Planting the Future

Reforestation Addresses Poverty at the Roots, One Tree at a Time

by Tim Høiland

On the surface, it may appear that planting trees and caring for the poor are two separate undertakings. But when you dig a little deeper, says Scott Sabin, the connection becomes undeniable.

For Sabin, who serves as executive director of Plant With Purpose, a Christian, environmental nonprofit organization based in San Diego, choosing to focus on either the needs of the poor or the environment is a false choice—and one with tragic repercussions.

Take Haiti, a country mired in desperate poverty long before the devastating earthquake of early 2010. Once a tropical jungle, hillside slums now reveal a barren landscape. In Haiti, Sabin says, "we see how extreme poverty results in environmental disaster, which in turn feeds extreme poverty. If you address one in a vacuum, the other will defeat you."

"There are a lot of environmental programs out there that ignore the needs of the poor," he continues, "and they fail for obvious reasons. At the same time, many of those working to address poverty issues fail because they have ignored environmental factors."

Plant With Purpose, originally known as Floresta USA, got its start in 1984 in the Dominican Republic. Tom Woodard, its founder, noticed that while countless humanitarian organizations were doing noble work there, none seemed to be addressing the inescapable connection between the degradation of rural land and the plight of the rural poor.

It was a startling conclusion to the puzzling question of why so many people were leaving their rural farms and moving into urban slums where overcrowding, violence, and substandard sanitation were the norm. But in many cases, according to Sabin, "these people were coming from situations they considered worse."

Worse than a slum?

The realities of environmental impacts in developing countries may be difficult for many of us to comprehend, Sabin says, "because here in the US we're very divorced from our environment. The impact of environmental degradation is real to us, but we can insulate ourselves pretty easily because of our affluence."

The rural poor do not have that luxury. For them, many of whom are farmers who daily depend on their land for their very survival, the effects can be devastating.

It is often the poor, like this Haitian farmer, who, in desperation, cut down trees for timber, firewood, or charcoal.

It is often the poor, like this Haitian farmer, who, in desperation, cut down trees for timber, firewood, or charcoal.

And at the crux of that grim scenario is the problem of deforestation.

Trees are essential in replenishing the nutrients in the soil and in preventing topsoil-depleting erosion and landslides capable of destroying entire communities in one fell swoop. Trees help the soil retain its water, which allows aquifers to be recharged. They also act as filters, naturally purifying the water found in rivers and streams. Additionally, deforestation has been linked to lack of rainfall, as God-ordained cycles of nature are disrupted.

The cumulative effect of deforestation is that poor farmers find it increasingly difficult to produce the crops they depend on. The widespread nature of the problem has a lot to do with why 80 percent of the chronically hungry in our world are the rural poor and, subsequently, why urban slums continue to absorb a growing stream of "environmental refugees" desperate for an alternative to the precarious lives they have come to know.

An idea whose time has come

Though hardly new, deforestation began to accelerate in the 1800s at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a time when agrarian societies were being replaced by industrial ones that demanded large quantities of natural resources. While rates of deforestation in developed countries have leveled off and the overall pace in developing nations has slowed, it still remains a significant problem worldwide, experienced most acutely by the rural poor but impacting all of us in one way or another.

Deforestation has gained more attention of late, coinciding with a renewed recognition of the finiteness of our planet and the ubiquitous, multifaceted dangers of environmental degradation. In a resolution passed by the General Assembly, the United Nations named 2011 the International Year of Forests, recognizing the connection between deforestation and poverty, stating that "forests and sustainable forest management can contribute significantly to sustainable development, poverty eradication, and the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals."

But perhaps no one has done more to highlight the connection between deforestation and the poor than Wangari Maathai. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work with the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization that engages women's groups and others in planting trees "as an entry point for self-determination, equity, improved livelihoods and security, and environmental conservation."

Born in Kenya in 1940, Maathai saw the impact of deforestation firsthand as a child. "As I was growing up," she recalls, "I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water."

Maathai became the first woman in Kenya to earn a doctoral degree, and she eventually held respected posts in both government and academia. The Green Belt Movement (GBM) itself grew out of work she pioneered with the National Council of Women, where she first began planting trees. In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, GBM also planted trees in public places in Nairobi as a form of protest, demanding the release of political prisoners. In time, Maathai says, "the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya."

During her speech in Oslo, Norway, in December 2004, Maathai thanked the Nobel Committee for publicly acknowledging the connection between democracy and environmental protection. "Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy, and peace are indivisible," she said, "is an idea whose time has come."

The decision to plant trees through women's groups may have initially been circumstantial, but it was also clearly strategic. After all, says Maathai, it is the women in Africa who generally take responsibility for farming the land and feeding their families, and they are naturally the first to recognize deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction that threaten their livelihoods.

