Gaia Nature Conservation is a grassroots organisation fighting climate change in Vietnam. Read about Huyen and her team’s work in afforestation.

Rewilding, biodiversity, afforestation — these are among many buzzwords gaining more and more traction in recent years, but today The Climate interviews Huyen Do, Founder and Director of Gaia Nature Conservation, who has been in this sphere since the early days.

When Huyen started her career as an Environmental Education Officer in Vietnam National Parks back in 2000, average annual incomes in the country were just $400. As we take a short walk to our chosen spot for lunch, I see Huyen’s commitment and long-standing knowledge to this cause displayed as she identifies the nearby tree species and explains their uses and origins in Vietnam.

Sitting down in one of Saigon’s Hanoi-style restaurants, Huyen tells me about her roots and her childhood in the North of Vietnam, which is where her love of nature began. Attracting millions of tourists per year, the landscapes of Vietnam are stunning but also at high-risk of depletion due to climate change.

“The nature I see today is not as it used to be 20 years ago,” Huyen says, reflecting on the changes she has seen during her career. “The forest is shrinking, rivers and streams are being polluted, much wildlife is becoming extinct, and air quality in urban areas is becoming dangerous.”

But as the natural environments have seen change, so too have people’s perceptions. “Vietnamese people have always loved nature. But they often don’t know how to act for this love. They want nature in their homes so they cut flowers and bring them inside,” Huyen says, contemplating on how this looks in her home country. “However, people are paying more attention to nature protection today than what I saw 20 years ago. Particularly with younger people and Gen Z who show a strong interest in saving nature and protecting the environment.”

Earlier in her career, Huyen worked for large organisations such as WWF and Plan International in education and conservation roles. WWF is recognised as the leading conservation organisation in the country and has been working since 1985 to protect the oceans, forests and landscapes. Huyen moved away from these roles to start a smaller organisation, Gaia Nature Conservation, in 2016.

“I wanted more and more people to know how beautiful and important nature is, so that they can take practical actions before it is too late,” Huyen explains. “That’s why our afforestation programmes also focus on raising awareness and educating businesses, families, youth and the general public about nature and the forest. As a small organisation we can act quickly and adapt our strategy to solve emerging issues. We make use of all of our available funds regardless of size, and we can easily create opportunities for local people to participate.”

Stood in a line behind small green trees ready for planted are 7 people volunteering. Behind them, green, tree covered hills roll off in the distance.

Planting trees with Gaia Nature Conservation, Vietnam (Gaia Nature Conservation)

‘Gaia’ means ‘Mother Earth’ and highlights the mission of creating a world where humans can live in harmony with the planet. Vietnam is predicted to be one of the six countries worst affected by climate change. Afforestation — the establishment of a forest in an area where there was no recent tree cover — is a solution being implemented by many countries around the world to combat rising C02 levels. Gaia has been involved in planting watershed forests in the national parks of Vietnam since 2018.

In 2020, with support from local businesses and individuals Gaia planted over 200,000 trees in six forests around the country. In 2021, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc approved a project to plant 1 billion trees to ‘green Vietnam’ from 2021 to 2025. Gaia organises field-trips for companies, families and individuals to experience nature and get involved with planting and maintaining forests. These trips are part of their community engagement program that particularly targets young people living in urban areas with education projects and brings nature into urban schools.

“I have so many to choose from,” Huyen says as she mulls over her favourite moments of her work. “Honestly, working with Vietnamese people in the beautiful nature of Vietnam makes me feel like I have never worked a day in my life. If I had to choose, I would say that standing in a degraded forest watching people planting trees and imagining how the trees will look in the next 50, 100 or 1000 years. Or maybe the moments when I tell forest and wildlife stories to our amazing participants and see how their eyes light up. These moments inspire me and reassure me that I am doing something meaningful for both nature and human beings.”

As our conversation comes to an end, Huyen kindly invites The Climate on a future field-trip and leaves us with this final message:

“I wish for people to not lose hope and believe we still have a chance to save our Earth. Every action counts. One simple action might not be enough but millions of simple actions will save the forest and save nature. Everyone and anyone can do something towards nature. Acting for nature is acting for yourself.”

Gaia is a great example of a grass-roots organisation that is fighting climate change and biodiversity loss. If you want to support the work of Huyen and her team, follow this link and donate to plant trees and rebuild the forests of Vietnam.