Monthly Archives: June 2014

Tree Planting in Rural Cambodia

A mixture of monk and student volunteers arrive at a high school in the rural province of Takeo.

A mixture of monk and student volunteers arrive at a high school in the rural province of Takeo.

After around five months of careful (and at times frustrating) planning, the first of ten thousand new trees are in the ground in the rural Cambodian province of Takeo. Funded by the Canadian clothing company Tentree Apparel, the project seemed like it would be relatively simple when I proposed it, but ended up being several orders of magnitude more complicated to pull off.

I first heard of Tentree when they reached out to me in the fall asking to license some of my Canadian tree planting images. After sending off the files, I had a quick look around their website to see what they were all about and learned of their eco-oriented business model – for every item sold, ten trees are planted somewhere in the world. To be perfectly honest, the cynic in me immediately thought the whole thing sounded like a gimmick to capitalize on the wave of going-green culture.

So I decided to reach out to Kalen, Tentree’s media officer, and feel the brand out to see if they actually practiced what they preached. Since Tentree had active planting operations in Asia already, I asked, why not start up in Cambodia as well? In a country with a roughly 75% deforestation rate from illegal logging and development projects, if anywhere really needs reforesting, it is Cambodia. In retrospect it was perhaps an overly bold move to ask a company with which I had no working relationship other than a one-time transfer of images if they would trust me to establish, supervise, and document a rather expensive new operation from the other side of the world. I pretty much wrote the whole idea off as unlikely from the moment I hit the send button.

But much to my surprise, the next morning there was an email from Kalen, expressing interest and asking for more information. Having worked in the forestry industry for six years before transitioning into media, I was immediately suspicious: would they want to plant a huge swath of a single, cheap species of tree simply so they could add the total number of tree planted to their scoreboard? Would they insist on planting a non-native species to cut costs? Were they going to micromanage the whole thing according to some sort of established corporate doctrine?

Anticipating the worst, I sent back a proposal to plant a mix of endangered native hardwoods (far more expensive than many fast-growing softwoods) in a variety of locations – meaning the planting would take substantially longer than if they were all dropped into a single location. With a pitch that featured such selling points as high cost and a slow execution, I fully expected that to be the end of our correspondence.

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Students at a primary school in Takeo transport tree saplings to the planters using a small wooden cart.

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A Buddhist monk volunteer carries a sapling to a suitable planting location. Monks have a strong connection to environmental issues, believing nature to be sacred, and dozens volunteered their time to join the project.

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A group of monks work together, digging holes, planting, and watering the saplings.

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A monk’s hands after a few minutes of panting. While many monks are spared from the labour intensive livelihoods of most Cambodians, these volunteers had no problem getting dirty.

Within a few days, however, I got an enthusiastic response from Kalen, telling me to go ahead. Since we had never met, or even talked on the phone, this was quite a leap of faith from the guys at Tentree, and somewhat of a shock for me, who now found myself in charge of the logistics for a complex operation in a foreign country as well as all media production. Now that the project is on its feet and running smoothly I can admit that at the time I was in way over my head.

The realities of government permissions, negotiating with tree nurseries in a language I was barely functional in, finding the manpower to physically put the trees in the ground, and somehow transporting and feeding hundreds of people for multiple days of hard labour in a remote area sunk in all at once. It’s not worth mentioning all the ways I tried and failed to get this project going on my own, but suffice it to say there were quite a few botched attempts.

Yet just when it seemed I had made a huge mistake in taking so much on, I was introduced to a group of  student activists from Pannasastra University of Cambodia called The Model Teens. Practically overnight these hugely ambitious volunteers turned the operation from a well-meaning but ill-planned pipe dream into a reality. Without their help in securing a fair price for such a large order of trees and their local contacts in the rural provinces outside Phnom Penh, securing us protected and fertile ground, I doubt a single tree would have been planted.

Together with hundreds of student and monk volunteers, the Model Teens and I set out from Phnom Penh last week to plant the first few thousand of the ten thousand tree total. With much of Takeo’s population scraping out a subsistence living from the increasingly desertified land, it seemed like an ideal place to put new life into the ground.

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High school students plant trees around the perimeter of their campus.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

 

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Students and monks work together to transport the trees to the planting areas.

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Girls collect water in plastic bags from a pond on their school ground.

More than anything it was great to be a part of actually creating something lasting rather than only observing and documenting other people’s lives and achievements. While I am still first and foremost a documentarian rather than an operations manager, as the Tentree operation in Cambodia expands in the coming years, I have no problem setting aside my camera to take an active role in seeing it succeed.

I’m off to Nepal for the next few weeks for a mixture of commissioned humanitarian and personal work, but at this stage the project is running so smoothly that I suspect my managerial oversight would be more of a nuisance than a benefit to the hundreds of planters. But with a dedicated independent tree nursery already under construction to expand the operation for next year’s planting season, I can leave Cambodia in the knowledge that I was able to contribute to something bigger than myself.

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Water is carried by student volunteers to each of the newly planted trees.

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A monk takes the opportunity to wash his hands as a newly planted tree gets its first watering.

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Hundreds of volunteers work together throughout the day to make sure the trees are properly planted.

Updates from Nepal to come.

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Tree Planting Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

A Cost Effective Solution for Unexploded Ordnance

The weapons of war – from grenades to artillery shells to airplane bombs – cause terrible damage when employed on a battlefield. But for every piece of ordnance deployed, a percentage fails to work as advertised and does not detonate. These duds, though perhaps an immediate blessing to those on the receiving end of a barrage, create a lasting hazard that pervades a conflict zone long after the last of the fighting has stopped.

