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‘Earth Doctor’ plants trees to make a difference

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Nao Sok (centre) and his professor Fil Tabayoyong (right) hold tree saplings. SUPPLIED

‘Earth Doctor’ plants trees to make a difference

‘When I see the trees that I planted or donated provide benefits to people,” Nao Sok says, “It makes me so happy, I want to do more.”

Sok has planted and distributed more than 80,000 trees across Cambodia over the last two decades. He has been so effective and influential that not only has the government supported his efforts but the international environmental group Sustain Credits has given him the title of “Earth Doctor” for Cambodia.

Modest, humble and filled with national pride, Sok is optimistic about what is happening with the environment in Cambodia and there is no question in his mind as to whether he will continue his passion-driven mission to bring saplings and seeds wherever he goes.

Sok was born in 1970 in Takeo province's Samrong district, and he currently lives in Phnom Penh. He spent part of his childhood watching over herds of cattle.

“Like other rural children, my life both during work and play was surrounded by nature,” he said at a workshop in Siem Reap province in June 2013. “Swimming in the streams, collecting firewood in the forest, harvesting wildflowers and fruits in nature. These are some of the activities that had a great impact on me.”

A prolific reader, books he read about the Buddha and his connection with nature affected him deeply. He loved works of literature about nature and especially about the Himalayan forests.

Many stories he read that were written in the 18th and 19th centuries depict how green the forests in Cambodia were.

“In these stories – mostly written in poetry form – the writers normally mention the beauty of nature and describe it so vividly that sometimes I have to re-read the lines several times before moving on,” he says.

Sok worked at Church World Service (CWS), an international NGO, from 1995 to 2018 as a community development worker. During his early years there, he began to notice how vital plants are for humans. He observed that nature in Cambodia was changing and that was affecting people’s livelihoods.

“One of the topics in the training ... that CWS sent me to attend was the impact of deforestation,” he says.

The programme allowed Sok to see how he could become part of the solution.

“A picture of hungry vultures waiting to eat very skinny people suffering at the peak of famine in one country in Africa because of their long civil war and deforestation pushed me to take action to counter the deforestation here in Cambodia,” Sok said.

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Sok holds a Master’s degree and is still friendly with many of the faculty at his alma mater. SUPPLIED

Sok has been tree planting at his own expense since 1998. His actions have inspired his relatives, friends, and the public – many of whom now sponsor his work.

Neang Dara, Sok’s 43-year-old nephew, says his uncle wants Cambodia to be full of trees that provide flowers, fruits and shelter.

Dara is very proud of his uncle’s accomplishments and often supports his activities.

“I usually donate money to him,” Dara says. “I haven’t had any chance to join him in person because I do not live in Cambodia.”

Sok points out that his work would never have succeeded without support from many friends and institutions, including Buddhist monks and monasteries. Sok ran a sapling nursery with Buddhist monks at the Botumvatey monastery in central Phnom Penh from 2004 to 2016 to seed Sal trees (Couroupita guianensis). The nursery ended up producing 2,000 of the saplings.

Sok is also a plant seed collector. He brings the seeds to private nurseries in Kandal province's Takhmao town, just outsides of the capital and not far from his home.

Sok has planted and distributed three kinds of flora: flowering trees, fruit trees and trees used to provide timber that have become rare due to logging.

“When I travel to provinces either it is related to work or it’s personal,” Sok says, “I carry trees with me most of the time. Sometimes, I give them to people I meet on the way.”

Sok has four children and considers their birthdays the perfect occasions to give the gift of trees. The Royal Academy of Cambodia says it received 45 saplings from 12 species of flowering trees from Sok months before the pandemic forced the government to lock down the country. Sok donated those to celebrate his son Nao Soksan Sothoun Vathanpanha’s birthday.

Two of his children studied at Wat Botumvatey Primary School. Sok brought some saplings to the school’s principal when they needed them.

“Wherever my children study, I will plant or donate trees there if the space is available, Sok says. “February 4 [was] my 24-year wedding anniversary and I prepared trees for planting.”

Sok sometimes transports the trees to the provinces himself and participates in planting events, usually on national holidays. His actions have inspired his friends and even strangers such as university students to get involved in tree planting.

“One day in 2009, I had a working mission in Preah Vihear province to train community people, and I stayed in a monastery. After work, villagers showed me the nearby forests where I could collect some seeds from Flea trees (Albizia lebbeck).

“When I returned to the city, I sowed the seeds and contributed six saplings to the Buddhist Meditation Centre of the Kingdom of Cambodia in Kandal province, about 40km from the capital. A few years later, I revisited the centre and a monk pointed at the growing Flea tree that I had donated.

“I was excited about how they were all grown up. I knew that the monks had collected those seeds to produce about 8,000 saplings in the last four years. I knew that cooks had picked the shoots from the trees and cooked them for people to eat who had come to learn meditation.

“I met a monk coming from Preah Vihear province to the centre and I said ‘remember those seeds I got from your hometown? Now, you can eat their shoots,” he jokes.

Sok graduated with his Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC) in 2009, where he met venerable monk Penh Vibol, one of his classmates who later became a professor there.

“He is a positive, proactive person, and that enables him to easily meet and befriend others,” Vibol says of Sok. “He has dedicated himself to protecting forests and contributing to his country by planting trees.”

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Nao Sok preparing to plant a flowering tree sapling at a museum on July 8, 2020. SUPPLIED

Vibol, 40, is a Cambodian Buddhist monk residing at Botumvatey monastery. He is a professor at Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University (PSRB) and at PUC. He has known Sok for almost 15 years.

Vibol has received hundreds of flower and timber tree saplings from Sok. He selected and planted ashoka saplings from Sok at the temple.

“Now the ashoka trees grow and provide shade for hundreds of people and they sit under those ashoka trees still today,” Vibol says. “I observe foreigners when they visit Botumvatey monastery, when the trees are flowering and they look at the trees and seem very happy.”

Vibol planted timber-producing trees in his home province of Kampong Chhnang.

“These trees are growing very well in my hometown because kranhung (dalbergia cochinchinensis pierre) and beng (afzelia xylocarpa) grow well in the mountains,” Vibol says.

Sok continued his education from 2010 to 2012, receiving his Master’s in Applied Conflict Transformation studies at the same school, and he remains good friends with many of the professors.

“He loves to discuss issues regarding the subjects that he learned from me, but he always comes around again to talk about his tree planting project,” says Fil Tabayoyong, Jr.

Tabayoyong, 70, was one of Sok’s professors. He has lived in Cambodia for almost two decades and has a strong relationship with the community.

“When I learned that Sok was involved with tree planting, I got interested and connected with him,” Tabayoyong says.

Tabayoyong says that Sok not only plants trees, but also explained to him – as a foreign professor – why rumduol [Sphaerocoryne affinis] that produce the national flower of Cambodia should be sowed. Sok had donated rumduol, which was designated the Kingdom's national flower by a royal decree in 2005, for him to plant.

“I was so happy I planted rumduol,” Tabayoyong says. “Now it has grown so big and healthy with beautiful flowers and it has made me very happy.”

According to Tabayoyong, climate change is a serious issue, but the most concerning problem today, he feels, is selfish people. People destroy forests for their own benefit without considering how cutting down the forests affects the whole of society. Therefore, he appreciates what Sok has been doing for Cambodia by inspiring so many people to love and preserve the environment.

“Environmentalism is a strong passion of his,” he says. “It is something that should be passed on from generation to generation, because if we lose the trees, we’ll lose lives.”

“If not now, then when?” Sok concludes. “If not me, then who?”

Lay Lon


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