103rd Meeting – February 1993

The Mae Soi Valley Conservation & Rural Development Project

A talk by M.R. Smansnid Svasti

M.R. Smansnid, or Nunie, was brought up in England before returning to Thailand and was already aware of forest destruction before meeting Ajaan [Phra] Pongsak - until recently the abbot of Wat Pa-lad on Doi Suthep. Dense forests in the mountains allow rains to soak into the soil, and then seep out, eventually forming the rivers which supply the nation with water. Villagers in the Mai Soi valley were previously in balance with nature, with enough water for three crops per year. Then in the 1970s they noticed gaps in the forest cover and large areas of smoke. Hmong people had moved in and were practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. An access road ran across the ridges and the Hmong were encouraged to grow cabbage as a substitute for opium. Now those ridges are covered with cabbage fields and the result is massive erosion and small streams drying up. The villagers in the valley could no longer grow crops due to the lack of water and soil degradation and turned to other occupations, such as timber cutting, charcoal making, cattle herding - further depleting the forest. Appeals to the authorities went unheeded.

By 1984, they were suffering from severe drought and soil depletion. Ajaan Pongsak had been a forest monk since the 1950s and has witnessed the disappearance of the dense forest. He realized the crucial role the forest plays in sustaining life. With his help, the villagers formed the Dharmanart Foundation, to put management and control in local hands. They built reservoirs, canals and waterworks, with 800-1,000 rai of fields leveled and terraced. They established rice banks, tree nurseries and fire patrols. Every year about 200 rai of trees are planted and others in the area have watched their success. About 97,000 people in sub-districts have joined to protect the forest.

The value of the land has risen from zero to many millions of baht. Business groups want to develop the site and have planned the project's destruction by alienating villagers and engineering the arrest of a staff member by informing a brand new forestry official that he was destroying the national forest. Ajaan Pongsak was accused of sexual misconduct, which was a staged event, and he has chosen to disrobe not because he is guilty, but to avoid controversy and save the project. The villagers are very worried that the project will terminate. Nunie herself feels that the project will persevere and that the watershed forests must be saved and restored for they give life to both the land and the people of Thailand.