Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1996

Don't Get Off The Train; Ajahn Thanavaro
Vision and Focus; Sister Thanasanti
Saving Forests; Nick Scott interviews Ajahn Pasanno
The Retreat of Light; Reflections from California
Sutta Class: Morals & Ethics; Ajahn Thiradhammo
The Open Road; Sister Candasiri
Signs of Change:


Saving Forests So There Can Be Forest Monks

Ajahn Pasanno is the Abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat, the monastery for Western monks set up by Ajahn Chah in Thailand. He recently spent a year on retreat in the forest at Chithurst Monastery. It was there that he was interviewed by Nick Scott.

Nick: Ajahn, you have been a forest monk in Thailand for over twenty years now. In that time what have you seen happening to the forests?
Ajahn Pasanno: Basically, I've told Thai people that there just isn't going to be any more forest in Thailand if they don't act soon, the devastation is so complete. About fifty years ago around 70% of the country used to be covered in forest and now the government estimate it to be 20%; in reality it's more like 5% or 8%.
The big logging companies are partially responsible, but that's actually a small part of it. Logging is banned nowadays. And even when they used to come in, they only wanted the big trees and then they were out. What happened was that they opened up areas of forest, and after they left, people came in. Round where we are they cut the smaller timber for furniture - you can get that out without being seen - and a lot goes as charcoal. The government allows people to sell two sacks of charcoal, so everyone has two sacks at the front of their house for sale.
Nick: What about National Parks?
If the people in the area have a different way to make a living, then they won't have to destroy the forest. They need to learn about the forest. In order to have a sustainable livelihood they have to live harmoniously with the environment.

