The Green Buddha: An Analysis of the Role of Buddhist Civil Society in Environmental Conservation in Burma

Article excerpt

In Burma, Buddhism and Buddhist civil society dominate much of daily life. As the country experiences more environmental problems, Buddhist civil society is also beginning to play a role in environmental protection. Buddhist writers describe how Buddhist philosophy can lead to sustainable development. Monks encourage communities to protect the environment and even use their status to ensure protection for certain areas. Even Buddhist laypeople may play a role by performing environmentally friendly acts to gain merit. However, Buddhist civil society's involvement in environmental issues lags behind that of Thailand and Cambodia. This is because of Burma's restrictions on civil society, less developed economy, and more stable cultural and religious setting. While some of these obstacles may be overcome, Buddhist civil society's involvement in the environment will not likely grow without a major change in the country.

Rationale, Research, and Methodology

As Southeast Asia undergoes drastic environmental change, anthropologists have studied the role of Buddhism and Buddhist monks in protecting the region's environment. While much has been written on Thailand's ecology monks (1) and Cambodia's Buddhist environmental NGOs, (2) few scholars have written about or studied the interaction between Buddhist civil society and environmental conservation in Burma. (3) Although many people assume that, because of Burma's political isolation, Buddhist civil society plays no significant role in conservation, Buddhist actors--from laypeople to academics to monks--work to spread environmentally friendly norms and attitudes, as well as help directly with conservation projects. However, in comparison to other Southeast Asian countries, the role of these segments of society remains relatively limited, due in part to political, economic development, and cultural differences among the countries. Understanding the exact role of these actors, and why they are less active in Burma than elsewhere, will help conservationists work more closely with religious institutions in the region.

Many articles and books have been written on the Thai and Cambodian Buddhist environmental actors, particularly monks. These sources help provide an understanding of how such actors can aid in environmental conservation efforts. However, because such little research has been conducted on Buddhist environmental actors in Burma, there are few resources actually discussing this subject. Some reports for environmental organizations and conservationists operating in the country mention cooperation with environmentalist monks, but most sources refer to them only in passing.

To gain a more complete understanding, I traveled to Burma in 2004 to interview Buddhist environmental actors and assess the situation there. I visited Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park (AKNP) and two small forest sanctuaries, one in Po Win Thaung, Sagaing Division, and the other in Peyindaung, near Inle Lake, Shah State, to see how environmental monks actually operated there. From my conversations with park staff, I found that the activities in these areas are not exceptional but rather can be found elsewhere in Burma.

When researching this subject, I focused on activities that had a clear and direct conservation goal rather than activities that simply showed a love for nature. For example, many monks keep gardens, but I did not consider this as true environmental conservation activity unless there were specific efforts either to grow organic crops or harbor endangered species on temple grounds. Furthermore, I did not approach this subject as a cost-benefit analysis, comparing the negative impacts of Buddhist practice, such as the impact of temple construction, with the positive aspects. Rather, I treat Buddhist environmentalists as part of a nascent phenomenon.

Many of the names of people I interviewed, particularly monks, have been changed or removed for their security. …