Case Studies

Reviving Nan’s Forests

Sustainable forest conservation project creates healthier communities and builds green awareness

Visitors to Nan, a northern province bordering Laos, are bound to take away memorable experiences. Its main district still retains an old-town charm and serenity with its unique architecture. Once outside the district proper, the visitors are easily mesmerized by breathtaking views of tall mountain ranges all around them.

These mountains were once covered with lush forests, providing the country with fertile watersheds. They are also home to several hill tribes, most of whom in the old days were engaged in subsistence farming for a living.

Those days, however, are gone.

Over the past several years, vast acreages of the green mountains have been transformed into monoculture farmlands, constantly fed by heavy doses of chemicals, especially herbicides. The unfortunate consequence is that soil and water sources have been contaminated.

In an attempt to stem further losses of precious natural resources, Chulalongkorn University since 2014 has been carrying out a project to restore the forests as well as create jobs and instill environmental awareness among local residents.

Rak Pa Nan or the Nan Forest Conservation Project is a collaborative effort between the university, local civil society groups, public organizations including the Office of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s Projects, the Nan provincial administration, the 38th Military Circle, Mae Fah Luang University and Kasikornbank.

In fact, Chulalongkorn University’s involvement in Nan dates back to 2002 and has involved research and provision of services that include monitoring and restoration of the ecosystem, as well as promotion of animal husbandry for food safety and security. Some projects continue to this day, among them artificial insemination of swine, promotion of local goat and cow husbandry, and production and planting of Dipterocarpaceae trees embedded with ectomycorrhiza fungi.

FOREST RESTORATION

In carrying out the project’s forest restoration objective, the university team has applied its research on ectomycorrhiza fungi help improve the growth and survival of trees in the Dipterocarpaceae family. These include Teng or Siamese Sal (Shorea obtusa Wall.), Rang or Ingyin (Shorea siamensis Miq.), Hieng or Hairy Keruing (Dipterocarpus obtusifolius Teijsm.), Pluang or Indian English gurjuntree (Dipterocarpus tuberculatus Roxb.), Takian or Ironwood (Hopea odorata Roxb.). All are endemic species of deciduous dipterocarp lowland rainforests.

Deciduous dipterocarp is the main forest type in Nan. But encroachment has ravaged the province’s forests, turning them into farmland.

The team has encouraged local communities to plant and take care of endemic trees. They selected endemic ectomycorrhiza species to promote the growth of mushrooms that are popular among local people. Hed Por (Astraeus hygrometricus) and Hed Daeng (Russula emeticathus) in particular are suitable as income-generating products.

The team also introduced the Miyawaki growing method which encourages planting patches of mixed endemic tree species on mountaintops to help distribute various plant species. Biopolymer was used to help the plants retain water during the rainy season as a reserve for use during the dry season.

Since 2015, the Chulalongkorn team and associated groups under the Center of Learning Network for the Region have planted more than 150,000 trees. The center will continue to monitor the restoration of the forests and assess the quantity of carbon dioxide being sequestered to serve as a guideline for communities to launch carbon credit programs in the future.

JOB CREATION

Another objective of the project is to promote occupational activities that lesson the dependence on monoculture on forest land.

One of the activities, “Farm Animals for Sustainable Forests”, promotes the raising of livestock that can thrive in a forest environment, such as goats, pigs, Nan banteng — an endemic species of cattle (Bos indicus), frogs, and earthworms. It is hoped that these animals would help restore the mountain forests and reduce the need for local people to buy food from outside sources.

In 2018 Chulalongkorn University distributed swine semen for artificial insemination to farming families. This resulted in the birth of 21,630 piglets, generating more than 17 million baht in revenue for the province.

Promotion of Nan banteng and goats has led to the formation of a livestock farmers’ network, which in turn has led to the conservation of the rare Nan banteng species.

Another activity involves the development of nutritional food products that showcase the province’s unique natural and cultural characteristics. For example, goat milk cookies with Kai algae (Cladophora sp.) are made from freshwater algae harvested from the Nan River bed during the dry season when the water runs slow and clear. Goat-milk cookies with Zanthoxylium limonella are loaded with antioxidants and give off a unique aroma.

Another product is Malaud ice-cream, which is made from Elaeagnus latifolia, a type of wild olive. Consideration is being given to registering geographical indications for these products as uniquely Nan.

RAISING ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS

A core component of the project is to ensure that the people of Nan, especially the province’s youth, realize the importance of natural conservation. Consequently, the university has initiated several activities to involve young people, including Buddhist novices and hill tribe youngsters, in learning the art of conservation.

Launched six years ago, the Learn-Appreciate-Conserve Birds Project educates students about the crucial role birds play in conserving forests and how they benefit communities.

Informal learning is just as important as formal learning, especially regarding forest conservation. A collaboration between Chulalongkorn and primary teachers from 15 districts develops extra-curricular activities based on local community research and ways of life.

Another project, Cooperation to Coexist with the Live Forest, conducted by Chulalongkorn students, introduces secondary students to the production of creative media to support forest conservation campaigns. Through exchanges among participating youth groups, the project aims to create awareness and knowledge and to encourage critical thinking so that participants understand the context of specific problems and how to arrive at appropriate solutions.

The use, or rather misuse, of chemicals in farming — particularly the herbicides atrazine, glyphosate and paraquat — in Nan continues to be a serious concern. The Agricultural Chemical Contamination Monitoring Project has ben keeping a close watch on water sources, soil and sediment in the Nan River and its tributaries. The data obtained will be presented to local communities as concrete evidence of existing problems that require solutions.

As a gift to the Nan people, Chulalongkorn University has initiated the Natural Museum of the Nan Watershed Project. The museum will collect information on natural science, culture and the way of life of communities in the Nan watershed. It will also serve as a source of reference and information on the province’s biodiversity. Envisioned as a “living museum”, it will feature exhibitions and games intended to be both informative and entertaining. The purpose is to instill environmental awareness among visitors, particularly the local population.

All the activities described here are part of Chulalongkorn University’s social innovation program. Researchers and faculty members have been assisted by several organizations and civic groups in Nan in developing technologies and a knowledge base that incorporates local wisdom to produce new practices. These ultimately will help support forest conservation efforts based on local and appropriate technologies.

Chulalongkorn University does not seek monetary gain in carrying out these activities. What it gains is the enhanced well-being of communities in Nan derived from healthy living, a healthy environment, positive attitudes and economic progress, all of which contribute to sustainable living.

Others

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Recognizing sustainability is attainable only through active participation of citizens and radical changes in ways we think and act, Chulalongkorn University collaborated with civil society, local governments, academic institutions of the region and beyond, in launching this regional platform.

Concert in the Park

Much-loved annual musical tradition finds new home at Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park

Organic agriculture for health and wealth

Community-based certification opens new doors for farmers in Nan