In Germany, roughly 15 pieces of UXO are discovered every day, remnants from massive allied bombing campaigns in the Second World War. When the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon came to an end, it was estimated that up to one million cluster bombs remained in southern Lebanon. In April 2014, a 500-pound incendiary bomb was uncovered at a construction site in Japan, a relic of the intense American-led attacks in the late days of World War II. In Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are home to over a hundred thousand amputees, mostly the victims of UXO left over from decades of wars, both foreign and domestic. Even in the United States, 150 year-old munitions from the civil war era have been discovered as recently as 2007.

Though wealthy nations such as Germany, Japan, and the United States typically have large budgets and highly trained technical teams in place to deal with such incidents, in less developed countries, the cost of ordnance disposal operations can be prohibitively high. However, the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, an American based non-profit organization staffed largely by former military personnel experienced in dealing with explosives, are on the verge of bringing an innovative and low-cost method of ordnance disposal to the international stage.

At its core, the concept of Golden West’s strategy is simple: use the explosive compounds from found UXO and stockpiled munitions to build smaller bombs, which can then in turn be used to destroy even more land mines and UXO. At the organization’s main base of operations in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia, caches of old munitions and UXO are delivered daily from the outlying provinces, and Golden West staff set to work identifying, dismantling, and repurposing it into small anti-land mine and UXO charges. By using found munitions as the main material in their explosive-destroying product, the organization can ensure that it is both sustainable and self-sufficient. They don’t need to rely on expensive shipments of foreign made C4 or Semtex, and their supply is directly proportional to the threat they are combating. As long as there are land mines and UXO to destroy, they have a free source of material. As the free supply diminishes, so too does the problem. If there is ever a day when they can no longer find ordnance with which to build their charges, then their mission has been essentially completed.

The simplicity and relative cheapness of their operation (according to a former US Navy explosives expert I spoke to, a Golden West project is up to five times less expensive than other popular land mine and UXO clearing methods) has attracted the interest of major funders, such as the US Department of State, which has been supporting Golden West’s mission since 2005. Though negotiations are still underway, it seems likely that in the future this innovative method of dealing with land mines could be implemented around the world. Golden West estimates that it has already destroyed up to 300 000 land mines and pieces of UXO in Cambodia, and has the potential to make major international progress in removing a serious danger to people living in former war zones.

To find out more, visit the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation web site.

A Golden West team member examines a defused airplane bomb at the organizations main compound in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia.

A Golden West team member examines a defused airplane bomb at the organizations main compound in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Len Austin, 48, leads a team meeting before the day's work begins. A retired explosive ordinance disposal officer from the United States Marin Corp, Austin is a veteran of Iraq and Somalia.

Len Austin, 48, leads a team meeting before the day’s work begins. A retired explosive ordnance disposal technician from the United States Marine Corp, Austin is a veteran of Iraq and Somalia. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A team member inspects a Taiwanese-made heavy saw which Golden West uses to cut apart unexploded ordinance so the explosive compounds can be removed. Because of heavy use the saw must be checked daily and the blades changed every week.

A team member inspects a Taiwanese-made heavy saw which Golden West uses to cut apart unexploded ordnance so the explosive compounds can be removed. Because of heavy use the saw must be checked daily and the blades changed every week. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Austin instructs his team on the best method to cut open a Yugoslavian made artillery shell.

Austin instructs his team on the best method to cut open a Yugoslavian made artillery shell. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

All ordinance is labelled before cutting so the mix of explosive compounds inside can be properly identified.

All ordnance is labelled before cutting so the mix of explosive compounds inside can be properly identified. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The team watches the feed from a remote camera as the heavy saw cuts an artillery shell in half. The camera system allows the team members to keep a safe distance from the ordinance in the case of an accidental explosion.

The team watches the feed from a remote camera as the heavy saw cuts an artillery shell in half. The camera system allows the team members to keep a safe distance from the ordnance in the case of an accidental explosion. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

After the ordinance has been dissected, the explosive compounds are removed for recycling into Golden West's signature charges.

After the ordnance has been dissected, the explosive compounds are removed for recycling into Golden West’s signature charges. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A shed in the Golden West compound where recycled explosives are reformed into small bomb-destroying charges.

A shed in the Golden West compound where recycled explosives are reformed into small bomb-destroying charges. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Once removed from their casing, the explosives are crushed into manageable pieces using a polymer tamper. A combination of heat, shock, and friction are needed to set off an explosion; by using tools made of composite materials, the element of friction is reduced, lessening the likelihood of an accidental blast.

Once removed from their casing, the explosives are crushed into manageable pieces using a polymer tamper. A combination of heat, shock, and friction are needed to set off an explosion; by using tools made of composite materials, the element of friction is reduced, lessening the likelihood of an accidental blast. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The crushed explosives are mixed with additional elements into a pourable liquid. The composition and formulas behind Golden West's techniques are secret and unique.

The crushed explosives are mixed with additional elements into a pourable liquid. The composition and formulas behind Golden West’s techniques are secret and unique. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The liquid explosive is poured into shaped moulds and left to cool overnight.

The liquid explosive is poured into shaped moulds and left to cool overnight. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Once cooled, a hole is drilled into the top of the charges so a detonator cord can be inserted.

Once cooled, a hole is drilled into the top of the charges so a detonator cord can be inserted. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The completed charges are only a few inches tall, yet are powerful enough to penetrate thick steel plate - meaning they are capable of destroying nearly any type of unexploded ordinance. The charges also contain micro radio transmitters so their location and use can be tracked remotely.

The completed charges are only a few inches tall, yet are powerful enough to penetrate thick steel plate – meaning they are capable of destroying nearly any type of unexploded ordnance. The charges also contain micro radio transmitters so their location and use can be tracked remotely. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Austin gives the command for a test detonation.

Austin gives the command for a test detonation. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The charred landscape after a detonation.

The charred landscape after a detonation. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia Tagged , , , , , , , , |