A green dream

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One American embarks on a mission to plant three million trees in Vietnam's northern provinces

John Berlow at work in the organic garden he set up at the Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi

John Berlow has a dream.

He aims to plant three million trees in Vietnam's mountainous provinces; it is a goal that he has been working towards for years.

Such a dream came about due to the 61-year-old American's ties to the country dating back to the days when he was an undergraduate at Harvard University. It was in 1969 that he and other students took over University Hall, one of the college's oldest buildings. The take over was a protest against the escalating war in Vietnam.

He was later expelled from the university for his actions and traveled extensively for decades living in Israel, West Africa, France and Canada.

But Vietnam remained with him. "Every now and then, the idea of coming to Vietnam became very strong in my mind," he said. "I have felt a very strong connection to the country since the 1960s."

It was this connection that eventually led to him coming here in 2000. Berlow started working as an English teacher, conducting lessons at numerous language centers. While here, he visited the Vietnam Friendship Village, a well-known center for military veterans and young people with disabilities caused by Agent Orange.

The visit moved him deeply and as a result, together with his friend, Vuong Ngoc Quang, Berlow started the Organic Gardening Project in 2005, growing organic vegetables and planting fruit trees. The produce fed residents of the village.

The project received a lot of attention from the public and the media and Berlow was nicknamed "Mr. Clean Vegetables John" on a local TV special. Harvests from the vegetable garden reached one metric ton per month. Seventeen different kinds of fruit trees were planted and are now bearing fruit.

The garden is now run by the village and Berlow has moved onto something bigger. He is now concentrating on planting three million trees in Vietnam's mountainous provinces, honoring the three million Vietnamese who were killed during the war while reducing poverty and restoring the environment

In 2007, Quang, with Berlow serving as an advisor, set up a private fruit farm in Tuyen Quang Province that now includes a stilt house as a registered guesthouse within its grounds.

According to Berlow, the farm distills its own rice wine and is working with local farmers to demonstrate traditional food crafts such as making tofu, noodles and soy milk. He is also providing training in fruit farming and the farm is building a biogas system to generate electricity from pig manure.

John Berlow with children at the Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi, a well-known center for military veterans and young people with disabilities caused by Agent Orange

"People cut down the virgin forest years ago and all they know how to grow are low-value crops such as cassava and corn," Berlow said. "Already people say there is less water than there used to be. There are not enough trees there to hold the water."

Now, there are over 10,000 fruit trees growing at the Green Vietnam Farm and Eco-lodge. It's becoming a popular venue for tourists looking to experience Vietnam's northern provinces in a more sustainable way by staying closer to nature, Berlow says.

But Berlow knows his dream of planting three million trees is still far from reality.

He's in the process of turning his vision into an NGO in Vietnam called Green Vietnam. He proposed his idea to a group of Harvard classmates from 1971 and some have already set up a non-profit organization in Massachusetts called the Green Vietnam Foundation to help support fundraising activities in the US.

Paul Harris, a member of the Harvard '71 class, said it is possible to plant three million trees if the project receives enough support and encouragement from people in the US and Vietnam.

"I support John Berlow's project in Vietnam because it addresses three major global issues: peace, prosperity and sustainability," Harris said.

"We are now at a stage in life in our early 60's where we can give time, money, and expertise, for the sake of the world we all share," said Meryl Stowbridge, another member of the Harvard 71' class. "Wise farming practices and appropriate technology will increase the standard of living for local inhabitants not by taking riches from the earth, but by investing in the health of the ecosystem."

The idea is to help farmers grow trees on either their own land or that of the commune and to promote green technologies.

"We envision it taking us about ten years to accomplish this mission. It's definitely possible with the help of our families, friends and provincial authorities," Quang says.

The first phase of the project aims to plant 10,000 trees on the hillsides surrounding the lake in Tuyen Quang Province's Binh Xa Commune. Green Vietnam will also work with other NGOs and forest protection organizations to extend the project until they reach the goal of planting three million trees. They will be planted in several provinces and support similar farming models such as the one introduced by Quang.   

"There are a lot of billboards in Tuyen Quang saying that the forest is gold. People are getting used to the idea of environmental protection," Berlow said. "They need to have good [farming] techniques. And I hope they will learn to keep and love the forest."

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