An environmentalist committed to restoring barren lands

Sonam Phuntsho, in his 50s, is a nature lover on a mission to plant as many trees as he can. His zeal for nature conservation is undeterred by the scorching sun or beating rains. A glance at his hands tells of the hard work endured in working the land while planting thousands of tree saplings.

Sonam’s interest in nature conservation started when he was a young cow herder in Bartsham, Tashigang. He had planted a couple of blue pine saplings near his ancestral house that grew into gigantic sized trees over the years. It sparked the love of growing trees in Sonam. “Now the trees have been felled and converted into timbers used for renovation of the house,” said Sonam.

He had wanted to become a forester and work for environmental causes, but he could never make it through the interview. “I tried for the training at Taba, but I didn’t get selected,” said Sonam. However, that did not discourage him from his love for environmental conservation. He works in an office today, but he is ever ready to plant trees in his free time.

He is credited for initiating several cleaning volunteer campaigns and planting trees along Changlam in Thimphu starting in 1996. Another project, in collaboration with Karma Wangdi, also known as Azha Karma, the founder of VAST Studio in Thimphu included the mass plantation of oak trees (Quercus griffithi) on the barren slopes of Lungtenphu and areas above Tandin Nye. Planting of 160 kgs of oak seeding on at least 20 acres land was made possible under the project with help from 40 VAST student volunteers.

Sonam has also planted of 10000 saplings of cypress, bluepine, maple and oak trees with the help of volunteers in Thimphu. Sonam pointed out that the Sangaygang and Changedaphu forest areas would grown into a lush and serene green zone had it not been for wild forest fires and the indiscriminate use and destruction of forest by the human population.

“The adjoining residents cut the young (tree) poles for their domestic use, without even contemplating its negative impact. What little was left behind was constantly wiped out by forest fires. Such are the challenges,” shared Sonam Phuntso.

His latest project is the planting of oak trees on the way to Buddha Point. He is helped by a RSPN environmentalist, who likes to spend his free time in helping the forest recovery effort by replanting trees destroyed by fires. They have been working together for two years now, and they have planted 34000 tree saplings around Thimphu.

Sonam Phuntsho is a recipient of numerous awards, such as the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Outstanding Environmental Stewardship Award for field leadership conferred on him by HRH Princess Chimi Yangzom Wangchuck coinciding with World Environment Day last year. He is recognized as a man who has dedicated his entire life in planting trees and helping in forest recovery.

He starts work as early 9 in the morning till 5pm, and said, “I can plant about 800 (tree saplings) at the maximum and his friend being young and energetic can plant more than 1000 in a day.”

While the rest of the population in Thimphu spend their weekends and the government holidays with their families and going out for trips, the two men spend their weekends and holidays in planting trees around Thimphu and sometime collecting the trash along the Buddha Point way.

The trees planted by Sonam Phuntsho can be seen mostly on the way to Buddha Point and Lungtenphu. He said some of the trees have been lost to the frequent forest fires and some tall beautiful trees were destroyed by people.

What comes as good news for Sonam and his friend is that increasing number of students in Thimphu are volunteering to plant trees with them. Sonam is relieved at having more hands to plant more number of saplings in a day.

Although many appreciation and recognition have been endowed on Sonam Phuntsho, Asha Karma and the volunteers, however, the real success story would be in having more people to join them in their cause of growing more trees and conserving our natural environment.

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