A Vietnamese woman was honored as one of 200 outstanding young leaders in the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific Program for her efforts to establish a social enterprise that organizes meaningful environmental protection activities.
Ta Thuy Trang, a young pioneer in many environmental protection activities, set up Saigon Compass in late 2018 to act as a social enterprise that coordinates and supports environmental education programs.
In contrast to the old hand-me-downs Trang is often seen wearing to save money, the 32-year-old woman’s ideas to inspire others to take care of the environment are always fresh.
Trang currently manages Saigon Compass from a small office in Ho Chi Minh City that is as simple and straightforward as she is.
“Normally, furnishing an office would set you back about VND200 million [US$8,565] to cover expenses for repainting, appliances, furniture, machines, and so on,” Trang said.
“But I thought spending that much money in the beginning was such a waste, especially when that money did not go into serving anyone. So I went to ask for donations. Ninety percent of the furniture and equipment in this office was donated, from tables and chairs to laptops and projectors."
In the end, it cost Trang a mere VND20 million ($856) to get her office ready and going, she told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
From her small office, Trang has achieved a lot of meaningful things in the past two years such as supporting environmental education organizations and organizing 50 community networking events and waste collection programs.
Last year, Saigon Compass also conducted many activities to educate people about air pollution.
“I simply established a place for a community of people to work together to protect the environment. This office belongs to the community, so the community will contribute to building it,” she said.
Trang uses second-hand items for many reasons, she said.
For one, it helps her reduce consumption and ease the burden on the environment.
Another, more personal, reason is that Trang spent all of her childhood in a poor area in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City, so not having much is ingrained in her character.
Trang said she feels comfortable wearing old clothes, even when participating in the Obama Foundation activities with young people from many countries.
“I can meet workers, businessmen, and politicians in my activities and also friends in the fashion industry. There can be jarring differences [in the ways we dress] when I sit with them but I'm not trying to change myself to suit others,” Trang shared.
In order to alleviate worries about “what others think of you,” Trang said that each person needs to understand themselves very well and be honest with themselves as well as with those around them.
Green belt for the forest
Like others who love the environment, Trang likes planting trees, which is also key to mitigating the impacts of many ongoing environmental problems such as drought, climate change, and air pollution.
She embarked on a community project called ‘Vuon Giun Dat’ (Earthworm Garden), which aims to grow gardens in the areas surrounding forests to act as outposts, protecting the forests from illegal loggers.
Loc Bac Commune, located in Bao Lam District in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, is where Trang chose to start her first Earthworm Garden community because the area is covered with forests.
“At first I just simply thought that I wanted to plant a lot of trees and keep a lot of forests [from being destroyed] in the Central Highlands. My method was also very simple: I invited many friends who share the same interest to join me and we would chip in money to buy land plots adjacent to forested areas where we could practice ‘clean’ agriculture and protect the surrounding forests at the same time,” Trang shared.
“Gardens close to forests will serve as outposts. If we keep our gardens secure, no one can destroy the forests. I have a lot of like-minded friends so everything happened very naturally."
With Earthworm Garden, Trang wants people to participate with a light-hearted and happy mood because by doing so she believes the project will be more long-lasting.
“If I just said, ‘I love forests and trees’ then quit my job and go on a one-woman mission, I will soon give up and never go back. I know my limits. As a city dweller, I don’t have much knowledge of cultivation,” Trang explained.
“But if a group of a dozen people put money into the project together, with each person doing a small part that does not cost them too much time or money, it's easier to get things done."
Trang and ten of her friends chipped in to buy their first 2.5 hectares of land in Loc Bac, with one side of the land plot being adjacent to a forest.
Trang’s sworn principle is that no one joins the Earthworm Garden project to profit from it.
Members are also asked to stay clear of speculation, deforestation, chemical fertilizers or herbicides, and monoculture.
If one member drops out for any reason, the whole team will look for another member to fill the gap.
“Each person does not expend too much effort being bound to the land, but the joint benefit that everyone can receive is a stream, an ecosystem [that they have helped protect] and especially a community to learn from and work together,” Trang explained.
A community to keep the forests
“The Earthworm Garden community is formed by people who love nature and are practicing step-by-step self-love and their love for nature. It’s a long journey ahead,” reads Trang’s latest social media status about Earthworm Garden.
According to Trang, from the beginning of 2020 until now, the project has admitted a few dozen new members and bought about 20 hectares of land for their community gardens.
“Our goal this year is to establish one or two primary gardens and about ten sub-gardens of roughly 50 hectares for planting trees before the rainy season arrives,” Trang said.
“Earthworm Garden will also connect with local partners who already have land. I hope to create a community big enough to keep the surrounding forests and protect groundwater."