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Researcher sees forest for the trees

Update: October, 15/2015 - 09:47
Forest focus: Asano Tetsumi, who works as a researcher for a Japanese NGO, talks with local residents before planting trees in an area without green vegetation.

by Luu Van Dat

HCM CITY  (VNS) — Twenty-three years ago, Asano Tetsumi arrived in Viet Nam, knowing no one, speaking limited English and not a word of Vietnamese.

A non-governmental organisation based in Tokyo, specialising in reforestation of saltwater forests, had given Tetsumi the choice of three destinations: Viet Nam, Myanmar or Bangladesh.

Tetsumi chose Viet Nam. Today, he is married to a Vietnamese woman, has two children, and speaks Vietnamese fluently. And since his arrival, he has helped plant 3,400 hectares of saltwater-flooded forests in the country.

Tetsumi still works as a researcher for the Japanese NGO, Action for Mangrove Reforestation, which has a staff of five in Tokyo who administer the programme in Viet Nam and Myanmar.

"I chose Viet Nam because Bangladesh already had several NGOs, and the political situation in Myanmar was complicated," he recalled during a recent interview at his home, which also serves as his office.

When the NGO offered him the job in Viet Nam, he made the decision quickly.

He packed his luggage, taking with him US$5,000 for a seven-month odyssey, which took him from Quang Ninh in the north to the southernmost point of the country in Ca Mau.

At the time, Viet Nam did not have a mangrove reforestation programme, so Tetsumi considered staying in the country long-term.

"My first project was in Thai Binh, where with the help of local residents, I planted 100 hectares of forest," he said. "I received strong support from the local government because they were aware of the importance of the forests. They agreed immediately."

Today, every time he returns to the areas and sees the vast forested areas, he feels immensely happy.

"I sometimes can't recognise the exact area where I planted the trees, because other organisations planted trees later, too. But that's not important," he said.

His work over the years has taken him to the cities of Hue, Hai Phong and HCM City where the Can Gio biosphere is located in an outlying district. He has also planted forests in nine other provinces (Quang Ninh, Thai Binh, Ninh Binh, Thanh Hoa, Binh Dinh, Khanh Hoa, Binh Thuan, Ben Tre and Soc Trang).

Language barrier

When he first came to the country, Asano found it difficult to communicate with the locals. He carried his pocket Japanese-Vietnamese dictionary everywhere.

"I had limited English, but at the time very few Vietnamese could speak English as they had adopted the doi moi (reform) policy in 1986," he said.

Inch by inch: Asano Tetsumi studies the growth of mangrove trees he planted many years ago. — Photos courtesy of Asano Tetsumi

After meeting Professor Phan Nguyen Hong, a specialist in saltwater forest eco-system at Ha Noi National University of Education, students at the university helped him with translation and interpretation.

Tetsumi, who takes pride in never having taken a Vietnamese-language class, said that when he now visits his Japan, it feels as if it is a foreign country.

His early years in Viet Nam, however, made him feel like a stranger in a strange land.

"I liked Vietnamese food, so the only problem in ordering in restaurants was language," he said.

If he ate out alone, he had to make use of creative body language.

"I always kept my dictionary with me. When people couldn't understand me, I showed them the words in the dictionary," he said.

"Even now, one restaurant owner often teases me about the time when I wanted to order a fried egg. I had forgotten my dictionary. I lowered my body and waved my arms as if I was a chicken, demonstrating how it lays an egg. And then I ran to the kitchen, imitating the act of cooking," he said.

"Thank god, she finally understood that I needed fried eggs!"

His Vietnamese improved as he spoke more and more with local friends – on the street, and while eating and drinking coffee. "If anyone laughed, I realised that I had pronounced something incorrectly," he said.

In 1997, Tetsumi met his Vietnamese wife when he went to a Japanese bank to deposit money. They married in 2000, and now have two children, aged 12 and 9.

Going green

Although Tetsumi has had a lifelong passion about green lifestyles, he came by his current job by accident.

"When I was a teenager, I was determined that my future job must be related to nature and anything green, such as agriculture," he said.

While studying at Hokkaido University, he by chance read a book by the founder of a reforestation company, which later became the Action for Mangrove Reforestation. The book was about possible saltwater reforestation in the Middle East.

"The idea inspired me. I quit studying at Hokkaido University to apply for a job there because I thought it was an interesting idea," he said.

The director of the NGO, which was a company at the time, suggested that he continue his education, and he began to study at Kyushu University's Agriculture Department while working there.

Today, the 53-year-old continues to conduct feasibility studies for local governments to plant saltwater-flooded forests. The work has always been done for free, with financial support from a Japanese company that helps fund the NGO.

With the help of his NGO and others, Asano also brings about 20 Japanese young people each year to Viet Nam to introduce them to their Vietnamese peers and the local culture and lifestyle. — VNS

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