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Lions Roar : November 2011
49 SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 BY MARGOT SAMMURTOK Dekila Chungyalpa Sacred Earth Program WASHINGTON, D.C. “We need to break down the barrier that nature is separate from us,” says Dekila Chungyalpa, whose activism has stretched from protecting endangered tigers in the Himalayas to saving the Mekong River dol- phins of Southeast Asia. “We cannot live only for ourselves, we have to take into con- sideration all life.” Chungyalpa, thirty-six, says her calling came early, when she was a child in Sikkim. She would spend vacations with her grand- mother, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who lived in semi-retreat near Gangtok, and found that she absolutely loved trees. It was the beginning of a wider love of nature that intensified over time, and when she moved to New York City at fifteen, the contrast was such a shock, she says, that she “naturally became an activist in environmental issues.” Fortifying her devotion with degrees in environmental studies and sustainable development, she has been working with the World Wildlife Fund for the last ten years, first in community-based efforts to save tigers from extinction in both the Himalayas and South Asia. “The conversion of natu- ral spaces to our needs reduces the space needed by wildlife, especially tigers, which need a lot of space,” says Chungyalpa, a devout Buddhist and student of the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. “Tigers and humans are competing for the same space.” The WWF’s work in the Himalayas prompted the Karmapa to invite Chungyalpa to advise the Khoryug, an organization he has established to help Kagyu monasteries and nunneries in the Himalayas become environmental leaders in their own communities. The Khoryug, which means “environment” in Tibetan, is forming community-based partnerships to work on environmental protection, applying the Buddhist principle of interdependence of all sentient beings and the Earth itself. Chungyalpa helped develop training for monastic coordina- tors, and more than forty-five monasteries and nunneries now have active environmental projects going, such as solar power, organic farming, and rainwater harvesting. As founder and director of the Sacred Earth Program, developed by the U.S. branch of the WWF to work with reli- gious leaders in Asia on conservation issues, Chungyalpa is helping the Mahasangharaja, patriarch of Buddhist monks in Cambodia, to save the Mekong River dolphin, now found in only one stretch of the river, between Cambodia and Laos. Monks work with the WWF to teach communities about the freshwater dolphin’s importance and the need to protect the river, as well as monitoring the dolphin population and pro- tecting them from illegal fishing. Chungyalpa says plans to develop hydroelectric power by building a massive dam on the main stem of the Mekong “would be a disaster.” Some seventy million people depend on the river for their livelihood and diets, and thousands of fish species could die out within ten years because the dam would prevent spawning. “There is a solution,” she says, “which is to put dams on the tributaries.” Biodiversity is not only important for wildlife, Chungyalpa says. “If we destroy it, what do we do? What we really hope the Sacred Earth project does is, through faith leaders, restore our understanding of people’s interdependence with nature.” Meet four young activists who are making the planet a better place. PHOTOBYTOMLALLEY/©WWF