If the term “clonal mass propagation of tree explants through in vitro culture” sounds pretty complicated, that’s because it is – and it’s also one of the newest technologies for growing trees that may be the key to replenishing some of Cambodia’s lost forest land.
This method for growing trees skips Mother Nature’s preferred first step – planting seeds – and begins instead with trees being grown into shoots en masse in a laboratory and nursery and then being plunked down into the dirt after gaining a big boost from their head start in the controlled conditions early on.
Trees grown this way on tree plantations are large enough to be harvested in just five years time.
Kratie province has a tree plantation already making use of this cutting-edge technology over a large land area that is growing trees in a sequence of stages there right next to the Mekong River, which provides water for their irrigation.
Black plastic coverings shield the tiny shoots across one section of the plantation while small trees with little green leaves cover another stretch next to them.
A little further away from the nursery area, tall eucalyptus trees stand in long straight rows where they grow until finally harvested.
The plantation is the property of the Think Biotech (Cambodia) Co Ltd, which has grown around 3,000ha of eucalyptus trees in Kratie to date.
Over the next few years Think Biotech has plans to plant more than 30,000 more hectares of trees – and then 120,000ha over the next five to 10 years – according to the company.
“We decided to start our plantation programme five years ago. But the planting has speeded up in the last year, and an even more rapid expansion has been planned for the coming years,” Think Biotech’s chairman Lu Chu Chang tells The Post.
“Three to four years more of this fast development and we will begin harvesting our first plantings and also begin to regenerate the plantation for the next cycle of growth. The goal is to build a sustainably managed plantation forest and develop its downstream industrial chain for the long term, not just a single rotation,” Lu says.
Lu took some time to explain to The Post the basics of how modern tree plantations work:
“First we have the glass culture stage where we transform tree explants into tiny shoots in the lab. This stage takes a little while, three to six months depending on species and genotypes.
“Then we culture the tiny shoots in vitro for around 14 to 25 days each, to induce root growing and to produce intact tiny seedlings in around 25 days within glass bottles.
“After that we transplant the well developed tiny seedlings into a nursery with more conventional facilities.
“Normally, it takes three to eight months here for those tiny seedlings to become suitable for planting, which means they need to be 30-50cm tall before we move them again.
“Finally, we plant those grown-up seedlings in the actual field after the land has gotten enough rain water, normally after mid-May in Cambodia,” he says.
Lu says that prior to choosing a location for the plantation they investigated several regions of Cambodia and did test plantings in all of them.
“We chose Kratie because it has continuous and large-scale land available for our central planting base and because Kratie’s natural climate is also suitable for planting fast-growing trees – including teak, acacia and eucalyptus.
“There was a land concession immediately available for us to use here and it has promising logistics potential with the Mekong River flowing past,” he says.
The government is fully on-board with the tree plantation concept and business plans and Neth Pheaktra, environment ministry spokesman, says he hopes this will be able to replace some of the forest that has been chopped down.
Recently, Pheaktra led journalists on a tour of the plantation site where they listened to experts talk about the technical advantages of forest plantations.
Lu says: “I found the meeting with Pheaktra to be very useful. Forests in Cambodia will increasingly include forest plantations, and they are not just a private business – there are many other stakeholders involved.
“Meetings like this one could greatly help more people to understand what we are doing and what we have actually achieved. At the same time it gives us a chance to learn about what the community expects and find out about any concerns they have regarding the plantation.”
According to Lu and Pheaktra, the benefits to Cambodia from having these tree plantations are manifold.
They say the rapid growth of more trees has an immediate benefit through mass sequestration of global warming gases, the trees keep the land green and a habitat for some local wildlife and the plantations can provide anywhere from hundreds to thousands of jobs depending on their sizes.
But that’s not all – the fact that the plantations have a high-yield harvest on a short rotation that only produces desirable woods should reduce logging pressures on natural forests once the plantation supply can meet the market demand.
The plantations themselves produce a raw material that will need to be processed before it’s used for anything, which creates more business opportunities and potential jobs across a variety of different industries.
With a significant economic return of investment, Lu expects that the company will become a long-term sustainable Cambodian enterprise with the potential to impact and influence other markets in Asia or even globally.
“Our goal is not only to meet the domestic [lumber] demand, but also the demand of all other major foreign markets in Asia. Therefore, we hope that our plantation programme will greatly benefit national economic growth and boost product exports as well,” Lu says.
However, Lu says the company has faced a lot of challenges in the time it has been around.
At the beginning, Lu says the company had trouble finding enough qualified employees with the skills for the work that they needed done, but fortunately they were buoyed by substantial early capital investments.
Lu says the businesses’ ongoing challenges include possible natural disasters such as extreme climate, a long drought season, forest fires, winds or storms and diseases and pests.
Asked what might be one thing that could greatly improve the overall project, Lu says his company has everything in place to succeed and all they need to do now is put in a lot of hard work.
“I guess I just need to lead the company as best I can with my expertise and knowledge in forestry development and management, education, technology and business. Let’s hope that formula works for us, more or less,” he says with a chuckle.
Lu says the thing Cambodians should understand about forest plantations are their win-win nature for both the economy and the environment, providing ample benefits in both areas with practically no real downside.
“Plantation forests will be fundamental for protecting Cambodia’s natural forests and environment as long as they are well developed and managed in a scientific and professional way,” Lu says.