Ajahn Pasanno: The area of the country that has been made into National Park is a much higher percentage than, say, America. But the trouble is they're not protected. One of our monasteries is in a new National Park. The director of the park has got a budget for just one civil servant to act as his assistant - and one gun for his protection. Luckily, where this branch monastery is, the director is a young guy, really honest and dedicated. But many of the others are crooked. Like the park at one of our other branch monasteries - the monastery protects not only its own area but the whole forest around it. But in order for the director of the park to sign the piece of paper which would allow that project to be submitted to the forestry department, it cost the monastery five hundred pounds - which goes to him personally! You'd think he'd be keen to help. So if he's expecting bribes from the monastery to protect his forest, you can think what else he must doing, you can imagine the scams.
Nick: Ajahn, in that case you have got a small monastery with a large amount of forest being protected. How does that work?
Ajahn Pasanno: The dynamic, particularly in the N.E. of Thailand, but generally throughout the country, is that people respect monks - especially the disciples of Ajahn Chah. And if you respect people, you respect the place where they are at. So if the monks ask people not to encroach on an area, they respect that - generally.
     There are several hundred monasteries in Ajahn Chah's tradition and they're all in forest - for some it's only a small area, but whatever, the forest is respected by the people and left alone. At Wat Pah Nanachat, before we finally got a wall around the monastery this last year, the villagers used to keep an eye out for fires during the dry season. Sometimes they would notice fires coming near the monastery. Many trees had been planted, so if a fire swept through there, three, four, five years of work would be wiped out. An alarm would be sent out, the villagers would come and put it out, and I would only find out about it later. They were really watching out for the monastery.
But you have to be careful in some places. When we first started one monastery I told the monks not to bother the people who were coming to poach logs from the forest; it was too dangerous to obstruct them. It was being done by the local village headman, the representative of the government. He was supposed to be looking after such things, but he was cutting down the forest right round the spring which was our water source. So I suggested to him that that area should be left undisturbed for future generations. He was very polite, there was nothing aggressive about him, "I can't do that", he said, "I've already paid the police, I've already paid the forestry. I'll lose a lot of money."
Nick: Am I right in thinking that other abbots have got into real problems with conservation projects?
Ajahn Pasanno: Oh sure. You have to be careful. There was a large area of good forest along the Cambodian border and the military and local merchants were trying to get it all. It was a big scam. They called it a 'reforestation project' - but what they were doing was cutting the native trees to plant Eucalyptus, so they were making money both ways! However, the abbot there was getting in the way, so he had grenades thrown at his monastery, the roof of his hut was splattered with M16 shots. He was harassed a lot. He ended up being taken to court - that's a big thing taking a monk to court in Thailand - and he finally ended up disrobing. We started Nature Care when we set up a retreat place in Poo Jom Gom - that's the monastery in the National Park. I specifically chose that area because it is very rocky and the forest isn't very nice - we didn't want the hassle.
Nick: You deliberately chose it because there wasn't good forest left?
Ajahn Pasanno: Yes, it can be pretty distracting when you're practising, and then there's the struggle with the system to try to save it. But then when you see how things are - you feel that with a little bit of input, it's not that difficult to protect what's left.
    If the people in the area have a different way to make a living, then they won't have to destroy the forest. They need to learn about the forest. In order to have a sustainable livelihood they have to live harmoniously with the environment. They also have to feel in control of the situation, and not just pawns in someone else's game. One of the things we focus on most is getting people involved from different backgrounds. Previously there was no communication there. We're also providing a bridge between the administration, which means well, and the villagers. There can be so much corruption. For example, there was this project making toilets. It was a good project. In the local village there were 120 families and only 16 toilets.
Nick: How many televisions?
Ajahn Pasanno: About 40! So it was a great project, and the government had the budget for it. It started off with a roof and bricks to build the cubicle, a tank to hold waste and a toilet. But by the time it got to the village, you've got the toilet bowl, eight bricks and a bag of cement! So the villagers don't take the government very seriously.
Nick: So what kind of practical things have you been doing?
Ajahn Pasanno: Nature Care has been focusing on providing alternative means of livelihood. You look at what they have already and consider how to use it more effectively. For example, they grow a lot of bananas. They take them to the market and they get beat every time by the merchants. They don't have the confidence to bargain. And, of course, if they can't sell them, they can't take them home again because they would go bad. So we help them to change what they're doing. Rather than taking the fresh bananas to the market, they make different products out of them; dried bananas, sweets, roasted bananas. Things that they can keep and sell for more. They can store them and wait till they get a good price. So they get more from their crop. Also they grow cotton, but it's always been sold raw. So we have given training in weaving and dyeing using natural dyes. And there's a good market for that.
Nick: Are you doing anything more direct for the forest?
Ajahn Pasanno: One of the ways of protecting forest is to be involved in education, so that people can see the benefits of the forest. This involves stimulating interest, getting people keen to help. It's quite obvious to the people that there is a big difference in their lives and the quality of life around them, compared to 20, 30 years ago. In that area, you could walk around and be walking in shade. But now a lot of it has been cut for tapioca plantations. Most of it was just cut and burnt - it wasn't logged at all - just to plant cash crops. But then the soils degraded very quickly, the cash crops don't grow and they find that their livelihoods are threatened. They used to rely on the forest. Before cash crops they didn't actually use cash that much, because everything they needed they got from the forest. They were very self-sufficient.
