Descendants of the Social Seedlings in Chiang Mai, Thailand

17 July 2023

By Nattamon Lompaporn

The Thai Youth Conservation of Forest Network (TCFN) of Chiang Mai harnesses the collective power of youth, planting more than 30,000 seedlings to distribute to local communities and organizing environmental camps in Chiang Mai’s forest to encourage dedication to nature among youths.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second-largest mountainous province in the northern highland region. It is renowned for its rich forests—a sanctuary of natural wealth, cultural heritage, prosperous economy, and tourist attractions. Nevertheless, Chiang Mai has long grappled with a persistent environmental menace of dusky air pollution due to crop residue burning and wildfires.

Having been living and growing up in the middle of a heavily polluted realm throughout their lives, youths in Chiang Mai established the Thai Youth Conservation of Forest Network (TCFN) of Chiang Mai to serve as a strong network of youths whose hearts are inclined to solve environmental issues.

EcoCupid met a Karen indigenous youth named Wipho Toecher, President of the TCFN in Chiang Mai, to learn about its origins.

Fall in Love with Nature by Chance

A camp instructor is holding environmental lessons during the camp. Photo Courtesy of the TCFN.

Before 2020, Wipho did not pay a slice of attention to environmental issues until the nationwide Thai Conservation of Forest Foundation conducted environmental projects in his school, one of which was the “Nature Interpreter Camp (NIC).” Unbeknownst to him, this fateful encounter would alter the course of his life in the years to come.

“I became interested in the environment and began to see the environmental problems that I had never noticed before,” Wipho reminisces about his cognitive shift triggered after the camp.

“It started from the fact that I noticed that every morning, the beautiful Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s revered mountain with the national park, was engulfed in a shroud of smog”, says Wipho. Witnessing this scene caused Wipho to question himself as to why he merely stood passive to these problems.

Invisible Doi Suthep as a result of thick dust covering Chiang Mai’s sky. Photo Courtesy of Workpoint Today, Thai news agency.

For roughly two decades, Chiang Mai has been suffering the health and environmental consequences of air pollution. These past few years, the province has seen increasing levels of PM2.5, an abbreviation for particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, meaning it can be inhaled into the body, where it can enter the lungs or, even worse, the bloodstream.

This seasonal pollution usually invades Chiang Mai between February to April each year, when farmers begin burning their fields for the next cycle of crops. According to Prachachat News Media Chiang Mai’s Air Quality Index (AQI) during February 15th 2023 surpassed 191 µg/m³, ranking it 1st in the world for the worst air pollution.

Balancing Studies and Environmental Protection

Compelled into action, Wipho took it upon himself and joined forces with 15 high school peers who also participated in the Nature Interpreter Camp, and formed Phoen Ton Mai (English: Tree Friends).

Observing the ardent passion for the environment within Phoen Ton Mai, the Thai Conservation of Forest Foundation facilitated their transition into becoming an official entity on December 27th2020, called the Thai Youth Conservation of Forest Network (TCFN).

From its humble beginnings with 15 members from 7 schools, they have grown to over 100 members, ranging from middle-school students to university graduates across 30 institutions in Chiang Mai.

Wipho Toecher, the President of the TCFN. Photo Courtesy of Wipho Toecher.

Wipho recalled that the primary stages of the organization were full of problems and uncertainties due to their inexperienced foray into enduring real-world environmental issues. Not knowing where to start, the TCFN received support from the Thai Conservation of Forest Foundation to develop their knowledge, analyze their organizational strengths, and identify their limitations.

After thorough introspection and contemplation, the team concluded that, as students, their primary duty lay in their studies. Engaging in full-time environmental work could hinder their educational pursuits.

Wipho proposed a solution to ensure minimal disruption during the crucial period of university admissions while also doing something for the environment: The youth network would take the responsibility of planting seedlings, as this flexible activity also enables them to work in their free time.

30,000 Seedlings

TCFN’s project “Kla Phan Dee (English: Good Seedlings)” came to fruition in 2022. Hundreds of students from many different schools in Chiang Mai and Lampoon provinces came to plant seedlings for 2 whole days in a nursery in Baan Pong, Hang Dong district. Then, they distribute them to 4 indigenous communities in Mae Jam village: Baan Huay Rin, Baan Doi San Giang, Baan Mae Pan, and Baan Mai Pu.

Students join forces planting Yang-Na seedlings. Photo Courtesy of the TCFN.

These communities had been working with TCFN to identify their specific seedling requirements through prior surveys. Most plant categories that were cited during the survey are perennial, flowering and fruit trees, as well as industrial crops. With the help from Thai Conservation of Forest Foundation, TCFN tried to cater the seedlings depending on the geographical and climate limitation.

In late May 2023, 88 attendees planted 7,000 Yang-Na seedlings (Dipterocarpus alatus; meaning: rubber tree). Then in June 2023, 78 more attendees planted 9,500 Pak-Wan trees (Melientha suavis; meaning: sweet vegetable).

