Bun Saluth (foreground) and his fellow monks carry out one of their regular patrols in the forest near Samroang. Photo by: Rann Reuy
FOR a decade, a monk has struggled to protect a forest in northern Cambodia from villagers who need the land for shelter and loggers intent on poaching valuable timber. Now it’s a haven for trees and living beings.
Bun Saluth, born in the village of Trabek, in the Bosbouv commune of Oddar Meanchey province’s Samraong district in 1970, became a monk at the age of 20.
In 1995, he migrated to Thailand, where he studied meditation and Aphidhamma, a profound Buddhist teaching, for five years.
When Bun Saluth returned to his home town, he decided to do something that would benefit its residents. He discussed this with senior monks at the Samroang pagoda, where he was ordained and accommodated.
Bun Saluth says that when he sought their advice, the monks suggested he try to preserve a nearby forest.
This idea struck a chord, because he knew the forest’s survival was important for the environment and that Cambodia should enrich, rather than deplete, its natural resources.
“Khmers need to protect natural resources. I am a Khmer, and I ought to seek what benefits Khmers,” he says. “Oddar Meanchey has a small population, but a lot of forests and wildlife, so I ought to preserve any area of forest I can.”
In 2001, after travelling to the forest with a group of monks, Bun Saluth began to actively preserve a section he named the Forest Protection and Wildlife Conservation Area.
Until 2008, forestry administration officials required him to return to the “Community Monk Forest” (CMF) each year to re-sign the agreement.
Today, the 18,000-hectare CMF, which borders the Anlong Veng, Chongkal and Samraong districts and is surrounded by eight villages containing nearly 1000 families, has become a safe haven for trees and some rare species of wildlife.
Bun Saluth says illegal activities in the forest have decreased considerably. This year, only one such case has been sent to court, whereas in 2010, three people were charged with illeg-ally taking timber from the area.
“Illegal logging has dropped off because committee members, including me, actively patrol the area. Moreover, because of our education campaign, villagers understand why the forest must be protected,” Bun Saluth says.
Illegal forest activities increased greatly between 2006 and 2008 as land prices rose and more villagers encroached on the area by clearing trees and trespassing.
“In 2008, it was a very difficult situation because the price of land went up, forest-clearing increased and more people came to the area, so there were continual problems,” Bun Saluth says. Later, these issues were brought under control through agreement and education.
Data collected by Bun Saluth last year showed that 100 per cent of local villagers depended on the forest’s products.
Bun Saluth’s initiative caught the world’s attention, and he was awarded the 2010 Equator Prize for his outstanding efforts to alleviate poverty through the preservation of biodiversity.
“I received the award in Washington,” he says, adding that many individuals have donated money to enable him to maintain his forest patrols.
Bun Saluth estimates that each year, the cost of looking after the forest is between $7000 and $8000 for food, gasoline and clothes.
Having survived the difficulties of 2008, Bun Saluth is optimistic about the CMF’s future, thanks to local people’s participation in its protection.
“I do believe this forest will flourish and become even more safe,’’ he says. “Nowadays, people are aware of forest products, but there is no sound of tree-cutting machines to worry us.”