Understanding how the environment is connected to democracy, sustainable development, and peace is crucial if the rural poor are to have a hand in ensuring for themselves a better future. So GBM has established a "citizen education program" designed to help people identify the causes and possible solutions to the problems their communities face, enabling them to pinpoint how their own actions contribute to what they observe in society and the environment. If the program is successful, Maathai says, the rural poor "come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them." To date, over 40 million trees have been planted in Kenya and throughout Africa as part of the movement.

In her memoir, Unbowed (Anchor, 2007), Maathai reflects on the significance of trees and how they have shaped her unbowed_coverunderstanding of our world. "Trees have been an essential part of my life and have provided me with many lessons," she writes. "Trees are living symbols of peace and hope. A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded, and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance. It is a reminder to all of us who have had success that we cannot forget where we came from. It signifies that no matter how powerful we become in government or how many awards we receive, our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remains unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand."

Valuing the land

While outside forces like multinational corporations are sometimes to blame for widespread deforestation in vast areas like the Amazon basin, Scott Sabin is quick to point out that, for the most part, the poor themselves are the ones depleting their own small plots of land.

"A lot of people are surprised to learn that often it's the desperation of the poor that in fact creates environmental degradation," he says, adding that their poverty can drive them to use marginalized, less resilient land for agriculture or to cut down trees for timber, firewood, or charcoal, either for personal use or to sell for a small profit. When any of this occurs, "the poor are in fact causing the deforestation that is making them poorer."

For this reason, in the six countries where the organization works, Plant With Purpose staff are trained to help identify these vicious cycles and, in partnership with local communities, to find ways to create life-giving cycles in their place. One of the primary ways of doing this is by planting trees. In fact, Plant With Purpose calls reforestation "sustainable development in its most sustainable form."

amazon river - tree cutting

Industrial logging, mostly by foreign companies, continues at an alarming rate in many of the world's rainforests.

"It's getting at the foundation issues leading to situations of underdevelopment and degradation of the environment, the life support system that the community depends on," Sabin explains. "Just as deforestation robs people of their health and livelihood, reforestation and sustainable farming practices can begin to return it."

For people whose poverty has seemingly forced them to think only of their immediate needs, the long, slow process of planting trees as a form of community development might seem like a hard sell. That's not necessarily the case.

Sabin argues that in some ways the rural poor understand the value of reforestation and environmental stewardship intrinsically. He recalls that on more than one occasion farmers who never finished elementary school have explained to him in detail how watersheds work—a feat the majority of the well-educated among us are incapable of.

But in any community there are skeptics, so it is important to demonstrate immediate results in addition to long-term promise. The ideal medium for this is agro-forestry, an approach that mixes reforestation with basic agriculture. The beauty of this method is that trees naturally release nutrients into the soil, helping crops to grow. The trees also prevent erosion, ensuring that the precious topsoil remains in place, which means that robust crop yields can be enjoyed for generations.

In most cases, Sabin says, there are one or two farmers in a community who latch onto the agro-forestry approach early on. These positive deviants, as he calls them, "tend to become noticeably more prosperous, and that gets the attention of others. Then it spreads."

Unfortunately, however, in some countries the law fails to provide the incentive to invest in the long-term health of the land. Sabin has met farmers who were reluctant to give agro-forestry a try, not because they thought it would fail but because they feared losing their land once it started to flourish, as it would begin to appear more valuable to officials and greedy neighbors. In response, Plant With Purpose helps farmers with land mapping so they can establish legal rights to their land.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, Sabin believes it is essential for small landowners to maintain the rights to cut down their own trees. "It's not so much about preservation as about valuation," he explains. What matters is that farmers value their land and understand how they can best cultivate it and make it profitable for the long term, rather than telling them what they can and cannot do with it. "Otherwise, you're taking away potentially productive land. A tree that you can't benefit from and have no rights over is an intrusion."

Ensuring that rural farmers have full use of their land, with the confidence that it will remain in their hands, is crucial for sustainable development. "Squatters, sharecroppers, renters, and people who cannot gain legal title to their property have no long-term stake in the land," he explains, "so they are unlikely to invest much in its future."

Despite the fact that the actions of the poor often cause the deforestation that contributes to their own long-term poverty, it is more than just a problem by and for them.

"We cannot lay the responsibility for the environmental crisis at the feet of the poor," Sabin writes in his book, Tending to TEDHighResEden: Environmental Stewardship for God's People (Judson Press, 2010). The rural poor "are forced by desperation, oppression, and lack of opportunities to abuse the environment. This is a vicious cycle in which they have little choice. Greed, exploitation, and carelessness on the part of governments, multinational corporations, businesses, and wealthy individuals are major contributors to the environmental crisis. And these people and organizations do have a choice."

