Opinion: The Planting of Ideas
"THE PLANTING of trees is the planting of ideas," says Dr. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and environmentalist. But what does she mean?
Hosted by Boston's Urban Forest Coalition, she will address this question at Faneuil Hall today.
In a world faced with such weighty problems as global warming, dwindling fossil fuels, and the gap between rich and poor nations -- the planting of trees may seem of little importance. Yet, as the founder of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai has taught us that tree planting is a critical step toward helping to protect the environment and fight poverty.
A Kenyan, Maathai has dedicated herself to fighting two of her country's starkest problems: poverty and deforestation. With less than 2 percent forest coverage, Kenya is well below the UN recommended minimum of 10 percent. Maathai's movement has held fast against these daunting challenges, forging an ingenious path forward -- one that simultaneously addresses both crises. It is an approach built upon education and direct engagement with local communities.
Led by Maathai, the Green Belt Movement organizes poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees. Each new tree yields multiple benefits in their lives -- reversing the tide of deforestation, restoring Kenyan's main source of cooking fuel, and strengthening the community.
The Green Belt Movement has incorporated education on women's rights into its environmental programs, empowering disenfranchised Kenyans to fight for a sustainable and viable economic future. All these actions make clear what Mathaai means by comparing the planting of trees with the planting of ideas.
And she is not alone in that view. All around the world, NGOs and other concerned parties are taking comparable steps to protect the environment and combat poverty. In Armenia today, estimated forest cover is less than 8 percent; a dramatic decrease from a healthy 25 percent at the turn of the last century. Moreover, its environment, one of the world's most ecologically diverse with seven different climate zones, is in grave jeopardy.
Currently, due to lack of alternative energy sources, the 40 percent of Armenians living below the poverty line are overreliant on wood for fuel. If the trend of poverty-driven deforestation continues, much of Armenia will become a desert in just 20 years. Like Kenya, deforestation threatens to rob Armenia of its natural beauty and resources.
That's why, similar to the Green Belt Movement's efforts, an organization called the Armenia Tree Project offers public education programs. We recently developed a new interactive environmental curriculum, "Plant an Idea, Plant a Tree," which offers instruction on how the health of Armenia's ecosystem is closely tied to its economic future. We have introduced this curriculum in all 1,400 of Armenia's public schools. In rural villages, our staff trains and works with subsistence farmers on planting and forestation techniques. At our large-scale nursery and environmental educational center, we instruct college students and professionals on environmental stewardship. In our 12 years, Armenia Tree Project has made enormous strides, planting and restoring more than 1,250,000 trees and creating hundreds of jobs in our backyard nursery micro-enterprises for Armenia's rural poor.
In the 30 years of the Green Belt Movement's existence, an astonishing 30 million trees have been planted and 30,000 Kenyan women trained in forestry, food processing, bee keeping, and other trades. Their example inspires our work.
Such accomplishments suggest that in a world overwhelmed by seemingly large and unsolvable issues, the long-term solutions may well lie in simple but practical actions, taken on the local level.
Carolyn Mugar is the founder and Jeff Masarjian the executive director of Armenia Tree Project.
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