In Thailand, the forest has always been a wilderness refuge for spirits, outlaws and wild beasts, with its own hierarchy of chaos. The animist basis of these beliefs is now helping to fight the tempting cash incentives that have caused forests elsewhere in the country to fall to illegal loggers or powerful land speculators.
The people of Ban Om-Long, in northern Chiang Mai province, are Karen, Thailand’s largest ethnic minority. Among Southeast Asian hill groups, the Karen show a special appreciation of the forest they occupy. They maintain its ecological stability better than most semi-nomadic groups.
"The culture and forest management techniques of the Karen at Ban Om-Long should receive public recognition as a key for development," says Dr. Uraivan Tan-Kim-Yong, director of Chiang Mai University’s Resource Management and Development Center.
With urban migration and the influence of pop culture, Karen customs began to fade in the community about 10 years ago. In response, a number of people made a conscious effort to revitalize them.
Now, the citizens of Ban Om-Long again maintain a "watershed forest" upstream, as well as a series of fallow woodlots in their upland rice fields. Together they mark forest and field boundaries and protected areas, including the communal cemetery and sacred forest. Everyone plants at least one tree there each year and helps maintain the set of firebreak fences. All able hands are expected to respond if the village fire bell rings out during the dry season, when wild fires spread quickly.
These customs are grounded in animist traditions that hold a village’s forest as a sacred place where the spirits of the watershed live.
Buddhism, too, has given life to Thai environmental action. Monks have catalyzed local movements for forest protection by talking to villagers and leading village patrols into the forest to fend off logging squads. Abbot Prajak Kutajitto, who was twice jailed in recent years for his activism in protecting local forests, is perhaps the most famous of these, but there are many.
Protecting Rivers; Ordaining Trees
Abbot Khru Pitak Nanthakhun, a conservationist monk in northern Nan Province organized an unusual life-lengthening ceremony for the Nan River to focus public attention on the worsening problems in that river’s watershed. The ceremony, traditionally performed only for people, signaled to locals the urgency of the river’s dwindling water supply.
Abbot Khru Pitak Nanthakhun and other monks have also adapted Buddhist rituals to forest activism. Some have encircled the trunks of the largest and most vulnerable trees with yellow monks’ robes, essentially ordaining the trees as monks. Whoever cuts the tree in effect kills a monk, a mortal sin.
As these community efforts gain effectiveness and the government is pressed to recognize communities’ rights to manage forests, Thailand can hope to salvage its forests along with its traditions.
David Taylor recently returned to the US after four years in Thailand, where he researched and wrote about forestry and community development.