The Monks Community Forest — a battlefield jungle turned nature preserve

Story told in a film released Monday to mark Remembrance Day.

The documentary film “Jungle Guard” of director Makara Ouch starts with scenes that reflect what was normalcy in the jungle along the Thai-Cambodian border—Khmer Rouge soldiers battling Cambodian government forces—until the last Khmer Rouge leaders surrendered in 1998.

As the text reads at the beginning of the film, this is a “story from the Khmer Rouge last stronghold,” taking place in Oddar Meanchey  province’s Along Veng district.

But the film quickly shifts to the present—and also the future—with the story of a Cambodian Buddhist monk who has worked ever since the Khmer Rouge left the area to ensure that the jungle remains a jungle.

For the remainder of the 57-minute documentary, the viewer will hear Venerable Bun Saluth explain this and his own journey as if he was talking to a friend; tour the preserve with him; get a glimpse of the beautiful birds and animals he is determined to protect; watch illegal fishing equipment being removed; and through aerial images, grasp the beauty and extent of this forest and why it should be protected.  All this unrolling on the sounds of intimate music that communicates the magic of the preserve.

Presented on May 20 at the Wat Langka pagoda in Phnom Penh to mark Cambodia’s Remembrance Day, the 57-minute documentary will be shown later on in the country.

A lifelong project to protect nature

When Venerable Bun Saluth became monk, he explains in the film, “I realized I had to find something that needed urgent attention.”

He turned to the life of the Buddha for inspiration. “Buddha understood that forest and animals could adapt and coexist with human beings, but that human beings had never learned to coexist peacefully with them,” Mr. Saluth says in the film. “Throughout his life, he encouraged human beings to love and have respect for forests and other living things.

With the teachings of the Buddha in mind, Mr. Saluth focused, in the late 1990s, on the forestland of Oddar Meanchey province where he was born.

Another monk, the Venerable Sun Tha, soon offered to help, and told him, “If you want to preserve the forest, I will lead the way because it was my zone in Khmer Rouge time: I was a Khmer Rouge [soldier].”

So the two monks went into the jungle. Mr. Saluth was amazed to see animal footprints he had never seen. When he heard them at night, he said, “[it] made me realize that I desperately had to preserve and protect them from any harm.”

One of the first tasks he and his team of monks would do when they embarked on the project would be to demine the area. The Khmer Rouge had peppered the jungle with thousands of landmines and anti-tank mines, and it’s only last year that Mr. Saluth and his team of monks felt that they had at last completed the task.

Turning a portion of the jungle into a protected zone

When he began the project in the late 1990s, one of the first steps Mr. Saluth took was to find out how to get the area declare a preserve.  This ended up taking decades to accomplish with the help of provincial and local authorities.

Looking at his first request, the Agriculture Department staff told him that the area for which he was requesting protection was too small. “Even a tiger runs seven kilometers in one night, they said. I did not know that,” Mr. Saluth says in the film. He eventually requested an area covering 18,261 hectares.

A first agreement was signed in February 2002. But Mr. Saluth wanted to obtain additional protection for the area. A government staff told him that having the area designated as a protected zone would be extremely difficult but that he might be able to have it declared community forest since there were villages in the area. “We successfully registered as community forest, legally, on Nov. 19, 2008,” Mr. Saluth says.

The Monks Community Forest. Photo Makara Ouch

With the support of the villagers, the monks of the Samraong pagoda now oversee the Monks Community Forest.

With their limited resources, Mr. Saluth and his team patrol the forest to prevent trees to be cut and animals to be killed. At one point, those cutting trees illegally would remove the protected-zone signs and then claim they had not seen them. This led Mr. Saluth to dig a canal as demarcation line, which has so far worked.

As for those illegally killing wild animals, this remains to be stopped. When Forestry Administration officers were helping the monks to patrol, they sent 20 poachers to court. The Ministry of the Environment staff who now assist the monks has yet to arrest anyone, Mr. Saluth notes.

Still, the monks continue their work with their limited resources, occasionally welcoming students or visitors eager to tour the reserve.

In 2012, the Monks Community Forest was awarded the Equator Prize, an initiative of the UN Development Programme recognizing outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through conservation and use of biodiversity. The awards were announced in New York City during a ceremony that Mr. Saluth attended. “If I was not a monk, I would have danced on stage,” so proud was he for Cambodia, he said.

The making of the film

Film director Makara Ouch first heard of Mr. Saluth’s work while visiting the Anlong Veng Peace Center. “Then I started to understand his work, his important work to protect commune forest. That is why I got the idea of doing something about it,” he said.

Young monks at work in the Monks Community Forest. Photo Makara Ouch

As it turned out, the film would take one year to film on location. Mr. Makara, who heads Sleuk Rith Motion Picture—a social-enterprise production house based at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam)—was both director and cameraman on the project, assisted by his permanent team of four, which included writer San Bunsim and production coordinator Theasrun Keo, plus the occasional extra staff.

To better capture the importance and beauty of this natural reserve, Mr. Makara filmed aerial shots with a drone.  He got on boats to film Mr. Saluth touring the preserve’s waterways with Environment Ministry officers as they find illegal fishing and hunting equipment. He filmed the monks releasing a meters-long snake and struggling to start an old motorcycle motor to haul a wooden lorry.

One of the biggest challenges was filming birds and animals during the day or at night, Mr. Makara said. Not having high-end equipment to do so, it was difficult to film them: They would run away before the shots were done, he said.

He still captures images a great beauty that conveys to the viewer the beauty and importance of the reserve.

The film is part of the Genocide Research and Education program at DC-Cam, said Youk Chhang, executive director of DC-Cam. “[Monks] were victims of the Khmer Rouge,” he said, as many were killed because they were monks. “We wanted to highlight the role of the monks to inspire, to remember, to protect and to educate.”

Funded by USAID, the film project was supported by the UN Development Programme, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs of the US Department of State, the US State Department and the US Embassy in Cambodia.

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