Sawai Saengsawang leans forward with a determined look. "If you gave me 20 billion baht, within 10 years I would reforest 25 million rai of land with 1 billion trees."
Deforestation has been a cause for concern for decades, as each year sees more losses from encroachment, illegal logging and development, in turn leading to a loss of biodiversity and increasing the threat of floods.
After the 2011 floods, the government approved a 11-billion-baht budget to help reforest 1 million rai to reduce sediment runoff and the speed of runoff from key watersheds.
Mr Sawai is a tree expert. As manager of the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives' (BAAC) Tree Bank, he helps monitor more than 3.4 million trees planted with villagers and communities across the country since 2006.
More than 41,600 people from 3,100 villages are members of the Tree Bank. Mr Sawai wants to double that number over the next 12 months as part of a broader goal to increase the number of trees in the bank to 11 million.
"For years, the government has been pushing reforestation efforts. But the fact is that Thailand's forest coverage has dropped from over 70% to just 17% today," Mr Sawai said.
The Tree Bank traces its origins to the sufficiency economy tenets of His Majesty the King, who advocates planting a mix of trees usable for consumption, economic gain and everyday use.
"We can't advocate planting trees if we don't plant the trees that villagers who live near the forests want," Mr Sawai said.
Sustainability is the key. Projects emphasise tree and plant varieties with inherent value for communities under the concept of "plant what you can eat, and eat what you plant".
The Tree Bank started by engaging interested villages with a simple concept _ for every tree planted, the bank will give three baht, one to the villager who plants the tree and two to the village itself.
Funding partly comes from the private sector, where companies interested in assisting the project as part of a corporate social responsibility initiative can deposit funds at the BAAC.
The interest earned is used to help the Tree Bank. Contributors can select which villages they want to support, while they can even monitor the results using satellite imagery viewed through Google Earth.
The Tree Bank will also support villagers interested in transforming their fields into forests. A villager who decides to stop planting cash crops in favour of trees can receive 7,500 baht per rai for three years as compensation, in addition to coffee plant seedlings for use at the edges of the forest area.
Participants may also receive low-interest loans, or "green credit", at a rate of two percentage points below prime rates, using trees as collateral. The BAAC has set aside 1 billion baht in funding for loans made under the programme, which is expected to begin this year.
Mr Sawai said the bank next month will launch a project in Nan province involving 1.5 million saplings and coffee plant seedlings for use by villagers. Another province active in the programme is Roi Et, which has 400,000 trees planted and is expected to reach 1 million by the end of the year.
Mr Sawai said the reliance on mono-crop agriculture in recent decades has hurt soil quality and water systems in many areas, increasing the hardship for farmers.
"Farmers have only become poorer, while it's those with the capital, the middlemen and those selling pesticides and fertilisers who have profited," he said.
When speaking to villagers, he equates planting trees with building long-term financial security.
"If you plant just 150 trees when you are just starting your family, you will be able to finance your children's education through university," Mr Sawai said.
About the author
- Writer: Wichit Chantanusornsiri
Position: Business Reporter