top of page


By Curtis Abraham

On the 23th September 2006, Mingma Norbu Sherpa (known as Mingma to his friends and colleagues) a Nepalese environmentalist perished in a helicopter crash near Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, about 322 kilometers (about 200 miles) east of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal (he and other officials were leaving a ceremony that gave control of the national park/biosphere reserve to local residents).

Although Mingma lived in Falls Church, Northern Virginia and worked in Washington, DC as Director of The World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Eastern Himalaya Program, his job took him back home, and to neighboring Bhutan, for several months out of the year. Undoubtedly, he was a tour de force in conservation in Nepal and the Himalayas generally by not only helping to establish the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (the PA encompass the staging ground for most Everest expeditions), but he is widely credited for almost single-handedly saving the single-horned Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis).

WWF was devastated. The organization not only lost Mingma, but seven of their international officials, one program officer, a USAID official and a number of Nepal’s leading environmentalists. All in all, twenty-four individuals lost their lives that day.

Mingma was an integral part of Sir Edmund Hillary’s legacy. Years after he (with Tensing Norgay) became first Western conqueror of Mt. Everest, Hillary, through The Himalaya Trust, built a number of schools and hospitals in remote villages around the legendary mountain. According to the Washington Post, Mingma was in the first class of the first school (he later attended schools and universities in Kathmandu, New Zealand, Canada and the US).

“He was a man of integrity and a deeply faithful person, as well as an environmentalist. He did an environmental project with a monastery, which was a very personal and important project for him,” remembers Dekila Chungyalpa, an interfaith climate change activist and educator who is currently the Director of the Loka Initiative, an award-winning capacity building and outreach program for faith leaders and religious institutions at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA.

“When Mingma and other friends and colleagues passed away… the way I saw the world shifted; everything in my life suddenly became a choice. I realized that nothing—even the field of conservation—had to be the way it was. I saw that boundaries can bend.”

From Mingma, who hired and trained her and several other young women from across the Himalayas as WWF program officers, Dekila became aware of the strong connection between Buddhism and the environment (Buddhism teaches the inter-relatedness of all life forms, for example, and there is also reverence for certain species such as elephants, which not only have symbolic status for Buddhists, but there are several stories of Lord Buddha being born as a white elephant in a previous life). Mingma’s tutorage was an important part of her informal education about the religion.

(WWF has established a Mingma Norbu Sherpa Memorial Scholarships for Nepalese students planning to enter the fields of environmental protection and sustainable development)

Her immersion into Buddhism further deepened when she finally became a vegetarian. Dekila had struggled with for some time with one of the basic tenets of the religion. But her conversion came quite serendipitously while attending a lecture on compassion towards animals given by the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, spiritual head of one of the major Tibetan Buddhist lineages. The talk took place at Bodh Gaya, a religious site associated with the Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Gaya district in Bihar, northwestern India (where Buddha is said to have obtain enlightenment) The 17th Karmapa asked his audience to consider not eating meat for one meal, or for one day or for one week or more. It was a revelation, and there was no going back.

“The teaching, which provided spiritual reasons for vegetarianism, reached me on a deep level. I had been trying unsuccessfully to give up meat for many years, but I went vegetarian right then and have never struggled since,” says Dekila. “The experience brought home to me the power of faith. We are happy to make decisions that are inconvenient if they are rooted in faith. Not only are we happy to, but we celebrate those decisions because they are testaments to our faith”.

Not long after, The Karmapa asked if she would help train monks and nuns to be environmental leaders in the Himalayas.

“I knew I had found my calling,” she says.

Born in Sikkim, a state in northeast India in the Himalayas, to strict Buddhist parents, Chungyalpa (though she recalls growing up with few amenities) has idyllic memories of life in the alpine wilderness that naturally converted her into an environmentalist at a young age.