Complete transformation

While many communities have now experienced the transformative impact of environmental stewardship thanks to the work of Plant With Purpose, Sabin says this sort of transformation is not enough.

"Early on in the Dominican Republic, our reforestation and agro-forestry programs were working," he says, "but we saw that newfound wealth didn't always lead people in good directions. We noticed a progression: more alcohol consumption, a TV, a mistress. And that's just not good, sustainable development."

So in addition to environmental stewardship, Plant With Purpose incorporates discipleship into its programs, at times through loan groups and a savings-led credit model. This approach is intended to help meet the community's deepest needs while empowering them to care for the environment by themselves.

"I have always wanted to help the poor, motivated by the love of Jesus," Sabin says. "But the more I've learned about God's heart for the world, the more I've wanted to give people the very best that Jesus has to offer."

Sabin continues, "To the woman at the well, Jesus offered, 'I can give you living water and you'll never thirst again.' If we restore a watershed, great. But if Jesus has living water to offer, who are we to withhold that? It's just so easy to lurch from one to the other, considering one or the other a distraction. But I'm not sure why it's so hard to bring the two together."

On a practical level, Plant With Purpose's engagement with local churches varies depending on context, but staff work hard to seek out mutually beneficial relationships. Sometimes, churches are equipped with leadership training for Bible studies, and in turn church leaders enlist their congregations in support of reforestation and agro-forestry programs in their communities.

Tanzania is a unique example, where churches have made a significant commitment towards environmental stewardship. In fact, Lutheran churches there make it a requirement for students going through confirmation classes to plant a designated number of trees before completion.

Plant With Purpose also works to establish partnerships with US churches to support the work of environmental stewardship abroad. While there has traditionally been some ambivalence among American evangelicals towards environmental initiatives, Sabin says this landscape is rapidly changing.

"I've been doing this work for 18 years," he says, "and for the first 10 years it seemed that our work was too Christian for environmentalists but too environmental for Christians." Sabin says that initially in speaking with church groups he would emphasize the economic impact of Plant With Purpose's work, adding the reforestation component later, almost as an aside. Now, though, given what he calls a recent "groundswell of concern for the environment"—occurring in part along generational lines—Plant With Purpose has been able to re-emphasize the environmental focus while the work on the ground continues to produce both economic and environmental results.

But for Sabin, Plant With Purpose's work does not depend on what is currently in vogue, because he believes the powerful impact of reforestation and agro-forestry on the lives of the poor speaks for itself. "People tend to be very pragmatic," he says, noting, "It's hard to argue with what works."

The future

One of the areas where Plant With Purpose works is Oaxaca, Mexico. Because it looks like a desert, Sabin says, it is natural to assume that is how it has always been. But it too once had lush forests. Now, more than 80 percent of its original forest cover has been lost, making Oaxaca one of the most deforested parts of the world.

A key driving factor in this case has been the production of charcoal, which the poor of Oaxaca sell for kitchen use to wealthier Mexicans whose affluence insulates them from the immediate effects of environmental degradation. Those producing and selling the charcoal meanwhile have little choice but to continue in the vicious cycle that is making them poorer.MexicoBoyWithTomatoHighRes

But by planting trees, starting fisheries, operating small handcraft businesses, and installing rooftop cisterns to catch what little rainfall Oaxaca receives, some have started to experience a different way of life. In the community of El Porvenir, which in Spanish means "the future," Plant With Purpose has been able to walk alongside the people as they have rediscovered the significance of their community's name.

On the road into the community, a small oasis in an otherwise barren land, travelers are greeted with a sign that reads, "Welcome to El Porvenir, where there are opportunities."

The transformation of El Porvenir is remarkable, but it does not have to be unique. Indeed, it is possible to interrupt the vicious cycles of deforestation and rural poverty. By recognizing the undeniable connection between planting trees and caring for the poor, a green future is well within reach, a future brimming with life, dignity, and hope.

Tim Hoiland is editor of Flourish Phoenix, which celebrates the ways people and institutions are working together for the common good of the city. He is also the founder of Hoiland Media. Learn more at

Get involved!High_Res_Tree_Planting
Plant With Purpose recently launched the "Trees Please" campaign, aimed at getting trees into the hands of poor farmers—the people who need them most. Donors have the option of planting a tree, an orchard, a hillside, a grove, or even a forest. At $1 per tree, the campaign provides not just the seedling (which may cost 10-15 cents), but the coaching and oversight by community agronomists who can ensure the program's long term success.

"Getting trees in the ground is the easy part," Sabin says. "Making sure the community learns how to maintain the trees, to water them, to keep the goats out—those are the things that make all the difference."

Last year, the "Trees Please" campaign enabled Plant With Purpose to plant two million trees. To learn more about the campaign and to get involved, visit

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