agreements were signed in 2015. There were however six repeat offenders, who were arrested and sent to the Forestry Department office. The patrols learned that some hunters were local people hunting for food or to sell to outside markets, and others were outsiders from Siem Reap town, selling wild meat to restaurants and hotels. When possible, the patrol teams released the snared wildlife back into the forest. In 2015 35 animals were released including snakes, turtles, peacocks, water monitor lizards and leopards.

• Illegal fishing: Monks and patrolling teams confiscated nine electric fishing tools in 2015, mainly from villagers living around the Monks Community Forest, fishing for their own use.

• Illegal Logging: The most serious threat in the MCF is illegal logging. Patrol teams arrested about 20 loggers and sent them to authorities at the Forestry Administration. They confiscated 23 chainsaws which they gave to the local Forestry Department. When trees are felled illegally and the wood confiscated, the MCF teams often ask the Forestry Administration for permission to use the timber to build shelters and patrolling stations. They learned that loggers are usually outsiders from Siem Reap province, but that they frequently collude with local villagers.

Removing snares from the monks' forest
• Prosecutions: 24 written agreements were signed between offenders and the patrol teams, committing to cease illegal activities in the MCF. Two offenders, both from Siem Reap province were sent to jail in 2015 – one illegal logger, serving one year and a poacher, who was given a three year sentence.

Persistent Challenges

One of the biggest challenge is that although most people in the eight surrounding villages have some knowledge of the conservation activities, some continue to extract natural resources. One strategy is to invite these people to participate in the patrol teams and in the village community forest committee. As part of the MCF community they can also collect non timber forest products such as wild ginger, mushrooms and other wild vegetables, which they can use themselves or sell in the markets. The Monks Community Forest is also reaching out to NGOs to develop alternative livelihood programmes, especially in agriculture. Unfortunately there are few such NGOs in this remote area. Additional funding is needed to meet this particular challenge.

Awareness Raising

Confiscating guns from poachers
With funding from the UNDP, a REDD+ programme has started in the MCF called “Supporting community forestry and REDD+”. In 2015, the monks led15 events related to REDD+ in the 8 local villages, with about 450 village participants.

The MCF also organised a tree planting event in which 15,000 seedlings of local tree species were planted in the MCF. Two hundred people participated, including local villagers and students, representatives from the provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; from the provincial Department of Environment; and from the Forestry Administration.

International and National Research & Media

In 2015 there were nearly 600 national and international visitors interested in learning more about the unique, Buddhist-based protection efforts of the Monks Community Forest.

Visitors included researchers, students (mostly from Cambodia but also the USA, Hong Kong and Turkey) and journalists, including Radio Free Asia, Radio France International, Voice of Democracy, local TV stations Apsara News Network and Hang Meas, the Phnom Penh Post newspaper and the Cambodia Daily newspaper.

In addition...

BirdLife International, and an American university donated camera traps to the MCF teams. These captured 3,900 photos of 30 varieties of wildlife including banteng, wild pigs, peacocks, deer and bears.

The Halo Trust removed 16 land mines from the MCF last year.

Links and resources

Youtube interview in Cambodian on the Monks Community Forest

Youtube interview in Cambodian on understanding REDD+ and how to protect the forest in Cambodia

Cambodian Monks Community Forest wins the Equator prize.

Cambodia's pagodas become eco-centres.

More on monks and environment programmes in Cambodia.

Cambodian monks join together to protect the Cardamom mountains.

And from elsewhere...

A June 2016 nimation by Chinese Buddhists about vegetarianism as mercy release.

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