“As a child, I'd go into the forest to forage for chestnuts, but I was always distracted by the wildlife around me”, she recalls. “Once, I saw a red panda—they're very rare and very lazy—up in the trees. Another time, from across the river, I saw a mother black bear and her two little black cubs. From a young age, it was obvious to me that all life on Earth is sacred.”

She adds:

I remember feeling a strong affinity to trees; even when I was quite young, I had a desire to nurture them.”

Sikkim is the second smallest state in India, and yet it is a biodiversity hotspot of global significance. It represents a tiny percentage of India’s total land area (about 0.2%), but harbors about 26% of the country’s biodiversity. There are between 4,500-5,000 flowering plant species only found within its borders. There are an estimated 550 bird species and 600 + species of butterflies. Sikkim's dense forests, hills and mountains are home to a variety of large mammals including the Himalayan black bear, snow leopards and, of course, Dekila's beloved red pandas.

The Tibetan Plateau (“The Roof of the World”) itself gives rise to the Mekong River, the longest river in Southeast Asia, which unites an estimated 320 million people as it flows over 4,000 kilometers through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea.

The Mekong River basin provides habitat for at least 1300 species of fish. By length, the Mekong is the world's richest waterway for freshwater biodiversity, fostering far more species per unit area than even the Amazon.

At least 150 of the river’s fish are migratory, and 50 of these are commercially important in the Mekong, particularly in the Tonle Sap, which provides up to 75 % of Cambodia's inland fisheries. The Lower Mekong basin provides food security and livelihoods to over 60 million people, and fish is the main source of protein for these inhabitants.

It is estimated that approximately 2.8 million tons of fish and other aquatic animals are consumed each year, and an estimated 1.1 million tons of aquaculture products are exported, making the Mekong the largest inland fishery in the world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified the Mekong Delta as one of the three most vulnerable deltas on the planet to climate change impacts. These impacts include sea level rise, saline intrusion and more severe storms, which erode the coastline and undermine coastal ecosystems. Main-stem dams will block the sediment that builds the delta and with it the nutrients that feed the delta’s immense. As sediment is trapped by dams, the reduction in the amount reaching the river mouth will decrease the capacity of the delta to replenish itself, making it even more vulnerable to sea level rise, saline intrusion and erosion.

Projections across the Mekong basin show an array of climate change effects, including a potential sea level rise of a meter by the end of the century. If unaddressed, a one-meter rise in sea level could submerge more than a third of the Mekong delta, home for 17 million people and source of nearly half of Viet Nam’s rice. Already, we are witnessing erratic changes in flood patterns in the Mekong delta. Combined with sea level rise, we can anticipate further breakdowns of roads and other infrastructure, leading to the increasing likelihood of economic and social instability.

Undoubtedly, the rich biodiversity in the Himalayas along with its unique river and forest habitats, which gives and sustains life, has made it sacred to the people who live there. In fact, many of the world’s great areas of biodiversity are sacred to the people who live there: The Amazon, South Dakota’s Black Hills, the Mekong River, etc. are deeply rooted in local spiritual and cultural traditions. Sadly, many of these sites are threatened by illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking, deforestation, climate change (i.e. melting glaciers, rising sea level), natural resource mining, and pollution. Such threats not only endanger the integrity of ecosystems, but also leave the people who live there impoverished and vulnerable.

Religious values are often compatible with biodiversity conservation efforts.

Historically, the roots of modern-day conservation in the United States are deeply spiritual. In 1903, John Muir, the co-founder of the Sierra Club, convinced President Teddy Roosevelt to create the US Protected Area system, with the argument that this would protect the creation of God. He saw nature and biodiversity as the best evidence of there being a benevolent God and that faith-based argument got us Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier National Parks.

Over 80 percent of people in the world follow a specific faith; there are at least 2 billion Christians, 1.34 billion Muslims, 950 million Hindus, and 200 million Buddhists worldwide. Collectively, faith related institutions make up the world’s third largest category of financial investors, and have established and operate over half of all schools globally. In addition, faith-related institutions reportedly own almost 8 percent of the total habitable land surface. Religious leaders and faith communities are the best at articulating the ethical and spiritual ideals around the sacred value of Earth and its diversity, and are committed to protecting it.

