A Dream to Reforest our City

Karen hill tribe lives in the forest, and their lives revolve around nature, even their sacred birthing ceremony involves a tree.

By | Wed 1 Jun 2016

The Pgazkoenyau people (ปกาเกอญอ) high in the mountains of northern Thailand have a simple motto from which they live their lives. “Just plant a tree where you are.” This Karen hill tribe lives in the forest, and every aspect of their lives revolve around nature, even their sacred birthing ceremony involves a tree.

“When a baby is born, the mother has to wrap the umbilical cord around a tree,” explained Pharadon ‘Por’ Phonamnuai, explorer, musician and local tree planting activist. “This tree then belongs to the child and they must care for it for their whole life.”

Although 35-year-old Por doesn’t go as far as to wrap umbilical cords around trees, he has for the last few years been starting out on a new journey to promote a greener Chiang Mai through a range of campaigns and events that have proven very popular with locals and officials alike.

I first met Por at his TEDx talk earlier this year at Le Meridien, and was soon nodding along as he filled his allotted 18 minutes with tales of travel and adventure that began over 10 years ago. It was during this time of physical as well as self exploration that he began to develop a dream for Chiang Mai.

“I want to talk about a dream I had. A dream to reforest this city,” as he began his talk after a soulful intro on his saxophone.

You may be getting an inkling of familiarity by this point. Yes, it is THE Por, musician and owner of the iconic North Gate Jazz Cooperative and Tha Pae East – both promoted as public community spaces that are open to anyone and everyone to use when and how they want, within reason naturally. Por spends his time in Chiang Mai promoting a range of events, musical jamming sessions and now something that he calls “bringing back our relationship with nature.” He may be your favourite musician, even your friend, but for the city he is much more than that.

“I travelled from Thailand to London on just 25,000 baht,” he boasts, explaining how through hitchhiking, making friends and busking with his saxophone, he managed to fund a four month journey across the world, twice. Once in 2009 and again in 2013 – meeting new people, seeing new cultures, ideas, beliefs and environments. “But you know the one thing I noticed in every place along my journey,” he laments, “is that we only see nature as entertainment now, and if it’s in our way we just destroy it.”

Steve Elliot, co-director of the Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU-CMU) in Chiang Mai agrees. “Over the last 10 years I have seen many more restoration projects starting up,” he said explaining that FORRU provides research and technical training to a wide range of organisations involved in forest restoration. “But the problem is, deforestation in the area is still a problem these days due to agricultural land clearance which starts small scale but then grows and grows”.

Just like Elliot por is also passionate about trying to save our relationship with nature. Although his deep desire is to help people reconnect with the natural world, he has no delusions of grandeur and in fact is very sincere and modest about his goals.

“I guess I just needed that wakeup call I got from meeting likeminded people on my journey.”

When Por finally returned to Chiang Mai in 2013, he waited for the beginning of the monsoon season and planted a tree right outside his bar, North Gate. On that very same day, the municipality sent officers to dig up the tree and throw it away. But that didn’t stop him from tying again. Documenting the whole process on social media – planting, celebrating, then losing the tree – his efforts, and battle with the municipality, soon went viral across Thailand (with help of a few celebrity friends, of course). This feedback spurred him on to defy the rules of the municipality and plant another tree the very next day. “The thing is, it was outside of my bar and it was on publicly owned land – surely we all have a right to improve that land and make or city greener and better for us all.”

The Viral Photo

In fact, public spaces are indeed controlled by the municipality, but in spite of this Por continued his tiny battle and soon claimed a swift victory. “After the social media backlash the municipality conceded, and through that I opened a channel to talk with the city planners.” This is where Por’s campaign really kicked off. It was totally unplanned, but he was already prepared.

“Firstly, I had to ask for formal permission to plant the tree, even though it was already planted. Once that was granted, I made a proposition to the local officials, one that they couldn’t refuse.” Por first pointed out that the trees around the moat were old and in dire need of some care. They were sick, dying, and the moat was looking greyer each and every day. The request was duly noted. Secondly he suggested that, as it was just the start of the monsoon season, it would be the best time to go out and plant some new trees around the moat. After some discussion he was, to his great surprise, given the go ahead. A social media campaign began, and with support from both the media and the officials, donations of trees and cash started pouring in.

On August 21st 2015, 800 trees were planted around the moat in just one day. “We had over 500 people out to help us, all soaked in the heavy rain. By the end we were all tired, but so proud of what we had achieved,” said Por.