“We have made it clear that we had nothing in return for their hard work and dedication, but more than 100 youths were still willing to participate in this project,” Wipho says proudly.

Youths participating in the Kla Phan Dee project are preparing the soil before inserting Yang Na seedlings. Photo Courtesy of the TCFN.

Through planting seeds, TCFN plans to expand the green space and diminish air pollution stemming from the burning of crop residues among villagers. By planting a lot of seedlings inside or next to monoculture plots, farmers were forced to be careful not to burn the volunteers’ hard work.

The land that were planted with Pak-Wan seedlings shall never find any flames of agricultural residues, the villagers will act as vigilant custodians, monitoring to ensure no one [sets] fire in the fields and [harms] the seedlings.”, recalls Wipho as he explains the promise villagers had made with TCFN who planted the trees in their villages.

Now entering its second year, TCFN continues to draw interest, with a waiting list of indigenous communities eager to receive seedlings. To stay informed about participation opportunities, interested youth can follow the project’s updates on their Facebook page. The timeline for applications depends on the readiness of seeds for planting and the distribution of seedlings.

Currently, TCFN’s nursery shelters approximately 30,000 seedlings across 30 species, all nurtured by the youth.

Youths are standing behind their proud result of copious Yang Na seedlings. Photo Courtesy of the TCFN

A Youth Club with a Power to Empower Next Generation of Environment Lovers

Not only do they cultivate physical seedlings, TCFN also fosters the seedlings of the society, intending to pass their legacy on to the next generation of youth by holding a series of environmental camps for the youths in Thailand’s northern provinces.

Just like how the Nature Interpreter Club inspired Wipho, he is now inspiring more youths by co-organizing more Nature Interpreter Club camps through TCFN. Revolving around the theme of the symbiotic coexistence between humans and nature, TCFN’s Nature Interpreter Club brings 60-70 teenagers aged 15-20 to gain a profound understanding and appreciation of nature by staying in the forest for several days at the Mae-Toen Mae-Taeng forest in Chiang Mai. 

Over the course of five days and four nights, young campers would have learned the art of wilderness living, cooking, and food preservation. In the forest with no electricity, signals, or modern facilities, they constructed their own sleeping cradles, observed birds and herbs, watched the starry night sky, and took educational hikes while learning about the interconnectedness of every creature within the forest’s embrace.

Through immersive learning, Nature Interpreter Camps have been generating an indelible impact on the hearts of campers and encouraging them to stand up for nature. It has been kindling emotional changes for almost three decades and is preparing to welcome the 28th generation of campers in 2023. And TCFN is a proud and new addition to the team that makes this camp possible.

Wipho explained that the camp’s unique charm is the harmonious singing within the forest. Meaningful environmentally-themed songs accompany various activities, such as the morning departure to the forest, lunch breaks, dinner time, and even bedtime, evoking a profound emotional touch among the campers.

Wipho gave the neckerchief to a youth camper at the end of the camp. Photo Courtesy of the TCFN.

Not an environmental worker, but part of the environment itself

Devoting one’s life to the environment is not an easy decision, yet Wipho’s unwavering conviction could inspire many who hesitate.

A mature Wipho, strengthened by his connection with nature, enthusiastically illustrates his belief, “If we work for something, there may come a day when we grow tired and quit, then we find a new job to satisfy our happiness. So I always remind myself that I am not an environmental worker, but the environment itself. The same analogy applies to a company’s nature, if we are an employee, we can resign at any time. But if we are the owner, resignation is not an option. I embedded myself in the environment so I won’t stop doing it for the environment.”

Wipho has a heartfelt greetings to all ASEAN friends: “Even if we’re physically distant or unknown to each other, our passion to make a difference for the environment unites us. Don’t stop doing it. I will continue to do my best and hope that my friends will do the same for our environment too. Because we are the same environment.”

(Edited by Amanda Tolentino & Bryan Yong)


Unknown photographer (2019). Invisible Doi Suthep from PM2.5 [Photo]. Workpoint Today, Bangkok, Thailand.เชียงใหม่วิกฤต-หมอกควัน/

Unknown Author (2023). World’s worst air pollution in Chiang Mai [News]. Prachachat, Bangkok, Thailand.

Our featured Eco-Hero 

Thai Youth Conservation of Forest Network (TCFN) inspires youths to appreciate nature through indigenous and outdoor knowledge camps. Based in Suthep sub-district, Mueang district, Chiang Mai province, Thailand, TCFN focuses on planting tree seedlings that will be distributed to indigenous communities in Chiang Mai, and organising environmental camps in the forests for youths. You can reach out to them at

This article was produced with support from YSEALI SEEDS for the Future grant 2023.

Nattamon Lompaporn

Nattamon graduated with a bachelor’s degree of Communications Art in Thailand, and currently is a data analyst who believes that the power of storytelling can create movements among communities.

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