Robert Zhao Renhui
Written by John Tung
A Background to the “Management” of Trees
The term “tree management” carries with it an inherent irony. Ostensibly, it’s about the preservation and nurturing of an urban forestry, yet in practice, it sometimes requires actions that seem antithetical to conservation—like the pruning or felling of trees for urban planning or disease management. This irony is further underscored in urban settings, where the creation of green spaces via tree management is a direct response to the loss of natural habitats due to human development. In essence, we destroy forests to build cities, only to plant trees again in a controlled, artificial manner, attempting to recreate what was once naturally occurring.
Moreover, there is an element of control implied in the concept of managing trees—a living entity that, by its very nature, grows, adapts, and thrives without human intervention. The irony lies in the human endeavour to exert dominion over these natural processes, often with the objective of shaping the environment to fit economic or aesthetic ideals. This is particularly poignant in the context of the Anthropocene: efforts to manage tree populations can sometimes seem futile or counterproductive when considered against the backdrop of broader environmental policies that continue to jeopardize the health of global ecosystems.
The practice of tree transplanting has a storied history, as ancient as human civilization itself. From the sacred groves of classical antiquity to the geometrically precise gardens of the French Renaissance, trees have been uprooted and replanted to satisfy human desires. The motivations behind such transplanting have been manifold: to commemorate significant events, to exhibit dominion over nature, to accommodate urban expansion, and to adhere to landscaping fashions that dictate the human-crafted environment.
In ancient civilizations, such as those in Egypt and Mesopotamia, trees were often transplanted as a part of monumental construction projects, symbolizing the conquest of nature and the imposition of order upon the wild. This tradition carried forward through time, with notable examples like the transplantation of mature trees by the Roman emperors to display power and wealth. Later, during the Renaissance, the transplantation of large trees was central to the creation of gardens that reflected the human desire for control and symmetry, embodying the philosophical and artistic ideals of the period.
The industrial revolution brought with it a more pragmatic approach to tree transplanting. As cities expanded and natural landscapes were altered to make way for urban development, transplanting trees became a means to mitigate the loss of green spaces, preserve certain specimens deemed valuable, and quickly create landscaped environments. This rationale persists into the contemporary era, where the transplantation of trees is often justified within the framework of urban planning, ecological restoration, and environmental aesthetics.
Today, tree transplantation is a sophisticated industry, equipped with modern technologies and methodologies. The anthropocentric perspective—viewing trees as commodities or as movable components of urban design—prevails, often overshadowing the ecological and cultural implications of such practices. In Singapore, the transplanting of mature trees is a
significant undertaking that involves considerable manpower, machinery, and time. One notable instance is the relocation of eight 40-year-old rain trees near Victoria Memorial Hall to create a tree-lined lawn in front of Victoria Concert Hall. This process used the ‘raft method,’ where steel pipes were driven under the trees to form a ‘raft’ to support the root ball, taking four to five days to complete for each tree. The process also included careful attention to hydrating and fertilizing the root ball, pruning the branches, and securing the trees for the move. While the effort invested in tree transplanting in Singapore seems to signify a commitment to maintaining the presence of mature trees in urban developments, the removal of similarly aged trees in more densely forested precincts have become the subject of public controversy.
Thailand has also established a significant movement towards reforestation and tree plantation as part of sustainability missions by various organizations. TOA, a Thai company, has launched a reforestation initiative called “TOA SAVE US SAVE EARTH” with the goal of planting over 2 million trees by 2034. The project forms part of their broader aim to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and to address climate change by restoring ecosystems and increasing green environments. The initiative includes a variety of botanic plants and is carried out in collaboration with the Department of Forest and trade alliances, aiming to create sustainable ecosystems and benefit local communities.
On the international front, Thailand is also tapping into the international demand for trees, as demonstrated by the country’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan to plant 50 billion trees. This has created an export opportunity for Thailand, which has already exported over 200,000 trees to Saudi Arabia. The demand for trees, part of the “Saudi Green Initiative”, aims to change the landscape of arid areas across the Middle East. Singapore also partakes in this global tree trade, having had interactions with countries like China, Sri Lanka, Italy, India, and even Thailand concerning live tree imports, among others.
