Yale Himalaya Initiative

environment | livelihood | culture

Dekila Chungyalpa on cultivating conservation and community through religion in the Himalayas

By: Amanda Mei

Conservationist Dekila Chungyalpa mobilizes communities to work on environmental projects in the Himalayas—with the help of religious leaders. Since Dekila began working towards inter-linking conservation and religion, she has become a proponent of cross-boundary partnerships between conservationists and religious institutions. On November 7, as part of the Yale Himalaya Initiative’s Fall 2017 seminar series, Dekila gave a lecture entitled “Cultivating Conservation and Community: Eco-Monastic Leadership in the Himalayas.”

“It was this epiphany for me,” Dekila said. “I had never realized that my world as a Buddhist and my world as a conservationist came together.”

Dekila spoke about the experiences that brought her to the realization. In 2008, after becoming depressed about the opposition of governments to conservation efforts, Dekila saw the 17th Karmapa, head of her lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, at Bodh Gaya in India. The Karmapa spoke about planting trees to show reverence for loved ones and teachers. When Dekila began to work for him by writing a book on environmental projects for monks and nuns, she realized that compassion is actually action.

Since Dekila’s guidebook was published in 2008, the “Khoryug” projects have grown into annual conferences and workshops with monks and nuns across the Himalayas. The word “khoryug” means “environment” in Tibetan. Today, 55 monasteries and nunneries—spatially spread between Ladakh in Northern India and Bhutan—carry out tangible environmentally-conscious projects such as the installation of solar panels, elimination of plastics, organic farms, and even trash pick-ups in local communities. As centers of religious power, the monasteries and nunneries inspire community members to serve the environment.

These religious institutions also act as centers of financial and social power. According to Dekila, a vast majority of the world’s population—roughly 80 percent—follow a faith or religious tradition. Religious institutions own 8 percent of habitable land and half of the schools in the world, and they are the third largest category of investors. But as a stakeholder group, they are largely ignored by conservationists.

“It’s not just Buddhism—we should be working with all religious groups,” Dekila said. “By not working with them, we’re not tapping into the largest group of allies that we have and the most influential group of people in the world.”

Besides opportunities, Dekila noted the challenges of working with religious groups. Conservationists need to approach religious practitioners and leaders with a sensitivity to moral issues. For example, Dekila notes that Buddhist monks and nuns in the Himalayas see climate change within the wider practice of universal compassion. Religious groups also address philosophical problems, such as overconsumption. By taking the perspective of religious groups, and by working toward specific and relevant targets, conservationists can create strong and lasting partnerships with the major stakeholders.

Dekila has seen the impact of such partnerships on Himalayan communities. Working on disaster management in Nepal, Dekila trained monks and nuns to prepare for, respond to, and recover from earthquakes in the region. The religious leaders provided substantial aid during the April 2015 earthquake. After working with the service-oriented leaders, and learning about their ethical approaches, Dekila believes that working with religious leaders is a “healing process” not only for herself but also for the environment.

Optimistic about the future, Dekila believes that young people will continue to work at the juncture of religion and conservation. She says that while religions provide a spark of motivation and pride, conservation will carry the work of environmental stewardship forward. She dispels the misunderstanding that “faith-based conservation” is less valid than “evidence-based conservation.”

“The best work that happens in any field happens in the boundary areas, so go out and work in boundary areas!” Dekila said.

A 2014 recipient of the McCluskey Award, Dekila is developing a program called YETI: Yale Environmental Training for Religious Leaders at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Previously, she has worked for the World Wildlife Fund US as founder of the Sacred Earth program and director of the Greater Mekong program. A native of Sikkim, India, Dekila works on reforestation, climate change mitigation, and freshwater conservation in the Himalayas.

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