Woodland Trust criticised for accepting cult's cash in North Wales campaign

Daily Post, UK/November 5, 2009

A Woodland charity has come under fire after accepting a massive donation from the flamboyant leader of the world’s fastest-growing religious cult.

Spiritual teacher Supreme Master Ching Hai has given £100,000 to the Woodland Trust’s campaign to buy Cwm Mynach, a 1,000-acre valley near Dolgellau, Snowdonia.

The unexpected windfall came with a personal message thanking the Woodland Trust for its initiative in "recreating and conserving the ancient Celtic rainforests of Wales for the benefit and enjoyment of all".

But cult expert Rick Ross, speaking to the Daily Post from the US, questioned Ching Hai’s motives.

He said: "She has a record of using charitable donations to gain public attention. This can be useful in recruitment efforts.

"The money comes from her followers, who often provide gifts and free labour to her various enterprises. Donations lend her legitimacy, credibility and sense of self-importance."

The group says scepticism is to be expected but insists the donation is "entirely genuine".

As well as being a painter, poet and Buddhist nun, Vietnamese-born Ching Hai is a fashion designer and beauty makeover consultant. She owns dozens of restaurants around the world and is a wealthy property owner operating under the pseudonym Celestia De Lamour.

Critics have dscribed her as "part-Buddha, part Madonna". Others have labelled her the new Imelda Marcos who revels in self-styled fairy clothes and regularly dispenses beauty and fashion tips to female followers.

As well as espousing vegetarianism, the group supports efforts to stop climate change and this is what convinced the Woodland Trust (Coed Cadw) to accept her offer. Late last year Ching Hai launched a major media advertising campaign in Australia promoting, among other things, tree planting and large cuts to agricultural livestock production.

According to the Woodland Trust, Ching Hai wanted nothing in return for the donation other than the chance to make a film about the group’s trip to Wales. It will be shown on its own 24-hour TV station, which is broadcast on satellite stations in 60 different countries (Sky channel 835).

The Woodland Trust needs to raise £850,000 to buy pine-dominated Cwm Mynach and restore it to native woodland. Ching Hai’s donation means it has now passed the £500,000 mark.

Her offer came out of the blue in September when three UK representatives met Trust staff in Penmaenpool, near Dolgellau.

At first she offered 100,000 euros, but because of the poor exchange rate she committed to sending £100,000.

Woodland Trust spokesman Rory Francis defended the gift. "We have procedures to check out our donations to ensure nothing illegal or improper is involved, or that donors are not engaged in activities which we ourselves have campaigned against.

"We take our reputation very seriously and always ask searching questions of our corporate donors."

While Ching Hai’s climate change ethos chimes with the Trust’s, its views on vegetarianism are considered irrelevant. "Many of our own staff are vegetarians," said Mr Francis.

"Neither are criticisms that she wears excessively brightly coloured clothes any of our concern."

Followers say much of the money Ching Hai makes is used for helping the poor, refugees and victims of environmental disasters.

A spokeswoman denied the group was seeking publicity for the gift.

"I can understand why people would ask what we want out of it. But the Supreme Master genuinely believes this is a cause worth helping," she said.

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