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From seeds to forests: How one man is growing Thailand’s future

  • When Nopporn Nontapa couldn’t become a forestry official, he turned his passion for Thailand’s forests into a thriving online community.
  • Nontapa’s community now gives away seedlings to people across the country, growing a new generation of trees in a country whose forests have been hammered by deforestation.
  • Today, Nontapa teaches a course on forestry as well as continues to manage his community, nearly 40,000 strong.

Nopporn Nontapa had always wanted to take care of forests, but this dream was initially shattered when the Thai government rejected his application for a forestry job. Thirty years later, though, he’s managed to grow a vast network of over 30,000 tree-planting volunteers across Thailand, all beginning from just a few seeds.

Born and raised on a farm in Kalasin province, young Nontapa would venture with his father into the rainforests nearby to forage for wild food. But whenever they went, Nontapa could only watch helplessly as locals sawed down trees and trucks carried away the logs.

The scene planted a seed in him; he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.

In 1990, when renowned Thai conservationist Seub Nakhasathien committed suicide out of the despair of bearing witness to endless environmental destruction, Nontapa was determined to pursue forestry at Kasetsart University in Bangkok. When he graduated, he applied for a forestry position at the Royal Forest Department. He was No. 152 on the applicant list; the quota accepted only 149 applicants.

“I didn’t make it on the list,” Nontapa said. “I thought, how was I supposed to become a forester?”

Planting a seed

In 2001, a group of men started touting a pyramid scheme online involving agarwood trees (in the genus Aquilaria), wood that sells for a high price because of the fragrance it produces when infected with a type of mold. The men spread misleading information across online forums about the ease of growing agarwood tree plantations, the short time they took to mature and the high marginal profits they fetched. Victims were promised a high buyback price, only to find out later that the dealers had disappeared.

Nontapa watched the online activity of the men touting the misleading information for half a year. He wondered what the Royal Forest Department would do, or the Ministry of Agriculture. Or any of his professional forestry friends. Or anyone.

“I didn’t see anyone do anything,” Nontapa said. “The situation just kept worsening until I could no longer bear to watch. So I did the job of the Royal Forest Department for them.”

While working as a researcher in pharmaceutical sciences at Khon Kaen University, Nontapa spent his free time battling the misinformation with his own knowledge about forestry.

Post by post, Nontapa shared with “netizens” about different tree species and correct propagation methods. His posts started to attract people who cared more about proper and sustainable tree planting, rather than quick and easy moneymaking from cash crops.

“I started by giving,” he said. “It’s easier than taking.”

Nontapa gradually gained trust among forum members, and with enough followers, Nontapa launched a website called Khundong — a nickname Thais give to forestry graduates — to serve as a sharing platform for tree-planting information. Eventually, seeing the support from a passionate community of conservationists online, Nontapa decided he wanted to grow a forest.

Watching it Grow

Like many countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s forests are in big trouble. Between 1973 and 2009, Thailand’s forests declined by 43%, according to a report by WWF. Currently, the country is left with about 31% forest cover, or 163,200 square kilometers (63,000 square miles), according to the Royal Forest Department. While a major driver of deforestation is agricultural expansion, another crucial factor is illegal logging for rosewood, which can fetch up to $50,000 per cubic meter (35 cubic feet) once smuggled into China.

“I went to the Royal Forest Department [to ask for seeds] and told them I wanted to plant some endangered plant species, about a hundred of them,” Nontapa recalled. “They said they only had 15.”

So, Nontapa took the job on himself: He began collecting seeds from a forest near his home. A few months after Nontapa began sharing his knowledge about tree seeds on the internet, he began giving away the seeds for free, too. He managed to give away 200 different species to his followers while teaching them the correct steps and locations to propagate the species.

Through March and April, Nontapa teaches tree-planting courses at his school in Khonkaen province. PHOTO: Khundong.

Just like the trees, the community grew bigger and bigger each day.

People from all over Thailand began asking Nontapa for seeds, and he would mail them right away, asking for nothing in return but the postage fee. They would also ask him questions about the seeds, and he would answer them immediately, asking for nothing in return but that they plant them.

“Basically, I’m with Khundong (his website) 24 hours [a day],” he said. “That’s the [essence] of being a forester — we should always be there with the tree farmers.”

A new forest

Nontapa planted seeds in people’s hearts as well, and now many are planting them in the ground to grow forests across the entire country. Today, he has replaced his website with a Facebook group called “Khundong … 24-hour tree seeds,” and it currently has nearly 40,000 members.

“The number of members grew, but it wasn’t just me giving — everyone who joined gave, too,” Nontapa said.

From a sharing platform for both seeds and information, Khundong has expanded to volunteer-led workshops, fundraising, conservation activities and even scholarship opportunities. Many members give away seeds, and many also happily pay for ones they want to plant on their land. Others simply follow and learn from the posts or join announced events. Some volunteers also help Nontapa manage the booming Facebook group.

“Our lead members suggested to members in all the provinces that they should be available for anyone to come visit and learn from them [about tree-planting],” Nontapa said. “Any real Khundong member should be ready to act as a model for people around them.”

In 2016, Nontapa also set up a tree-planting school on a piece of land offered by a member of Khundong, where he runs month-long courses each year. The course started out as free, but Nontapa now charges a small fee in order to sustain the school.

Nontapa says anyone is welcome to join the Khundong group and the tree-planting courses —whether they want tree seeds to grow an agricultural plantation or a conservation forest — so long as they just want to plant trees. Nontapa believes anyone can help carry forth the Khundong mission of protecting nature and addressing climate change.

“I never thought I’d be doing this much. I never thought I’d run a tree-planting school or create a nonprofit community. I never thought I’d become an expert about forestry for Thailand,” he said. “I just had some free time and thought I could give free seeds to people so that they can see through [the] conmen and also grow forests.”

Through his schooling, then his university studies, and later on his concern for the forest, Nontapa said his desire was to become a good forester and grow more forests. When he didn’t get the forestry job he had wished for, all he wanted was to see the professional foresters take care of the remaining forests.

“No one else would do it,” he said, “so it had to be me.”

The seeds he gave away have now grown into forests across Thailand, and the knowledge he had shared has flourished with foresters nationwide, both to be passed down to future generations.

The Khundong online community Nontapa created has grown to almost 40,000 members across Thailand. PHOTO: Khundong.
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