Fifteen hundred trees. It’s a massive undertaking, but over 60 volunteers—students and local community members—showed up to join in the effort to reforest the area. The trees had been donated by the Department of Forestry to plant on organic farmland that a local Thai celebrity gave permission for us to use. Everyone young and old traversed the land to get their hands dirty and fill the holes with young saplings, stopping only when afternoon storms threatened and all ran for cover and a hot lunch under the canopies.
This tree planting event is just one of the many ways our Sustainability Project, headed by Worn Donchai, seeks to improve the environment of the local region, and by extension, the lives of the people the land supports. The Sustainability Project has three main programs: 1) an organic garden where families learn about the sustainable cultivation of indigenous and healthy vegetables on their own land, 2) a silk worm project where silk worms are bred and raised, and their silk and all its natural properties are cultivated for textile and beauty products, and 3) a local textile center which manages the design and pre-production of ecologically sustainable handbags and backpacks. These programs all include workshops to teach families about sustainable practices and entrepreneurial opportunities, on all aspects from farm to market.
The Sustainability Project started in 2013 and since then has expanded to reach hundreds of villagers and their families from all over the region. We have 14 silkworm farms up and running, with scores of people trained in things like cultivating silk, shampoo and soap production, and spinning and dyeing yarn with all-natural indigo dyes.
We aim to launch an Eco-Agricultural Learning Center late this year, which will expand all activities even further so that hundreds, if not thousands, of members of the local communities can attain access to training on agricultural practices like organic rice farming and mushroom cultivation, management and development activities like identifying local leaders and creating networks of shared support, and marketing activities to sell products created at the Learning Center.
The effects are profound. In an area where poor farmers are subject to the exploitation of large agri-businesses, unsafe working conditions, and wildly fluctuating, seasonal access to jobs and income, this kind of project disrupts the power structures. By working the land without the use of harmful chemicals, farmers break their dependence on chemicals and the companies that make them while using natural resources that ensure the land itself continues to prosper. Families are empowered to take control over their access to multiple sources of income, working collectively from seed to store. They even learn about low cost indigenous plants they can grow and cook to supplement their diets.
The families who participate in these projects are often the very ones whose children are most at-risk of being trafficked into sexual exploitation. For families lacking education, or sometimes even documentation, the sex industry used to be one of the only employment that could support their needs. Children would enter the sex trade to bring money home for their families. While our scholarships help reverse this trend by enabling vulnerable children to remain in school, our sustainability programs help ensure the entire family has a future. When families are stressed, it’s the children who fall through the cracks. When families and communities are healthy and whole, they are more resilient to adversity and there is a stronger foundation on which to build. Everyone thrives.
Fifteen hundred trees. It’s more than a forest. It’s a declaration of purpose.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The SOLD Project. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.