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.
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.
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.
Updates from Nepal to come.