One way to think about “global Buddhism” is to consider not only the way Buddhism has spread around the globe but also the various ways Buddhist practitioners, discourses and institutions engage and intersect with identifiably global matters of concern. Climate change is a good example of this because it confronts humanity at a global scale and forces us to think in global terms.
Time magazine has just published an article on the way Buddhist monks in Cambodia are attempting to make use of international agreements on carbon credits to protect forested areas in their country. The article suggests that monks are attempting to make use of emergent (and controversial) schemes in which developed countries pay developing ones not to exploit particular natural resources. For their part the monks are seeking ways to bolster their existing moral authority with that of international bodies.
Using their authority as holy figures, they’ve turned away illegal loggers — among them, they say, armed police and soldiers — as well as local officials who have tried to wrestle control of the public land to parcel it out for their own profit.
Now the monks are looking for backup. They plan to institutionalize their communal ownership of the forest and shared profit from its 44,479-acre bounty by demarcating it an international ecological asset. Sorng Rukavorn is one of 13 community forests spreading over 168,032 acres in Oddar Meanchey province that is being registered as a bank of carbon credits. Under this nascent international tool of climate change mitigation referred to as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), governments and companies in industrialized nations can pay developing countries to cut carbon emissions on their behalf by not cutting trees.
This is an interesting account of the interface of monks who seem to be motivated primarily with a local issue, and global discourses and strategies relating to climate change. At the same time, it points to certain pitfalls of this strategy. Not only is corruption a serious issue in Cambodia, there is a certain irony in having to commodify forests — i.e. render them equivalent to an international currency of exchange — in order to protect them from other more destructive forms of commodification.
It’s also worth mentioning as an aside the way monks are presented in the article, including the accompanying picture, as “traditional” guardians of the land. There is something reminiscent of stories about indigenous peoples using modern technologies in their struggles to protect forests and other habitats from modern forces. As often seems to be the case monks here fill a very similar role to indigenous peoples as modernity’s Others.