Historical Background

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Phrakhru Pitak’s sponsorship of tree ordinations and other environmental actions came from his experience in a remote mountain village affected by deforestation and the promotion of cash crops and consumerism. In the mid-1970s, after over twenty-five years as a monk, Phrakhru Pitak became alarmed at the deforestation and damaged watersheds in the region around his home village due to extensive logging by large companies and clear-�cutting by northern Thai farmers in order to plant maize as a cash crop. The villagers continually had to cut into the forest to grow maize as a source of income, and the maize itself caused significant erosion and damage to the soil, necessitating further clear-cutting for agricultural land. His district became the poorest and driest in the province, with the highest rate of adults migrating to find work in Bangkok. For years the monk preached about ecological conservation, stressing the interconnection between social and natural environments and humankind’s responsibility toward each. Despite Phrakhru Pitak’s preaching, the destruction continued. The villagers came to him to make religious merit and listen to his sermons, then returned home to clear the land. The logging companies cut the forest and the villagers were either too afraid of retribution or too unorganized to oppose them. If they saw a connection between their actions, their increasing poverty, and the environmental crisis, they did nothing about it. In early 1990, Phrakhru Pitak visited Phrakhru Manas of Phayao Province, the monk credited with performing the first symbolic ordination of a tree to make people aware of environmental responsibility.

In June 1990, Phrakhru Pitak moved beyond preaching an ecological message and sponsored a tree ordination in the community forest of his home village (see Darlington 2003b), and in July 1991 he performed a second one to sanctify the forest surrounding ten neighboring villages. These ceremonies were only a small portion of the monk’s projects, which included several months of working with and educating villagers about environmental issues, training young temporary novices about the natural environment, promoting economic alternatives to growing maize as a cash crop, and establishing protected community forests (see Darlington 2003b, Local Development Institute 1992; Saneh and Yos 1993). Phrakhru Pitak promoted self-reliant development projects, such as integrated agriculture emphasizing planting for subsistence rather than for sale, because merely protecting the forest by denying the villagers access to it would not be successful. Economic alternatives needed to be established to ensure villagers’ cooperation in preserving the forest. Local committees were established to manage the forests, patrol the sanctified areas against incursion, and sponsor continued ecological activities to keep the commitment of the projects alive. The tree ordination was the symbolic center of Phrakhru Pitak’s conservation program. The discussions with the villagers leading up to the ordination and the conservation activities organized by them afterward were all motivated by the emotional and spiritual commitment created by the ceremony. Throughout the ceremony, Buddhist symbols were used to stress the religious connection to conservation, the villagers’ interdependence with the forest, and the moral basis of the project.

 

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