Today, a variety of religious organizations and conservationists are working together to help develop strategies and programs that would help mitigate the devastating impact of global climate change and to educate the next generation on how to care for the planet. Dekila has been one of the leaders in this movement by trying to provide faith leaders and religious institutions with a platform on which they can build conservation messages and lead environmental change globally.

Her nearly six years at The WWF in Washington, D.C. was particularly fruitful. As Director of the organization’s Greater Mekong Programme, Dekila led efforts on large-scale strategies for hydropower and climate change in the Asian Mekong Region. Earlier, she spent five years designing and managing community-based conservation projects with WWF’s Eastern Himalayas Program.

In the Eastern Himalayas, there are more than 50 monasteries and nunneries carrying out conservation projects. This work is coordinated by Khoryug, an association of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries WWF helped to establish in 2009 and continues to support (Khoryug is led by His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje).

The monks of Tergar Monastery in India have planted 600 trees on degraded lands around the monastery. The nuns of Thrangu Tara Abbey in Nepal have set up recycling programs. Other monasteries have planted organic gardens, set up solar power stations, and switched from firewood to gas for cooking.

(In the Greater Mekong, Cambodian monks continue to support WWF’s conservation work on the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin. The 80 remaining Irrawaddy dolphins live in one of the greatest rivers on Earth, The Mekong. Through WWF’s partnership with His Holiness the Mahasangharaja Bour Kry, the Great Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism in Cambodia, his monks are helping WWF monitor and protect the dolphins).

Dekila is also the environmental adviser for His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa who is the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and has knowledge of 5 languages including Tibetan, Sikkimese, Hindi, Nepali and English.

In September 2010, as Director the WWF’s Greater Mekong Program, she addressed a US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific, on the challenges to water and security in Southeast Asia. She warned the subcommittee of the dangers of hydropower in that region:

“While hydropower development has potential economic and greenhouse gas reduction benefits, it also brings about enormous costs”, Dekila warned. “Hydropower dams fundamentally alter the river ecosystem, often with negative impacts to livelihoods and biodiversity. Each subsequent hydropower dam further diminishes the river's ability to naturally adapt to ecosystem impacts.”



During this period, Chungyalpa also founded and became the director of the organization’s Sacred Earth Program.

“The World Wide Fund for Nature's Sacred Earth Program developed organically from a 2008 project to provide environmental training for Buddhist monks and nuns in the Himalayas,” Dekila told me in 2012. “Following a series of successful pilot projects that showed positive local conservation results across the Himalayas and then replicating that model in Cambodia with the Ravadan Monks to protect the endangered Mekong dolphins, we decided to launch it as a full-fledged program.”

Through the program, they courted faith leaders and religious communities into participating in a variety of eco-friendly field projects such as cleaning rivers and planting trees. There was also an advocacy component in educating the general public about the nefarious global illegal wildlife trade as well as reforming climate change opinion and policy in America.

(WWF has been involved in promoting cooperation between the worlds of religion and the environment since 1986 when the late HRH Prince Philip, then president of the WWF, invited the leaders of the five major world’s religions to discuss how faith could help save the natural world. His eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales and Britain’s future King, has carried on the tradition).

In 2012, while still at WWF, Chungyalpa organized the ground-breaking Many Heavens, One Earth: African Faith Commitments for a Living Planet conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Ground-breaking because it was the first occasion that African faith communities, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim collaborated on establishing long-term plans on the environment.

The Many Heavens, One Earth, Our Continent conference was hosted by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) in Nairobi, Kenya (the ARC was a UK-based organization that helped major religions to develop environmental programs). The conference was a celebration of Christian, Hindu, and Islamic faith groups across Africa who were launching their long term plans for conservation and discussing how to move forward in terms of developing partnerships and engaging the community. WWF, ARC and the Kenya Wildlife Service hosted a safari for religious representatives to Nairobi National Park.

