Peace of the inner mind is one with birdsong of the forest

           One sector of Thai society passionately concerned with the future for the natural environment is the Buddhist religion. Both monks and lay-people have been making efforts to bring some areas of deteriorated forest under ecclesiastical control. One such scheme is at Wat Pa Pha Tat Tan Sawan, a forest temple deep in the Kwae Noi valley of Kanchanaburi province which is guardian of a remarkable waterfall. Nuannipha Reuan-mai is the lay-person most anxious for the projects here to receive attention from the outside world.

 

           

 

             The abbot in overall charge is Ajhan Sanong Katapunyo who actually heads a network of forest temples all over the country with the nerve centre at Wat Sanghathan, Nonthaburi province. This is the Buddha Anek Prasong Foundation.
            The forest, as opposed to the urban, temple has traditionally placed more importance on concentration or samadhi which requires a peaceful environment for success. Another aspect of the meditative approach to the forest is the phenomenon of spread metta towards beasts which could otherwise be dangerous such as snakes, bears and big cats. It is a solid proof of meditating skill that the animals respond to the compassion (metta) directed at them.
          Of the land here the temple is fully in charge of 300 rai. The electricity authorities made a batch of plots over while some was bought by the temple. Much more important however is 3,000 rai of reserved forest (under the Royal Forest Department) which is beyond a small stream and hidden from the road by the temple land.
          Monks have been gradually working on the scheme for nearly 20 years. Nuannipha, in her capacity as a class teacher at Sri Bunyanon School in Nonthaburi, has been keen to involve her charges in order to instil a love of nature and the forest in the younger generation. A party of children from Sri Bun has been coming to plant forest in May every year since 1983. Wat Nong Phai School in Suphanburi and Nong Jork School of Minburi also help regularly.
          Ajhan Sanong is responsible for the overall policy of planting. Species such as cinnamon, the clove-bearing kaanpluu (Eugenia carophyllata) , krawaan (cardamoms), nutmeg and kritsana (Aquilaria agaiocha), a large red-wood rich in fragrant resin, were planted to provide local villagers with saleable commodities to harvest.

           All of this stemmed from Ajhan Sanong's great interest in the Thai tradition of herbal medicine. Some medicinal species are now so rare that seedlings can command their own price. Luckily most shoots and seedlings are to be found in the reserved forest, and from there they can be replanted in other, not so lucky provinces. It must be said that they received invaluable assistance in this matter from the Royal Forest Department and the Medical Science Department of the Ministry of Public Health.
           With the animals in mind they have planted species such as makaam porm (Emblica officinalis) from which deer and wild boar can forage. Mainly though the trees selected are those commonly prized for their wood such as pradu (various species of the genus Pterocarpus) and takhian(Hopea odorata). In the temple compound a banyan (ton sai) towers well over 20 metres.

 


          The major concern at Pha Tat is to conserve the existing forest, and of the temple's many projects this is held to be by far the most important. The policy is to plant rows of trees to block the reserved forest off from the road. Visitors then cannot avoid passing the temple and it is hoped that potential poachers, encroachers, hunters and loggers will be considerate of the religious presence.
            Once this protective barrier is established perhaps the larger species can be coaxed out of the deep forest whence they have fled for some years now. To see even geng and gwaang (deer) currently involves several days of arduous tramping. Footprints of some big cats have been found, probably the seua plaa or fishing cat. Besides this there are bears,wild boar, gibbons and the on, the large bamboo rat.

           The importance of the forest at Pha Tat for the citizenry of Kanchanaburi province can hardly be understated. It is the watershed of the River Klong and as such prevents disastrous flooding of the type the people of Chumphon and Nakhon Sri Thammarat know only too well. And yet only a small band of monks and schoolchildren, struggling against massive odds, are doing anything to preserve it!

             All the funding for the project has come from the donations of private individuals who are disciples of Ajhan Sanong. Although the scheme has been initially successful under the watchful eye of Phra Udom Patumo, the resident monk in charge, there is still much that must be done.
            Nuannipha estimates that to buy the land (more than 1,000 rai), erect barbedwire fences and cover every other cost such as labour, transportation, saplings and seedlings a figure of around Bt30 million is required.

             What they are doing now is coming along very well. Hopeful young trees now occupy land that was before stripped and left for dead. What remains of the original forest is still very impressive with some of the largest rubber trees being at least as wide as the average office.
            Villagers have not unreasonably tapped them for rubber but the exposed gashes leave the tree vulnerable in the event of a forest fire. To this end the gashes are being filled in with cement.
            As mentioned earlier the Foundation considers Pha Tat to be the most pressingly urgent out of a total of 13 projects up and down the Kingdom.
            Khao Wong in Uthai Thani borders the famous Huay Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary. There are two plateaus half-way up the mountain with the trees in a deteriorated state. The philosophy of planting here is the same as at Kanchanaburi that all parties concerned (villagers, the temple and the government) are satisfied. Khao Wong has an interesting cave system and around its peak is a colony of monkeys.
            Another interesting project is at Bung Malaeng in Ubon Ratchatani Province. This started out as 500 rai of virgin Northeastern forest. It has been left alone partly because it is a local cemetery and a recent survey counted around 6,000 trees. The plan here is to plant another 700 rai and dig a protective moat around the lot. Unfortunately this woodland is an island in a sea of rice paddies and watermelon plantations and the wildlife has something of a problem. The remaining 13 projects are in provinces as diverse as Chol Buri, Suphanburi, Prachuab Khiri Khan and Tak, but the total land area involved in each case is rarely in excess of 50 rai.
          As Nuannipha says, our efforts may be a little water to put out a big fire, but I am never discouraged because there is always something to do. Even if there was no money left there is still work to do, something to be done. I hope the trees will outlive us as we try to prolong the inevitable. 
          If you would like to help Ajhan Sanong and Nuannipha in their work any donation would be appreciated. Please contact:

The Vimokkha Social Project
Varalak Vichianchai
"Keep the Forests"
Bangpai, Muang, Nonthaburi 10100 THAILAND
Tel: 66+(2) 447-0799, 0800 Ext. 117