The gift of trees

“Everyone should plant a tree, have a child, and write a book.”

No one knows who actually said that, but few people question its apparent wisdom, especially if “tree”, “child”, and “book” are taken metaphorically. The conductor Claudio Abbado once held the city of Milan to ransom by agreeing to conduct at La Scala opera house only if the city reciprocated by agreeing to plant 90,000 trees. Milan later reneged on its promise.

The Gobi and the Taklamakan deserts in northwest China are a region of cascading sand dunes and unremittingly bone dry heat. They are rapidly turning other parts of China into desert, with sandstorms blowing westward and covering the country’s capital, Beijing, in a shroud of sand. Massive deforestation over several decades due to farming and mining has made the situation worse.

In 1978, in an effort to combat the encroaching Gobi Desert, the Chinese Government began to build a Great Green Wall. The plan was to cover an area along the northern edge of China’s deserts with 100 billion trees. To date over 66 billion trees have been planted using aerial seeding and cash incentives to farmers to grow trees, shrubs, and other greenery.

In the south of China, the golden snub-nosed monkey and the iconic panda are also threatened by deforestation and only by planting new trees in large numbers can they be saved. Here the Plant a Billion Trees project also brings employment to thousands of local communities in the Yunnan and Sichuan regions, training people in forest management and principles of biodiversity.

Similar projects have been tried out elsewhere, as in 1934 when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Great Plains Shelterbelt. Eight years later some 220 million trees had been planted, covering over 29,900 kilometres from Canada to the Brazos River in Texas.

Another initiative called the Great Green Wall of the Sahara was launched in 2007 by the African Union. It focused on a strip of land 15 km wide and 7,100 km long from Dakar to Djibouti with the aim of reversing land degradation and desertification.

And in India in 2013 it was reported that a man called Jadav “Molai” Payeng had spent 30 years single-handedly planting a 1,360-acre forest in Assam. Over several decades, he tended trees on a sandbar of the river Brahmaputra turning it into a forest reserve. In 2015, he was honoured with a Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India, but he says his work is not finished. The next 30 years of his life will be devoted to planting another forest.

Elzéard Bouffier, the fictitious hero of Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees, finds real-life counterparts in countless individuals and organizations working to counter the long-term impact of human beings on the planet. Given global population growth and the fact that books – at least until recently – depended on wood pulp, maybe for a while everyone should simply plant trees and forget the rest. As Richard Mabey writes in the Foreword to the 2015 edition of Giono’s book:

“The trees, like the story, are allegorical symbols of reciprocity. We can gift them to the earth, but the earth, properly treated, gifts them back to us.”



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