“Together we prayed around a pile of charred elephant ivory at a memorial site where Kenyan wildlife officials burned hundreds of ivory tusks in 1989 to draw attention to the killing of elephants in Nairobi,” Dekila recalls.

Fifty religious leaders signed pledges committing themselves to the cause of developing long-term action plans on protecting their environments.

Following the conference, participants went to meet with several African indigenous religious leaders on the Diani coast and around Mt. Kenya. In both regions; they reiterated that the earth is living and that as stewards of the earth, they felt a deep responsibility to protect it. Everywhere on Earth, the values within indigenous and traditional faith systems are consistently ecological and based on a sense of kinship with all life on earth.

Dekila visited the Kaya Forest in Kenya. These scattered coastal forests are sacred to the Mijikendas, a group of nine Bantu-speaking ethnic groups who live on the Kenyan coast between the Sabaki and Umba rivers. It’s an area that stretches from the Kenya border with neighboring Tanzania in the south to the border bear Somalia in the north.

“It’s forbidden to kill anything whether animal or plant inside the forest unless you are a spiritual elder,” she recalls. “I was able to meet with elders of the Digo tribe who explained that the Fingo, their religious talisman that is buried in the forest, protects the people of the community. As long as the elders can protect the Kaya, and therefore the Fingo, their community is intact. But if the forest disappears, the community is destroyed. Consistent to most sacred places around the world, there are several studies confirming that the Kaya Forests contains incredible endemic biodiversity. This is remarkable considering its small size.”


In 2018, Dekila became Founder and Director of the Loka Initiative, an award-winning capacity building and outreach program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the US for faith leaders and culture keepers of indigenous traditions who work on environmental and climate issues (

“Loka has a simple vision; that inner, community, and planet are interconnected and in order to achieve any one of these goals, we have to work on the other two as well,” says Dekila.

The initiative, which gets its name from an ancient Sanskirt term meaning “our world as the basis for all life.”, aims to support faith-led environmental efforts locally and around the world by helping to empower faith leaders and religious institutions on environmental protection, sustainable development and global health issues. In addition, new doors are opened up for partnerships, public outreach, and project implementation. Part of the initiative also includes an annual symposium (other components of the project are an on-line credit course; certificate program and a fellowship program).

The Loka Initiative is the logical successor to ARCs decades-long efforts because it broadened the scope to include environmental experts, scholars, policymakers and scientists.

The symposium, which first took place in 2018, was attended by some 20 faith leaders ranging from Buddhist masters to Indonesian Muslim clerics, Evangelical Christian leaders, and a representative from the Vatican. The theme was “Faith in Action for a Flourishing Planet” which explored the potential for faith-led environmental action by building understanding, motivating change, and creating practical goals.

“I see this as a critical moment in our humanity to reflect on how we can be better stewards of the earth, because all scientific evidence points to the fact that we have not,” says Musonda Mumba, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme's Terrestrial Ecosystems Team and participant at the first Loka Symposium.

The growing trend of faith-based conservation has been recognized by the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group (RCBWG) of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), which established the inaugural Assisi Award during their 28th International Congress for Conservation Biology, Cartagena, Columbia in 2017.

The award acknowledges organizations and individuals whose work demonstrates that faith-based conservation is contributing significantly to the common global effort of conserving life on Earth.

According to the Society for Conservation Biology website, “The name of the award celebrates a historical meeting held in Assisi, Italy, in 1986 on initiative of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and at that time President of WWF International. In that occasion, important declarations in favor of the environment were for the first time issued by leaders of all major world religions. The town of Assisi was chosen as the site of the event for its connection to St Francis, a saint ecumenically admired and respected also by non-Christians in virtue of his reverence for nature and tight bond with the natural world.

Musonda Mumba, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme's Terrestrial Ecosystems Team in conversation with Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee at the Loka Symposium.



bottom of page