Many of the saplings that were provided free for the campaign came from the Huai Hongkhrai Royal Development Study Centre which is dedicated to wildlife conservation and protection. “The Huai Hongkhrai and several other organisations around Chiang Mai actually give away free tree saplings to anyone who wants them,” explained Por. “After forming these contacts, we were able to bring the free saplings into the city, and now every Friday for over a year now, we give them to anyone who wants them.” You can find the saplings in the gardens of the old library behind the Three Kings Monument every Friday between 4.30pm to 6pm.

Following such success Por realised that his campaign needed a catchy title, something that people could associate with, contribute to and which represents his personal dream to reforest Chiang Mai. He soon founded the group Meu Yen Muang Yen which literally translates as cool hand cool city, but meu yen also doubles in meaning as green finger. So it is all very clever and catchy.

Meu Yen Muang Yen encourages people to pick up a plant, a tree or a bag of soil and just begin to do something, anything, to help see Chiang Mai become greener, more natural and better for its inhabitants. “I don’t expect people to go out and grow a forest,” Por jokes, “I just want to see people begin to plant something wherever they are.”

Now inundated with volunteers and likeminded people, the group has grown in size and force, even spreading to other cities such as Chiang Rai, Pattani and Nan – with more on the way. Currently there are around 30 volunteers on and off who help out wherever they can and the Meu Yen Muang Yen Facebook page has close to 10,000 followers.

“Our latest campaign in collaboration with the local municipality is going to see Tha Pae Gate get a facelift,” he exclaimed, excited to talk about future projects. “We have been given the go ahead by the town planners to host a competition to re-design the Tha Pae Gate area with a focus on green space.” Architects, designers and students from Chiang Mai, Mae Jo and Rajamangala Universities are invited to form teams and pitch a re-design for the area. Judges include Por, local officials and other significant figures in Chiang Mai who will decide on the winner. “As soon as we decide a winner, we will begin the re-design. The municipality has promised us this.”

Por puts their successful cooperation down to the great feedback following the planting of those 800 trees last year, which apart from making Chiang Mai’s moat considerably greener, also gave the local municipality a lot of good press.

Por’s latest project is the #Jun18TreeChallenge. “This is my own personal project,” he said. “There are no sponsors, and there is little promotion. I just want to start a pure movement where life gives new life, and we build a new relationship with trees once again.”

Por with Pa–tee Ta–yea

This philosophy that Por is so keen to share was partly inspired by the Pgazkoenyau hill tribe. After hearing of Por’s addiction to adventure, his friend and head of the Community Organisation Development Institute suggested that he travel and meet with the head of the tribe, Pa–tee Ta–yea (พะตี ตาแยะ), after recognising that Por shared very similar beliefs with this tribe when it comes to nature and trees. “I went there to find out what the relationship is between man and nature, in their eyes,” Por explains. “I was really inspired by what he had to say.”

Por is inviting people to imitate the ways of our ancestors, by appreciating and caring for trees as much as we do our family pets, just like the Pgazkoenyau tribe. But he is not asking much. All he asks is that you – yes, you! – grab a shovel on June 18th, plant a tree, take a picture, share it on social media and challenge your friends to plant a tree too. Once it is planted all you need to do is care for your tree for as long as you can, and since it is now monsoon, it will most likely look after itself.

“Plant some trees right where you are,” is his humble request.

Por even encourages those without land to go to a neighbour and use their land or find some public land and just plant away! The only rule is that if your tree dies, you will have to punish yourself by throwing yourself into the moat on a day which Por will announce each year.

He has taken the last few months off to do a bit more travelling, hitch hiking through 42 provinces in Thailand as well as in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. He got lifts from over 70 cars and lorries, meeting new people and inviting them to get involved with his tree challenge. “Throughout my journey, almost 5,000 people pledged that they would plant a tree on June 18th, so any more than that would be amazing for me.”

Por’s dream is simple. If we all take care of just one tree, and share that with our friends, that one tree can quickly turn into a million. “The Pgazkoenyau tribe has a saying, ‘plant a tree right where you are,’ and that is what we will do. These trees are the centre of their world, and much respect is given to the nature around them. In times of need the Pgazkoenyau people go to the trees, but we go to City Hall. To me that shows our complete disregard for nature, and all I want to see is that some of us at least try to reconnect with nature before we lose it forever.”

Elliot agrees adding that planting a tree helps offset carbon, and even though that offset is tiny, when thousands of trees are planted, that can really make a difference.

Here at Citylife, we will be joining in the #Jun18TreeChallenge by having each of our staff members taking a tree home and planting it! Look out for our snaps over Facebook and on our Website on June 18 or thereabouts, and get involved too! Just don’t forget, if your tree dies, you are going to have to jump into the moat on Por’s say so!

Citylife staff with our tree saplings ready to plant on June 18