Fellow Since 1990
Fresh Water Fish Conservation Project
This profile was prepared when Boonsong Panyawuttho was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
Perhaps the two most powerful ideas in the world's evolving environmental movement are: (1) that the world cannot be saved by parks, i.e., that ecological stability can only come through a sustainable meshing of human and all other life, and (2) that environmental commitment and religious responsibility are closely related. (Both truths are probably easier for Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of related religions to grasp than is true for followers of the Judeo-Christian religions because the former do not make the sharp distinction between human and the rest of existence that the latter do.)Phra Boonsong is showing how both these fundamental ideas can become part of Thailand's everyday life. He's charting a new role for the monks and the Wats -- ministering to both the basic life needs of the villagers they serve and to the health of the entire sphere of life around them through applied, new forms of leadership. By providing this leadership, Buddhist institutions and faith will be strengthened. The people will be richer, nature strengthened, and harmony between them increased.Phra Boonsong's first major innovation was to turn the portion of Tha Chin River flowing in front of his Wat into a protected sanctuary for fish. Appealing to traditional Buddhist doctrine that prohibits killing anywhere within the boundaries of a Wat, he declared this portion of the river a "redemption area" or "pardon zone" for all water animals.He then began to build up the fish population there, eventually finding a way to do so on a large-scale at no cost to the Wat by giving visitors the opportunity to purchase fish food or small loaves of bread to throw out on the water. As each handful of feed or loaf hits the water, suddenly the surface becomes one solid mass of silver fish, so much so that one could imagine walking across the river given an armful of loaves. The government's fisheries staff estimates that there are 100,000 fish living and breeding in front of Wat Phranon. More than the fish are delighted -- fishermen and villagers well outside the pardon zone prosper and once again have more protein in their diets as a result.This success helped Phra Boonsong persuade the national government to enact laws empowering Wats all over the country to establish similar pardon zones, which its officials will then enforce vis-a-vis anyone who would ignore the Wat's moral suasion. Over 100 Wats have already followed Phra Boonsong's lead.Now this gardener's son is increasingly turning his attention to the land as well as the water. He envisions a landscape that is now flat rice paddies once again developing a healthy tree cover. In the process, again, he seeks to benefit the villagers as well. With modern transport, fruits should be more profitable and not much less secure than rice. His new forest will have many different species and grafted subspecialties to enhance both habitual diversity and a flow of income across the seasons. He's working especially to develop locally adopted species that will produce before or after the usual season in order to garner premium profits.His approach seeks national, safe forms of cultivation that minimizes the use of risky, high cost chemicals. It also helps farmers develop improved, appropriate forms of irrigation.The Wat is the center of this regional effort every bit as much as it is for the program to protect and multiply fish. It is doing much of the early experimenting with species, grafting modifications, and working out economics. It sparks the villagers organizations that are needed, and it provides demonstrations, training, seedbags, and extension. Finally, the Wat also helps build environmental consciousness around these projects. Once people have a stake in a clean, safe environment (e.g., in the fish) and once they understand how pollution threatens that stake, and especially if they see their work as having hard religious environmental as well as economic significance, suddenly a powerful insistent mass environmental constituency is born.