Sacred Earth: McCluskey Fellow Merges Religion and Conservation
Dekila Chungyalpa, the 2014 McCluskey Fellow in Conservation, is working with religious leaders to create faith-based environmental stewardship across the world. “Whether you call it ‘God’s creation’ or ‘biodiversity,’ we mean the same thing,” she says.
By KEVIN DENNEHY
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
For Dekila Chungyalpa, going vegetarian didn’t come naturally. Growing up in Tibet, eating meat wasn’t just part of life, it was a family and cultural tradition. So when, during a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, a spiritual leader urged her and other Buddhist faithful to swear off meat, she was taken aback.
Perhaps what happened next was even more shocking: She felt her own hand go up immediately. And all around her, friends and family members whom she’d never imagine giving up meat also raised their hands. It reminded her of watching a crowd perform the wave at a baseball game.
The response, she says, was exhilarating and, in hindsight, made perfect sense. The speaker, Karmapa Oygen Trinley Dorje, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, made the case that giving up meat would simply make them better Buddhists. “He talked about it in the context of our faith,” Chungyalpa says. “And he talked about it in the context of what we call the Bodhisattva vow, which basically says, ‘May I benefit all living beings.’
“He asked us, ‘How is it that we reel off this vow 10 times a day and then we go off and eat meat for lunch and dinner, and sometimes breakfast?’
“And it just clicked for me — it was a valid question!”
For Chungyalpa — who was working as a field conservationist for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at the time — that moment was a stirring reminder of the deep influence of religious traditions on human behavior. Within a couple of years she would launch WWF’s Sacred Earth program, an innovative U.S.-based program that works with religious leaders to create faith-based environmental stewardship across the world.
This fall, she will continue this work as the 2014 Dorothy S. McCluskey Visiting Fellow in Conservation at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).
The McCluskey Fellowship allows conservation practitioners, particularly women from developing countries, to spend a semester at the School to pursue independent research, to enhance collaborations between F&ES and environmental organizations, and to expand professional training opportunities for students. McCluskey M.F.S. '73 endowed the fellowship in 1997.
Previous Fellows have included Nobel Peace Prize recipients Rajendra Pachauri, chairperson of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the late Wangari Maathi, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement.
Chungyalpa is the 18th McCluskey Fellow.
“We talk about behavior change all the time — it’s really the goal for any environmental organization,” Chungyalpa says. “How do you change people’s behavior positively out of motivation rather than fear?
“Since [that pilgrimage] I’ve studied the psychology of faith-based behavioral change. And one of the things I’ve learned is that when people change their behavior based on faith values, they’re more likely to keep that vow for the long term, they’re more likely to self monitor. And if you provide the social infrastructure, that becomes permanent change.”
Born in Sikkim, a formerly independent kingdom that is now part of India, Dekila Chungyalpa grew up in a family of devout Buddhists. Coming of age in the dense forests of western Sikkim, she also developed a strong affinity for the natural world.
The emergence of hydropower plants in her homeland made her an activist. And when she moved to the U.S. as a teen, to live with her aunt, she began studying environmental issues, particularly related to sustainable development.
By the time she was in her late 20s, she was working on hydropower and climate issues, in the Mekong region, for WWF. Dekila spent five years on community-based conservation with WWF’s Eastern Himalayan program and the next six years leading WWF’s efforts in the Mekong. It was in 2008 that the Karmapa — who had urged her to become vegetarian — asked her to advise senior monks and nuns about the environmental challenges facing the Himalayan region.
“He said he wanted them to understand environmental issues because the region is under threat, and really feeling the impact of climate change,” she said. “The Himalayas are experiencing climate change much faster than most other parts of the world.”
She organized conferences, taught the monks and nuns earth sciences, and brought them on field trips to see the damage to the natural environment. “They were extremely motivated — and horrified — by the conditions of the rivers in India, the pollution, and the health conditions of people,” she said. “I tried to help them see these aren’t just theoretical concepts. We are actually seeing it every single day. We have just made ourselves blind to it.”
She ended up helping the senior monks develop a set of environmental guidelines for Buddhists and monasteries. Before long, WWF colleagues saw the value of her work and asked her to reach out to religious leaders in their regions and countries.
“People started to say, ‘Why are you only doing this in the Himalayas? Why aren’t you doing this here? We have the same issues here, and our faith leaders are some of the most powerful stakeholders we have in the region.’”
In most places, it occurred to her, religious leaders weren’t being considered as stakeholders in environmental discussions despite the critical roles they hold in their communities. “In Africa, nine out of 10 people are very religious,” she says. “Not just religious. Not just spiritual. Very religious.”
After creating Sacred Earth, she worked with Hindu, Christian, and Islamic leaders across Africa to help fight the illegal trade in wildlife. “We start to speak the same things the same way, in a united way,” Rev. Patrick Maina, one of the participating religious leaders, said of the partnership. “That is power. That is energy. Things are going to happen.”
The program is now working with religious leaders in the Amazon.
“And the dialogue has always been so inspirational to me… I have never had a meeting with a faith leader where we didn’t find agreement, and where we didn’t agree that something had to be done,” she said.
“If we’re not condescending and we speak their language, we do have a lot in common. Our mandate is to protect all life on earth. And whether you call it ‘God’s creation’ or ‘biodiversity,’ we mean the same thing.”
While Chungyalpa has always been a devout Buddhist, for many years she was careful to keep her religious and professional worlds separate. In academic or work settings, she worried that mentioning her religion might make her seem biased, unscientific, or even too “emotional.”
That’s why she says it was almost scary when she started Sacred Earth. During the initial planning for the project, she consulted with several experts in the field to get their feedback, including Mary Evelyn Tucker, a senior lecturer and research scholar at F&ES, and co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. “She was so encouraging and reassuring when I was getting started,” Chungyalpa says of Tucker.
At Yale she will work directly with Tucker and John Grim, the other co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, on strategies to bring these two worlds together. Tucker and Grim say they are excited to incorporate Chungyalpa’s knowledge into their online education resources, and hope to work with her in developing a broader base of Buddhist organizations committed to these goals.
Dekila Chungyalpa will speak at a WWF-US screening of the film, “Journey of the Universe,” produced by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, co-directors of the Yale Forum on Religion & Ecology, at 1 pm May 6 at 1250 24th Street in Washington, D.C.
Chungyalpa, Tucker said, understands that culture and religious values shape the way people value the natural world, and can therefore be an important tool in conservation efforts. “Just as development and aid workers around the world began to realize that culture matters — and that you have to speak with people on the ground — this is the same kind of thing,” Tucker said. “You have to involve people where they are coming from to conserve their bioregions, their wetlands, the species in their areas, and their water supply.
“And she has been doing work on the ground with religious communities, monasteries, Buddhist priests, and very effectively bringing them into the discussion and creating curriculum for them to understand environmental issues better.”
“Addressing today's environmental challenges will require mobilizing all segments of society. And in many communities around the world few voices carry as much weight as those of spiritual leaders,” said Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “Dekila Chungyalpa has empowered religious leaders to take on the challenge of better environmental stewardship. We are thrilled that her voice will now inspire and enrich our community at F&ES.”
The Yale fellowship, Chungyalpa says, will allow her not only to take her work to the next level; It will provide immediate validation.
“For me, being at Yale, one of the best-known universities in the world, means this work will be immediately trusted,” she said. “We hope to broaden the emerging partnership between the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology and WWF’s Sacred Earth initiative by providing capacity building for religious leaders, recognizing that they are major influencers on environmental issues. That’s my dream.”