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Woman spends 7 years building houses, reforesting Vietnam

Woman spends 7 years building houses, reforesting Vietnam

Thursday, May 14, 2020, 20:36 GMT+7
Woman spends 7 years building houses, reforesting Vietnam
Pham Thi Huong Giang, also known as Jang ‘Keu’, founder of Song Foundation, is seen at her office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Vu Thuy / Tuoi Tre

A Vietnamese woman has spent the past seven years building about 700 houses, including flood-resistant resettlement residencies for people affected by earthquakes and landslides across the country, through a humanitarian foundation she co-founded.

Pham Thi Huong Giang, also known as Jang ‘Keu’, set up Song Foundation (translated as “to live” or “alive”) in November 2013 to help build houses for vulnerable Vietnamese across the country and plant trees in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to help farmers battle saltwater intrusion in the region.

According to Jang, Song Foundation’s goal is not simply to provide safe housing for Vietnamese, but also to spread awareness of the role that plants and nature play in supporting the country’s sustainability and promoting a culture of responsibility amongst the people the organization comes in contact with.

From flood-resistant houses to forests

Jang currently manages Song Foundation from an office in Ho Chi Minh City where she doubles as a consultant for a new brand making its entry in the Vietnam market.

Her nickname Jang ‘Keu’, or ‘Tall’ Jang, was inspired by her towering stature, one that might be intimidating if it weren’t for her bright, magnetic smile and energy.

The names of her foundation’s projects tend to be just as descriptive as her own nickname: a housing project called ‘Happy Village’, an urban greenery project known as ‘Green Happiness’, and a reforestation project named ‘Forest Symphony’.

“In 2016, I went to the Mekong Delta for a survey to build flood-resistant houses. It was during the same time we were managing a similar project in central Vietnam,” Jang recalled.

“The Mekong Delta is unbearably hot in April and the locals there were suffering from a severe drought. Although drought and saltwater intrusion weren’t within the scope of our project, the severity of the issue left a strong impression on me,” Jang said, explaining the birth of Forest Symphony.

“The story at that time was not much different from now, but this year’s drought came a lot earlier and has been much more devastating,” she added.

In September 2019, after several months of preparation, Song Foundation planted 10,000 mangrove apple trees in Cu Lao Dung District in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang.

The project’s expense was funded through grants from the local government as well as Song Foundation’s own crowdfunding activities.  

“The Mekong Delta needs to adjust to saltwater intrusion and the new natural conditions of the area. People must plant different types of trees and rear livestock which can survive better in such an environment. Mangrove apple trees are able to thrive in such conditions,” Jang shared with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

Forests of mangrove apple trees, also known as cork trees, along rivers and coasts not only prevent landslides and subsidence but also reduce the environmental effects of greenhouse gas emissions and create biological populations in which humans can farm produce and livestock.  

“[The trunk of] this tree can be logged for making paper; its fruits can be used as food, and its roots can be used in aquaculture farms or carved into wine stoppers,” Jang shared.

"I believe that if humans always remain humble before nature, we will be able to sustain both ourselves and nature.  

Perseverance to witness change

“The Mekong Delta is facing a lot of difficulties, and short-term fixes won’t solve its problems. We can carry water or donate money to the people in areas affected by salt intrusion, but we really need to focus more heavily on long-term solutions,” Jang shared.

According to Jang, the changes brought about by Song Foundation’s projects might not be visible for 10 to 30 years, but the wait will be worth it.

Constructing houses might take a long time but the results will be rewarding: residents won’t be threatened by high tides and floods for the next 50 years.

“Countless surveys have been conducted in the Mekong Delta, but it took us a whole year to convince just two households to agree to the project,” Jang shared. 

“We didn’t want to sacrifice our fundamental principle, which is ‘cooperation’,” she added.

Staying faithful to such principles, the organization only provides technical support and 50 percent of the funding for the houses it builds. The other 50 percent must be contributed by the households.

“Without that principle, we cannot succeed in the long term. It is only the people in the community who can solve its problems,” Jang explained.

“When the community is finally aware and begins to address their problems, the results will be much clearer. Always receiving help will make people passive, dependent, and entitled,” she added.

According to Jang, her foundation can raise enough money to cover the costs of building all 50 houses needed for the Happy Village project in the Mekong Delta, but must hold back in order to ensure that the people affected by the project are on board and truly involved.

The patience of Jang and the team have paid off. She said the 700 houses built by the foundation in different parts of Vietnam have transformed not only the people’s lifestyles but also their perceptions.

But that is not all the foundation desires. The Happy Village project aims first to move the people toward a safer life, then to restore the cultural values of the community.

"As the natural environment is being destroyed more and more, people are forced to abandon their villages and leave for the city or stay and suffer a low quality of life. [The mass migration] destroys the communal structure of villages and degrades the local culture,” Jang explained

After five years of building flood-resistant houses, Jang said the team hopes to promote sustainable lifestyles, help people immerse themselves in nature, and preserve cultural values.

Song Foundation also aims to change the cognitive perception of educated communities, whom Jang refers to as “those who are not in difficulty but still living unsustainably”. 

“They are also the ones who are consuming and indirectly destroying nature the most. If people's awareness is not improved, planting more trees and building more houses will not work,” Jang said.

After 10,000 cork trees were planted in Cu Lao Dung District, in April 2020, Forest Symphony received an official correspondence from Soc Trang People’s Committee approving the deployment of another project to grow the trees in a local 50-hectare coastal floodplain.

The foundation is also gradually coming to the final steps of the Green Happiness Park in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City.

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