Reforesting Cambodia, Ten Trees at a Time

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 74% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 75% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

In the 1970’s, 70% of Cambodia was covered in primary (untouched) rainforest. Today, that number is closer to 3%, mostly due to the dual blights of large-scale land development and illegal logging.

The roots of Cambodia’s mass deforestation trace back to the Khmer Rouge era when various factions, locked in a deadly fight to wrest control of the country, financed their armies from the sale of timber to foreign governments and corporations. While  guerrilla groups, including the then-fledgling Khmer Rouge, sold most of their harvest to Thailand, the ruling government they were focused on ousting was exporting to Japan and Vietnam. With all sides engaged in a fight to the death, there was little consideration left over for possible future environmental impacts.

Valued for high-quality hardwoods, such as the luxurious rosewood, Cambodian forests continued to be heavily exploited throughout the civil war period and into the 21st Century. Today the national forests are a spectre of what they used to be, and despite a government supposedly committed to preventing illegal logging, the countryside of the southeast Asian nation is more often experienced as a dusty red desert than a lush tropical rainforest.

A few months ago I was introduced to Kalen Emsley, one of the founders of Ten Tree Apparel.  A company with a business model that revolves around a pledge to plant ten trees somewhere in the world for every item of clothing sold, Ten Tree is already approaching the one million mark in Africa. Having myself spent more than a year of combined days living in a tent as a seasonal tree planter in northern Canada, it seemed logical to combine my past experiences in reforestation with my more contemporary skills as a photojournalist. Kalen and I started working out a way to expand Ten Tree’s planting operations into Cambodia, and through a series of emails and Skype calls we eventually figured out how to make it happen.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Tree planting operations have become somewhat of a cliche, with businesses around the world sending teams of office workers with a few shovels to plant a few hundred trees in a field somewhere. In contrast, this project will see thousands of native trees planted in areas where they will be of direct benefit to local residents – near rural schools, for example. And unlike the industrial scale planting I used to do as a student summer job, these handmade forests will be comprised of mixed species – not just large swaths of monoculture.

Though it’s still far too hot in Cambodia to begin planting (ten thousand dead trees wouldn’t really help anybody), the trees have been ordered from a local nursery and our idea is on its way to becoming a reality.

Workers at a nursery outside Phnom Penh receive instructions from their manager.

Workers receive instructions from their manager at a nursery outside Phnom Penh.

 

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia's often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia’s often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh

When the weather cools off (which is, sadly, not until the end of April at the earliest), teams of student volunteers and environmentally active Buddhist monks will travel out of the city to put some trees in the ground. I’ll be there to document it, but until then these images from my recent visit to the nursery will have to do.

 

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