Nick: Yes, but how do you go about improving things?
Ajahn Pasanno: Things like taking them out to see other projects - both places where there are natural forests well preserved and they can see the benefits for the people living nearby; and also seeing places that have been destroyed and where they are starting to work replanting and protecting, so that they can see what other people are doing. That's very successful. It stimulates many ideas and it gets them thinking. It inspires them to realise, "We can do that". Also working with children, getting children involved is important. The children are at the heart of the family structure in Thailand, very well loved. If you get the children involved you tend to pull the parents in as well. So we've been putting on plays and skits in schools, taking children out into the forest, having fun, getting the children to love the forest.
    In Thailand, the words that they use for forest are usually words that imply dangerous, messy, tangled - language which has a negative connotation. Also, somebody who goes out, clears the forest, makes fields and builds houses for themselves is someone who used to be praised. So that conditioning is there. The language and the way we talk about something is very ingrained, so now you're having to work against those values. It's going to take a while.
    You have to see what's meaningful to them rather than have all these plans. Their needs have to be understood. Also, as a monk, you have contact with all levels of society, so that if the villagers have a need or desire or hope, you have the opportunity to bring it to the attention of other people from different strands of society who could give them a hand. That does happen a lot - the monks creating a bridge between people.
    In Thailand, monks are regarded as leaders in society. What we're doing isn't new. It is a function that monks have played traditionally and will continue to do so. You notice at Ajahn Chah's funeral, when the King and Queen came they bowed to the remains of Ajahn Chah - just the same as ordinary people who came to pay their respects. You have got to be able to preserve the purity of the life to deserve that - but when you manage it, it's very powerful.
    Monks are able to draw in different people and provide a harmonious focal point for them to work together; they act as a catalyst. Say, like myself for instance, it's not that I'm all that directly involved, I'm more in the background providing advice, support and encouraging them.
Nick: Is anyone employed by Nature Care?
Ajahn Pasanno: Yes. They started with volunteers, people who were interested. At first it was manageable for the volunteers, because in the beginning they weren't doing all that much. But as they got involved in more projects, got more interest from the villagers and made more contacts, it needed more continuity, so that we have asked four of the volunteers to work full time.
Nick: So how is it funded?
Ajahn Pasanno: Well, we've got very good at scrounging and everything is done very cheaply - we've one motorcycle between everybody. So far we've got by on donations from a few individuals and some small grants from the Canadian and Belgian embassies. The salaries for the workers are being paid at present with some money offered for my travel to come to do this retreat in England.
Nick: Would you say, Ajahn, that by looking after the forest that you are looking out for the Sangha and future monks?
Ajahn Pasanno: Yes, definitely. Because if we don't have forests we're not forest monks! We're definitely protecting areas where monks can practise within a forest setting, because you need to have a stable and quiet environment for practice. If monasteries are set up in areas which are being encroached upon by settlements, or in degraded areas where there is no longer water or shelter, these are not conducive places to practise in. So definitely, I'm looking out for myself. Our tradition has always been connected to the forest. I can remember walking with Ajahn Chah around the monasteries when he would point out different trees and plants, telling us their uses for medicine or food or their special characteristics. It was always interesting being with him. The old forest monks really relied on the forest for everything.
Nick: Through my work in conservation, I've come to realise that it is this kind of small scale effort that you are making which is important, rather than trying to 'save the world'.
Ajahn Pasanno: Yes, an example needs to be set. The project demonstrates what can be done with a small number of people, a small amount of effort. But if it's done in the right way it can be effective. I try to keep it very practical, keep it centered on a couple of issues, which actually starts to expand into others, but it provides something for others to consider. So we're planting seeds that will get more people involved.
    If you push people into a corner, they'll defend themselves. You have to give people the space to back out. One of the problems oftentimes is the kind of confrontation you get into between the people who are destroying the forests, the vested interest, the civil service, people who want to preserve it. If you're not including everybody in the process, the forest just isn't worth it to protect. Everyone has to be included, seeing that this is something which belongs to all of us, that we also have a part to play in it.
In the Theravada tradition there's always been a very close relationship between the society you live in and the monastic community. In Thailand, as a monk, I don't have the amount of free time or space that you'd expect. You're actually so much a part of the community that the monastery is an open space. That's why I had to come to England to do this one year retreat.

Nick Scott adds: I am very impressed with what Ajahn Pasanno has been doing for the forests in Thailand. I know from having worked in nature conservation that projects based on a wise perspective are rare. It is also rare for us to have the opportunity to save forest in the third world without much of our donation having to be spent on marketing and administration. If you would like to contribute to Nature Care, you can send a cheque, made out to:
English Sangha Trust (Nature Care), C/O Nick Scott to Chithurst Monastery and we will forward it.