Planting a Forest

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Birds like the Yellow-Crested Woodpecker thrive in forest ecosystems Birds like the Yellow-Crested Woodpecker thrive in forest ecosystems Photo by Shailesh Patel

A quarter a century ago, I gazed indifferently at an African Teak tree seedling that my father had just planted about twenty metres on the right hand side of our rural house. Papa likes planting trees and often honours distinguished visitors through elaborate tree planting ceremonies that are complete with an opening prayer at the beginning and a hearty clap at the conclusion.

When Uncle Julius, my mum’s older brother would visit, Papa would call everyone to attention after one of mama’s hot, delicious meals, and announce with flair that Uncle Julius would plant be planting a tree at that very moment. I forget the name of the tree; it is the most planted tree in our farm. It mostly grows outward instead of upward.  The tree’s three or four layers of branches given an impression of umbrellas on top of each other.

We would troop out and watch as the jolly Uncle Julius received a tree seedling with both hands and placed it into a pre-dug hole after a brief prayer from any of us. These days, whenever I walk into Nairobi’s supermarkets and come across ready-made raw chapatis that are just waiting to be fried, I always remember Papa’s ready-made tree holes.

If a visitor was as notable as Uncle Julius, you can be sure that he or she planted a tree in our two-acre compound.

How many trees are in Kenya? I doubt anyone knows the answer to that. But the earth is said to be home to as many as ten trillion trees. Although other estimates place this number much lower, at half of a trillion. Whatever the number, Papa has definitely played a small but vital role in realizing it.

Kenya has a forest cover of seven percent far behind Cameroon’s near 50 percent or Micronesia’s 92 percent. Wait a minute.. Yes? Did you say 92 percent?! Yes I did. I suspect most of you had no idea that a country known as Micronesia existed. Not only does it exist, but it is the global champion of forest cover. 92 percent. Almost all of this country is covered in forests. It is in the western Pacific and it consists of about 600 islands that are grouped into four States, hence its full name is, ‘Federated States of Micronesia.’

But if truth be told, I have never been much of a tree planter. Which is odd, because I have done my fair share for Africa’s environment, especially in founding youth environmental movements in Kenya and Africa. There is the UNEP-facilitated Africa Environment Outlook for Youth, which I led for several years from 2003 – 2005; the Africa Youth Environment Network, which I conceived as an offshoot of the previous network; the Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Change, which I co-founded with the tireless Sena Alouka from Togo and other phenomenal youth (at least youth at the time) like Grace Mwaura; the Solid Waste Action for Youth (SWAY), which I handed over to the enthusiastic leadership of Kivindyo another outstanding ‘former youth.’

You would think that someone who did all these green things would be an active tree-planter like his father. After all, tree planting is arguably the most basic yet most powerful act of conservation.

Some people don’t just plant trees – they plant forests. The most prominent example is Padma Shri Jadav Payeng aka Molai from Jorhat, India. The 52-year old man literally planted a forest, one tree at a time, next to River Brahmaputra. The forest is now named after him – Molai Forest. One of his secrets besides his passion for trees was the fact that he didn’t just plant trees – he nurtured them. He nurtured them so well that a 1,360 acre forest now exists because of his simple, powerful action of planting and nurturing a tree since 1979.

Like all forests, Molai is now home to a rich biodiversity. Endangered Bengal tigers reside there as do rhinos and dozens of other animals, not to mention the hundreds of plants species that are part of the forest. All this would not have been possible if he hadn’t taken that initial step in 1979 of planting twenty bamboo seedlings.

Closer home, in north-eastern Kenya, there is a similar story. Although it hasn’t reached Molai forest’s staggering proportions, it might just reach there one day because it is spearheaded by Abdikadir Aden Hassan, a young man who is only twenty-six years old. He has already planted thirty thousand trees and targets to eventually reach the one-million mark. His green efforts have already won him numerous awards including the highly prestigious ‘Queen Young Leaders Award.’

At our very own village home, my younger brother James has also planted approximately one hundred trees. He has nurtured them to maturity over the last five years and he now has a mini-forest that he has aptly named, Ayanna forest, after his one-year old daughter.

But as for me, I have in my lifetime planted less than twenty trees and never ever cut even a single tree. But like most other human beings, I am a huge beneficiary of wood products whose presence in my houses wouldn’t have been possible if someone somewhere hadn’t felled a tree. In fact, the vintage chair that I am sitting on as I write this was made from the legendary hard wood of an African Teak tree aka milicia excels or mvule in Kiswahili.

Mvule wood is known as iroko and it doesn’t come cheap. Indeed, mvule wood is amongst the designer woods of the timber industry. Apart from my vintage chair, this wood is used to make exquisite wooden floors, stunning boats, regal gates, equally royal furniture and many more astounding wood products.

 

I feel that if I sit on mvule wood every day, the least I can do is to plant at least ten African teaks before the end of this year. Watch this space and as you do so, go plant an African teak too. It is one of the few trees that is named after our beloved continent. Or you could go step further and follow the footsteps of Molai from India or Abdikadir from Kenya and actually plant a forest... 

DJ Bwakali

Words can inspire action and change the world

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