Amidst this contextual background, Prateep Suthathongthai and Robert Zhao Renhui, have brought to light the oft understated dynamics between human activities and natural habitats. Their art compels us to reflect on the inherent anthropocentrism in tree transplanting and to consider the complex dynamics involved in the relocation of a tree. Anthropocentrism, the belief that human beings are the most important entity in the universe, influences the bulk of environmental management decisions. The viewpoint often leads to the prioritization of human benefits over the intrinsic values and rights of natural entities. The transplanting of trees, while can be seen as an effort to preserve certain individual trees, also exemplifies this human-centred approach: trees are moved not for their own benefit, but for the aesthetic, economic, or practical needs of people.
When we consider UPROOT and The 19, their narratives and visual discourses reveal and challenge this anthropocentric perspective respectively. Suthathongthai’s UPROOT chronicles the stories of trees destined for transplanting, emphasizing not just their ecological roles but also the place of transplanting practices within the cultural and socio-economic fabric of communities.
Suthathongthai’s field notes detail a tree survey and encircling project led by Mr. Suphachai of in the Kham Khuean Kaeo District, Yasothon Thailand, revealing the intricate dynamics of tree management and preservation in the region. Mr. Suphachai, individual with 20 years of experience in the industry, provides a host of services to clients beyond the transplanting of trees alone – extending to sourcing, transportation, and landscaping services with said trees as well. His clientele are typically wealthy individuals and high-ranking officials who desire these trees for the prestige they confer in their landscaping vision.
A multitude of factors converge in the process of tree transplanting, encompassing legalities, economics, and ethical considerations. The liberalisation of movement of trees from private lands following an amendment in the Forest Act in 2019 reflects Thailand’s evolving legal attitudes towards natural resource management and precipitating their transformation from natural entities into economic goods. Now as a commodity, the value of each encircled tree is subject to its size, shape, and health, with unique and large specimens commanding higher prices (although the encircling process itself can impact their natural shape and potentially their value).
Yet beyond legal and economic considerations alone, the transplanting process treads a delicate line between commodification and community engagement. The willingness of villagers to offer trees at low costs or even for free, particularly to a well-known local figure like Mr. Suphachai, underscores the significance of community relations in its sourcing. However, as trees become more commodified, their role shifts from being integral components of rural life to assets that reflect a balance between conservation of natural heritage and the demands of modern economic and environmental imperatives.
Zhao’s The 19 shifts the focus to non-anthropocentric concerns by documenting the silent upheaval in an ecosystem caused by the removal of a single tree, which had been home to a variety of bird species. The tree in question was a single large Banyan that resided on the compound of The Substation’s former premises—an iconic independent Singapore arts space—that had until then weathered numerous changes to its immediate environment, including the demolition of the former National Library of Singapore that stood beside it. In order to make way for the construction of a new building for the Singapore Management University in 2015, the Banyan was extracted for a brief sojourn in a nursery on the fringes of the city, before being relocated in proximity to its original site.
Yet despite the Banyan having been transplanted close to where it originally stood, Zhao notes the stark absence of the original species that had originally populated the tree a decade prior. In this respect, Zhao’s photographs had methodically captured the ensuing ecological vacuum, serving as a stark visual metaphor for the broader impact of such interventions. The work raises the critical point that physical proximity does not necessarily lead to ecological continuity, and how even a single change can precipitate a cascade of biodiversity loss. The project thus becomes an archival record of the lost ecological interactions and a commentary on the implications of altering living landscapes for urban development.
It is imperative that we consider the ramifications of treating trees as commodities to be managed, rather than as living participants in the biosphere with their own rights to existence. UPROOT and The 19 call into question the justifications for disturbing natural habitats for urban development or other human-centric reasons, whilst recognising the complexities involved in making a shift towards a more biocentric ethic that recognizes the intrinsic worth of all living beings.
The notion of tree management demands a critical evaluation, not just of the procedures involved, but also of the underlying values that guide such interventions. It calls for a broader environmental ethic, one that respects the inherent worth of all components of an ecosystem and seeks harmony between human development and natural preservation. In exploring the history of tree transplanting, from its ancient roots to its modern manifestations, one must necessarily ponder the relationship between “human progress” and the natural world.
Perhaps it is only by adopting an increasingly biocentric or ecocentric viewpoint, that we may begin to grasp the full extent of the ecological roles of trees, with respect to their contribution to carbon sequestration, habitat provision, and the maintenance of biodiversity. And in doing so, navigate the delicate balance between nurturing urban forests and conserving the natural habitats that sustain the richness of life on Earth.