Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Man Who Planted Trees

Every Tuesday we have staff trainings here at Plant With Purpose. The topics vary; sometimes we hear trip reports from staff who have returned from visiting our programs, and other times we have guest speakers guide us in discussions on community development. The point is to keep us educated and enthusiastic about our work!

The Man Who Planted Trees is a wonderful video we viewed this last Tuesday, and it is a reminder of all the benefits of trees and an inspiration to us as we seek to be stewards of God's creation.

The below article, written by our Executive Director Scott Sabin, was posted today on

The Man Who Planted Trees

by Scott Sabin

Earlier this week I was given a copy of the 1987 animated video, The Man Who Planted Trees. This wonderful little video, available online in several places, is a reminder that the link between trees and prosperity may seem obscure, but there is a remarkable connection. The converse is true as well, as we are reminded in our work everyday.

Though largely hidden from our sight and consciousness, farmers working at or near the subsistence level make up a huge proportion of the world’s population. Working with crude hand tools, they eke their living from rocky hillsides, while walking for hours to get water and firewood.

Their soil and their water are essentially their only assets, the only things they have on which to build a life. These are dependent upon the health of their watershed – upon the forests upstream and the trees in their communities. Trees are vital for preventing soil erosion, and can even help to restore the soil by fixing nitrogen, bringing buried nutrients to the surface and contributing leaf litter and other organic matter to the soil. Where the trees have been stripped from the hillsides, massive soil erosion follows, robbing the poor farmer of one of her most valuable possessions.

Water availability and quality are also dependent on the health of the forest. Absence of trees results in a decrease in the local rainfall. This is magnified by the fact that when the rain does fall, there is little to stop it from immediately running off before it is able to soak into the ground. Where the soil is protected by a canopy of trees to break the fall of precipitation, leaf litter to slow runoff, and roots to increase soil permeability, water is able to infiltrate and replenish local aquifers. On the other hand, on uncovered soil, water can simply be the engine for erosion and downstream flashfloods. If the water does not soak in, the water table drops, wells dry up and the local environment will become drier. The farmers of many countries can point to rivers that were once reliable sources of water but which today flow only during heavy rains -- and at those times, flood higher than ever in the past.

Public awareness of water issues is growing, but often stops short of caring for the health of the watershed. Where the land has been stripped of trees a desert is soon created. But it is a reversible process as we have also seen. Just as depicted in the film, when trees are planted rivers, streams and springs return.

Trees are also a natural filter. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the absence of forest cover and the presence of E. coli and other contaminants in the water. This especially impacts the rural poor who cannot afford to have water piped into the home or to buy bottled water to drink. Instead family members, especially women, often walk hours to fetch water and additional hours to collect the firewood necessary to purify water by boiling it.

Ultimately, deforestation is one of the root causes of rural emigration, as people leave the unproductive countryside in hope of a job in the overcrowded cities, or perhaps in the United States. One of the reasons that we began planting trees and working with poor farmers in the state of Oaxaca ten years ago was the realization that much of our immigration problem in Southern California is rooted in declining opportunities in the mountains of Oaxaca – a state that has been referred to as the most eroded spot on earth.

But as we have happily found, this situation can be reversed. Land can become productive again. Families, split by lack of opportunity and illegal immigration, are thrilled by the opportunity to stay together. God’s plan of redemption and restoration can be graphically demonstrated as we work together with the poor to reclaim degraded lands.

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