Reducing plastic pollution in the place of Buddha's Enlightenment

By Buddhistdoor International Lillian Sum
Buddhistdoor Global | 2014-05-09 |
Cloth bags made by village women. From: L. Sum 2010Cloth bags made by village women. From: L. Sum 2010
Pilgrims with bags containing Buddha robes made by village women in Bodhgaya. From: L. Sum 2012Pilgrims with bags containing Buddha robes made by village women in Bodhgaya. From: L. Sum 2012
200 school children and 200 monks promoting official plastic ban in Mahabodhi Temple. From: Syed Mehaboob 2010200 school children and 200 monks promoting official plastic ban in Mahabodhi Temple. From: Syed Mehaboob 2010
Mahabodhi Temple Stupa. From: L. Sum 2012Mahabodhi Temple Stupa. From: L. Sum 2012
Village women and children from Dalit community in Bodhgaya. From: L. Sum 2013Village women and children from Dalit community in Bodhgaya. From: L. Sum 2013
Lillian Sum is the founding director of Sacred Earth Trust and is based in India.

I first arrived in Bodhgaya in 2006. My first feelings about Buddhism’s holiest location were mixed. They ranged from amazement at the sacred vibrations from the site to near-despair at seeing the environmental degradation, pollution and the desperate poverty in the village areas. I had a general feeling of being overwhelmed. Beggars mobbed me on the main walkways through to Bodhgaya. I saw and talked with the children on the streets, from disabled beggars to rag pickers and souvenir peddlers. This affected me deeply and left me with a heavy heart. Even now, it is still one of the main motivating factors driving me onwards to make my ecological and educational projects a reality.

Since 2003, I have been working on several environmental educational initiatives and implementing practical solutions in various locations in India, such as Chattisgarh, Pondicherry, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Kolkata, Varanasi, Sikkim, and Bihar.

Children are the future of Bodhgaya (and everywhere else) and I wish to offer my assistance to help them gain a better understanding of the local and global issues that will help them further their knowledge and skills for sustainably developing their homelands.

Bodhgaya is situated in Bihar, India. It is an accredited UNESCO world heritage site, classed as an urban development site. Tourism is at its busiest from the end of September to March. Buddhist and Hindu visitors come on pilgrimage from all over India and the world. The local population of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists living in and around Bodhgaya’s villages was estimated to be about 60,000 in 2012.

Tourism has had a huge impact on the surroundings. Consumerism is causing pollution on land, water, and air, affecting the health of humans and animals residing here. Issues such as plastic pollution are the result of everyday living and tourism, and presents a common threat to the general well-being of all who live in or visit Bodhgaya.

The Sacred Earth Trust (SET) has been caring for Bodhgaya through an ecological prism, through educating local students about the harm of disposable plastic products (the most common kind of litter at Bodhgaya) and developing alternatives from plastic bags, cups, and polystyrene products. Furthermore, SET empowers women to be an active and productive part of the solution through teacher training and sewing cloth bags for the various prayer gathering events held annually in the Mahabodhi Temple. The Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC) supports the women’s project and has placed a continuous bag order for the Buddha robes, which pilgrims offer to Bodhgaya’s Buddha image.

Pilgrims of these events range from five hundred to ten thousand each time. Such high numbers mean that Bodhgaya is under immense pressure from litter and pollution caused by carelessness or indifference. The influx of waste doubles during the peak winter season (October to March).

S.E.T. has been working on the reduction of plastic pollution campaign in Bodhgaya since January 2009. Since then, government support, BTMC and local businesses have helped the SET to meet several of its objectives. Over 7000 signatures were collected in support of a ban on plastic bags. The main temple was quick to respond and banned the use of disposable plastic since September 2009. The local government body followed suit in April 2011. Like with so many environmental initiatives, there still needs to be proper enforcement of the ban, which requires support from the district government and the local and international communities.

Only through local and international support can things move forward, and even then the solutions will need to take on a ‘multi-level’ approach. They need to be integrated into everyday lifestyles, and consumer habits need to be addressed and changed to reduce pollution and its impact on human and animal health.

My experience of travelling internationally, but being based in a local community, has helped me learn to be neutral in my opinions about people’s lifestyle choices. I came from a very low impact lifestyle, living amidst immense beauty and green space. The transition to being in an over-populated country without amenities was initially very disturbing when I saw the pollution and lack of care for the immediate environment. But as I experience more, I understand that this is due to lack of awareness of how to deal with waste. I realized that education is a large part of the solution. Alternative ways of engaging the children and adults who have no formal education must be included as a more practical and meaningful way beyond conventional channels.

This plastic pollution is obviously not only a problem in Bodhgaya. It is a global issue, on both land and sea, and is especially common at Buddhist pilgrimage sites due to a relative lack of awareness in the harm that disposable pollution inflicts. A lack of local recycling amenities, combined with the impact of consumer habits, has led to growing litter problems from tourists and pilgrims.

Bodhgaya’s visitors range from serious practitioners to short-stay pilgrimage visitors. Often, businesses are set up for short-term visitors and encourage the use and throw mentality. This builds up an accumulation of plastic pollution via disposable plates, cups, cutlery, straws, tetra packs, plastic bottles, and packaging for snacks. The consequences can be seen all around these sacred sites, on open land and in the River Niranjana.

In Bodhgaya, the disposal of village waste is often dealt with by the local people, who manage the waste through dumping in open dumpsites or burning every evening. SET’s task is to encourage better management of this process of disposal – or better yet, reuse, through collaborative approaches with local government and management groups within Bodhgaya (as well as interested external parties). As we all say, “It’s important to encourage informed consumerism rather than contributing towards the problem: to choose to actively be apart of the solution!”

One of the key objectives is environmental education, which is woven into SET’s programs and strategy for the sustainable development of Bodhgaya. One simple message we promote is the concept of the 6 R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Respect, and Responsibility.

Everyone who has encouraged and supported our changes understands that sustainable development takes time. True as it may be (we have enjoyed 5 years of continuous campaigning and education), we need more support and energy to move this forward. The hard work and activism is starting to actualize and manifest into an actual reality for the benefit of local people and international visitors while improving conditions for human and animal health, land, water and air quality.

Plastic pollution is a global issue affecting all of us. SET started its campaign in Bodhgaya as an integral part of the holy site’s sustainable development. Our mission is to work in UNESCO World Heritage Sites and other sacred locations on sustainable development by engaging the local, indigenous and international communities. We hope to spread awareness and share the solutions with as many as we can.

Related Link
Sacred Earth Trust website
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