From Observer to Organizer: Planting Ten Thousand Trees in Cambodia

by / Nov 16, 2014

As a former tree planter and a photojournalist whose work often focuses on environmental issues, I’ve had a unique relationship with trees over the years. In university, broke and in need of profitable summer employment like most of my classmates, I applied for a job with a tree planting company. Lured by the promise of adventure and an enormous pay cheque, when I first headed off into the boreal forest, I couldn’t have imagined that it would consume my summers for six years to come.

During my time as a tree planter I was exposed to effects of industry on the landscape; huge clear cuts like dead zones in an otherwise healthy forest, stacks of cut lumber the height of a two-story building and stretching for kilometres into the distance, and the immense polluting footprint of the Canadian oil industry.

Later in life, when I transitioned into photojournalism as a career, it made sense that I would carry this understanding of man’s impact on the environment into my documentary work. So when tentree reached out to me with the idea of starting and documenting a new planting operation in Cambodia, I was happy to be on board - though at the time I was perhaps overly naive about the challenges ahead.

As a photojournalist, most of my work involves documenting the efforts and struggles of others, from child labour in Bangladesh to drug addiction in Nepal to the devastating aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. No matter what the story, my role was typically that of passive observer, there to watch and record what happened while having as little impact on the outcome as possible. As I worked with tentree to get the Cambodian planting project off the ground, however, I quickly realized that this time I was not simply an impartial observer, but an active player.

Truth be told, the difficulties in launching such an ambitious project in a country where I was barely functional in the local language hit me almost immediately. As a professional tree planter in Canada, I was able to plant thousands of trees per day by myself - but that was with a veteran company with decades of industry experience backing me up. In Cambodia, I had no such support. cambodia7 Obviously the first things necessary for a tree panting project are trees, land, and people to plant them. I decided to start with the trees. Since tentree and I had already agreed that we wanted to try and replicate Cambodia’s natural forests instead of just planting whatever was cheapest, I began calling local nurseries and asking for quotes on a large order of mixed species native hardwoods. When the responses started to come back at extortionate prices three to four times the total budget for the project, I realized I was in trouble.

Cambodia has more international development operations per capita than any other country in the world, and in this context many local suppliers have gotten used to charging inflated prices to foreign organizations and having them paid without question. My status as a Canadian national, I started to understand, meant that I had almost no chance of getting a fair price on anything. Clearly if we were going to get these trees in the ground without going bankrupt we needed help.

Trying not to panic I called my friend Pheap, a Buddhist monk and an environmental activist. He laughed a little when I explained the problem, understanding at once what we were dealing with, and put me in touch with a group of university students who volunteered their time for social work around Cambodia. Without exaggerating, I can say that this introduction singlehandedly saved our project. The Model Teens, as the group is called, sprang into action immediately. They secured ten thousand trees at below market value, located plots of land suitable for planting, and, perhaps most conveniently, had more than 100 students willing to give their time to plant trees in 40 degree heat.

Once the Model Teens were on board, the project moved ahead with surprising ease. For me, a photojournalist whose full time job revolves around watching and capturing the daily lives of other people, stepping out from behind the lens was an educational experience. Taking an active role in the outcome of a situation rather than passively recording what was happening was an invigorating change of pace. And while I’m not considering a career change at this point, watching the first of the ten thousand trees go into the ground gave me a sense of accomplishment that I won't soon forget.

Here’s to the next ten thousand.

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