Sweating for the rainforest
Employees of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, have been helping to conserve the rainforest in Thailand for many years now. Recently, almost 300 volunteers planted 10,000 trees in a single day. In the past they have often discovered that directly taking on social responsibility in this way isn’t easy. That’s why they adopted a new approach in 2015.
Panya Kitcharoenkankul’s colleagues are seeing a completely new side of their managing director as he kneels on the jungle floor wearing a soiled white T-shirt and with dirt on his face. Mr. Panya, as he is correctly addressed, wipes the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. It’s hot in the rainforest and Panya, who is the head of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, in Thailand, still has a lot to do. “I’ve planted at least 50 trees already,” he says during a short break. “But I won’t leave until we’ve finished our work here.”
Panya wants to counter a development that has devastated his homeland for decades: the rapid clearance of Thailand’s tropical rainforests. According to the environmental protection organization WWF, logging has destroyed more than 40% of the Southeast Asian country’s forests since the mid-1970s. This development has had serious consequences for Thailand’s environment and its population. Together with his team, Panya wants to show that this trend is not irreversible.
Conserving the rainforest as part of social responsibility
The project is certainly ambitious; employees of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, are working together with friends, relatives, business partners, and customers to add 10,000 trees to the rainforest on the outskirts of the Thai city of Kanchanaburi in a single day. In the early morning, the group of almost 300 volunteers boards four travel coaches that take them from the capital city Bangkok out into the jungle. Right at the start, Rata Rochsuvichkulchai tells the participants there is no guarantee that their efforts will be successful.
Rata works in Communications at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, in Thailand, where she is responsible for the company’s social responsibility projects. Today’s trip to Kanchanaburi is already the ninth reforestation mission, Rata tells the coach passengers via the onboard intercom system. As a result, around 80,000 trees have been planted to date. The company estimates that every one of these trees can filter about one ton of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere during its lifetime. However, experience has shown that it is often harder to achieve the desired goal than one might think. “The project didn’t really work well in the first few years,” Rata admits. “Many of the trees didn’t survive.”
Learning from experience
Many of the difficulties that arose were unforeseeable. In one mission the soil was too dry, while in another the seedlings, which were provided by an external supplier, were too small. After an attempt to replant a mangrove forest, the waves were higher than expected, sweeping away many of the young plants over time. But in spite of these setbacks, the company never considered giving up. “If you want to act sustainably, you must be able to learn from your mistakes,” says Panya. Accordingly, he commissioned a team of employees to evaluate the experiences of the previous years and draw up a new concept whose primary aim would be to significantly increase the young trees’ chances of survival.
It takes the volunteers a little over four hours to reach the rainforest. Their destination is the Khao Nampu wildlife preservation station at the edge of Erawan National Park. The surrounding area is a habitat for wild boars, muntjacs, and lar gibbons. A few months ago, on an expedition through the jungle, Rata also saw wild elephants. “I was a bit scared at first,” she recalls. “But then I realized what a unique experience it was.”
“We want to encourage people to think more about sustainability.“
Rata has brought along five friends who have volunteered to help preserve the animals’ habitat by planting trees. Before they and the rest of the group enter the national park, Panya tells them how the Together We Grow initiative has been changed in order to increase its success rate. One year ago the project team took part in a training course in the rainforest, where they learned a great deal about the local environmental conditions. As a result, the project team itself cultivated the seedlings for several months instead of buying them from a supplier, as it had done before. This enabled the volunteers to plant larger young trees than in the past. Moreover, the employees of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, postponed the planting date by several months so that it would fall in the middle of the rainy season. Although there is the risk of unforeseen cloudbursts, this also greatly increases the likelihood that the small plants will grow up into tall trees.
On this particular day, the group is not troubled by rain. The sun shines down on the national park with tropical intensity. The volunteers’ smartphones indicate a temperature of 36 degrees Celsius. Although Rata has brought along a fan, it does not help much. Together with the other volunteers, she walks for half an hour along a jungle trail. For the visitors from the big city, the forest seems unusually silent. Only a few birds can be heard. Employees from the wildlife preservation center point out places where there is room for young trees. They have already dug the holes in the soil. Young people from the neighboring villages now also arrive to help plant the trees.
Panya Kitcharoenkankul is the Managing Director of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, in Thailand
© Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany
People in Thailand are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the rainforest for the ecosystem. The forest helps to combat climate change, provides a habitat for many threatened animal species, and can also prevent natural disasters. When heavy rainfall flooded large areas of the country in 2011 and crippled entire industries, scientists agreed that the clearcutting of the forests had greatly enabled the masses of water to cause so much damage.
The volunteers from Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, finish their work late in the afternoon. All of the tree roots have been covered, and Thailand’s rainforest has grown a bit today. Manager Panya is visibly exhausted. His face has turned red and his T-shirt is wet with sweat. “I’m very satisfied,” he tells the employees on the organizational team. Panya knows that this project alone will not solve the problems facing Thailand’s rainforests. “Our aim is not just to plant trees,” he says. In addition, Panya also wants to encourage the project participants to think about ways in which they can change their behavior to promote a more sustainable environment. “Actually, the most important task is to get these seeds to germinate in people’s minds,” he says.