Byambajav reclaims sacred lands
Bogh Khan, a Mongolian mountain, rises within one of the world's oldest nature preserves. Home to the Manchi monastery, it is a sacred place to local Buddhists. Such reverence did little to protect the mountain in the 1930s, when Stalinist forces destroyed the monastery. But Lama Byambajav hopes that Bogh Khan's spiritual significance will guard it against the new danger that threatens the mountain today - environmental degradation.
Since 2000, Byambajav has been at the center of a movement to encourage environmental preservation in Mongolia by reviving the traditional Buddhist reverence for nature. Working with the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, and the Alliance for Religions and Conservation, Byambajav is trying to resurrect a centuries-old custom of preserving the natural landscapes that encompass sites considered sacred in local Buddhist tradition. As the leader of a Buddhist university in Mongolia, Byambajav is part of the Sacred Gifts to the Living Planet Campaign, a partnership between the World Bank and the Buddhist community that seeks to identify and protect these sacred places.
"It is sacred duty of ours, no matter of what religion we belong, to protect and hand over to next generation this untouched nature of Mongolia," Byambajav says.
By identifying sacred sites throughout the country and re-introducing them to the local populace, the Sacred Gifts program hopes to create strong moral and religious support for environmental protection and enforcement measures. In his post as university president, Byambajav educates monks from monasteries throughout Mongolia about the importance of environmental awareness and teaches them conservation methods that they can bring back with them to their home communities.
"He is interested in environmental conservation not for economic reasons, but because it is the right thing to do. It's the moral thing to do," said Tony Whitten, a biodiversity specialist at the World Bank who has spearheaded the program.
Byambajav was part of a group formed to identify Mongolia's sacred sites. The group compiled a nationwide list by writing to the country's district governors, monks and academics and asking them to provide the names and
locations of their own local sites. The list currently includes about 600 sacred places, mostly mountains, forests, trees and springs. Maps and descriptions of these sites were published earlier this year in a booklet with forwards written by the prime minister of Mongolia and the president of the World Bank.
From among the 600 sites, the group selected five in which to begin pilot conservation programs. The five sites represent a diversity of natural zones and regions: Mazshir monastery in the central region, Amarbayasgalant monastery in the north, Baldan Breeven monastery in the east, Suvarga Hairhan mountain in the Hangai region and Zuun Choir monastery in southeastern Mongolia.
At each location, the group installed stone tablets identifying the sacred site. Representatives of the Sacred Gifts programme held educational sessions with monks from local monasteries, who joined with other people from the community in cleaning up the surrounding areas. As a result of this local commitment to the revival of these sacred sites, the traditional bans on hunting and logging have been successfully re-introduced.
The interaction between the group and the local monasteries has revealed that each of these sacred sites faces its own environmental threats. The monks at the Amarbayasgalant monastery in Selenge province told the group
that discarded plastic bottles were the biggest problem in their region. The monks already have started collecting these bottles and they are trying to educate the community about the need to properly discard them. The group now is now seeking a local recycling scheme and pricing the transportation of the bottles to the nearest facility, if no local option exists.
The entire Sacred Sites project thus far has cost roughly $70,000 - funded mainly through the World Bank - and the group hopes to extend the pilot program to other parts of the country suffering from environmental degradation. Some of the new sacred sites might encompass gold-mining operations in central and northern Mongolia. By re-introducing the worshipping traditions, local communities might be able to pressure mining companies who are not complying with requirements for environmental protection and restoration.
The program also could evolve into an entirely new initiative: spiritual tourism. Manchir monastery on Bogh Khan mountain could become a retreat center led by the Buddhist community. "It would be a spiritual, conservation-oriented tourism," Whitten says.