Tree Planting Challenge, an event started last year in Chiang Mai, Thailand has rapidly taken root, and is encouraging everyone to take part. Spearheaded by a very active community member, Pharadon “Opor” Phonamnuai, his goal is to have everyone in the community very simply ‘plant a tree – right where you are’.
Travindy’s CEO Anula Galewska spoke with responsible tourism advocate and Founder of Where Sidewalks End, Ian Ord, who helps Tree Planting Challenge go global.
Anula: What is Tree Planting Initiative about? What problem is it trying to address?
Ian: This Tree Planting initiative was founded by Pharadon “Opor” Phonamnuai, a local Chiang Mai community activist and saxophone player. The main issue that instigated the movement of planting trees stemmed from the annual ‘slash and burn’ crop burning that happens in the northern provinces of Thailand. He found that not only was it destroying much of the natural beauty of the city, having black clouds hanging around for months on end, but also adding to serious health conditions. How was it that such a beautiful part of the country could have become so disconnected from nature?
Of course, this problem goes far beyond the city limits of Chiang Mai, with air pollution being a major issue on a global scale, but using the mantra of Mahatma Gandhi “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, the foundation of every solution is that it must begin with us as individuals making a change, no matter how small.
Anula: What inspired you to get involved and promote it on an international scale?
Ian: I first came on board with the challenge after watching a TEDx Talk by Pharadon in November 2015 in Chiang Mai. I have always been a strong advocate for environmental issues, and his message resonated with me to the point that I wanted to incorporate a part of it into elements of my boutique tour company, as well as within the Travel Massive chapter I organize in the city. We try to plant a tree for every guest that goes on one of our tours, or who comes to one of our events.
Pharadon has been spending much of his time spreading this message around Thailand, and in the tradition of viral campaigns such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, wanted to have a similar event, this June 18, in hopes his message could cross all borders of the globe.
Anula: How can individuals and companies take part?
Ian: The initiative is simple: “Plant a tree – right where you are”. On June 18th, 2016, the first Tree Planting Challenge event will take place. Everyone (families, couples, friends, businesses, corporations) is encouraged to plant a single tree in their city, indigenous to the region (and with the local forestry’s permission if necessary).
The rules are basically that the tree should be native to the area. We are hoping to have everyone plant a tree on June 18th – though if you want to plant more trees before or after, PLEASE do! The only restriction that could vary depending on the location is that of local forestry commissions. Though I’m sure they’d be happy to see lots of new trees being planted within your community, it’s best to make a quick call to see if there are any local laws that apply to your city about location, tree types, etc.
Anula: How can we all help spread the message?
Ian: The official hashtag for this event is #Jun18TreeChallenge. Any social sharing, be it on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or any other medium should have that hashtag attached to it, so we can all follow the global forest we’re helping plant! If you’d like to show your commitment on Facebook, the official event page is here – please share the event on you wall, in your groups, and invite your friends directly to take part. The more this message gets out, through the most mediums as possible, the bigger the impact we can all make! Sharing is caring, after all.
“Plant a tree – right where you are” on June 18th, 2016. Share on social media using #Jun18TreeChallenge.
Anula: Let’s give your initiative a broader context. In your opinion, is tourism a bigger protector or destroyer of nature?
Ian: In the grand scheme of things, for many decades now, tourism has been doing more environmental damage than good. Everything from carbon emissions from passenger jets, buses, and cruise lines, to the destruction of natural ecosystems to build massive resorts, to excess amounts of waste often with poor management brought on by mass tourism, there have been many factors which have played negative roles on the environment and our MASSIVE footprints we’ve been leaving behind.
That being said, with social sharing, and the ease of access to information online, there has definitely been a global awakening to the negative effect of our travels. There’s not too many people who knowingly want to destroy their own backyards, or to get sick from the air they breathe as a result of their own actions. I have a feeling that people want to see a change, but for the most part have waited for someone else to do it: a government body making new regulations, or private sector NGO. Often the solutions we are waiting for are simple enough for us to do on our own, but it’s just the dissemination of that information which is getting lost.
Once the demand (travellers) find cleaner, more responsible alternatives – it breaks down the need for supply (those providing destructive services). Change is inevitable, but it requires us to make the first move.
Anula: How can the negative environmental impacts of tourism be minimized?
Ian: Tourism is the second largest industry on Earth, next to oil (and I bet you that if travel didn’t exist, oil would not be the largest either). This means that there are trillions of dollars being spent (and earned) in this industry every year. If every company spent just a fraction, even as small as 1% of their earnings, towards researching and using cleaner practices, and where possible, donating part of that 1% to local environmental projects, we would see an enormous shift! That would be billions of dollars going directly back into environmental projects.
As it stands right now, many companies do not take responsibility for their own actions and often pass it off to being the guest’s responsibility. I think that though it is important for a guest to be as mindful as possible when travelling, they are still in unfamiliar territory when abroad. It should be the operators of the service who take responsibility for their guests and for their own communities. Not only is it good for the environment and ensures contributions go from EVERY client, not just the occasional one – it is also the only sustainable business model they have. If their environment is destroyed from their poor practices, they lose their product people are paying to come see in the first place.
Anula: And last but not least – what makes you a responsible traveler?
Ian: Personally, I feel that there is no perfect responsible traveler in the world. With so many conflicting stories and information online about services, best practices, and the like, with an added element of the subjective nature of some activities, it is difficult, if not impossible to do everything ‘perfectly’.
That being said, when you try to be mindful of your surroundings – try learning as much as you can on a destination, activity or service prior to going, and then making an educated decision on the impacts that will result from your participation, you are already ahead of the pack. From the simplest actions, such as using refillable water bottles and shopping bags, to taking public transportation (preferably ones that aren’t spewing out black smoke behind them), there are many things you can do on your trip, and in normal life, which will make huge positive impacts in the long run.
Knowledge is power, and so the more information you can read on something prior to doing it, the better, as you’ll have the most balanced opinion on whether it is good or not. I also prefer to use companies that do make efforts or contributions back to environmental and/or social projects.
I think the most important part of being a responsible traveler is to share that information in a mindful and empathetic way with others who may not have done the same amount of research as yourself. Sharing knowledge is the way that we can all grow together – just try to be sure what you’re sharing is accurate, so it’s not perpetuating bad practices even further!
Small actions are often invisible at first glance – but when millions of people are making them, we will see almost instant results!
“If you choose to participate in the #Jun18TreeChallenge – individually you may only be planting a single tree, but together we will be planting a global forest!”