What good does it do to plant one tree?
MCC writer explores her skepticism about how to mitigate climate change
What good does it do to plant one tree, I asked myself, as I visited with farmers in Mwenezi District, in south central Zimbabwe last September.
Everywhere our Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Communications team went, farmers were sure to tell us they planted a tree that year, most commonly a mango tree because it provides food as well as shade.
These farmers had come to understand that cutting down trees over the decades may have addressed a need for firewood, but it also has added to a bigger problem. Destroying forests contributes to climate change.
And they know that climate change is hurting their land, the crops they eat and their water supply. It even divides families by forcing them to migrate.
MCC photo/Meghan Mast
At an MCC-supported emergency food distribution, I spoke with Clemence Jawanda, a father of eight. He said that inconsistent rains during the last two planting seasons resulted in very poor harvests. The food he and his wife grew was gone six months before they could harvest again.
When he unloaded the emergency rations of beans, finely ground cornmeal, oil and salt from the donkey-powered cart, I saw the shelves in his storage shed were indeed empty.
On the floor, a few chickens were brooding, on their way to producing other chickens Jawanda and his family can sell or eat. The family adds termites, caterpillars, mushrooms and other naturally growing ingredients to their cooking, but that’s not enough.
If the upcoming planting season isn’t better, Jawanda said he may need to migrate to look for work, like other men in the community have done.
Personally it is very painful, just to leave my family here because of a circumstance that is beyond my control. “Somehow, I need to be close to my family all the time. So, it's a difficult situation for us as men."
- Clemence Jawanda, a Zimbabwe farmer
“Personally it is very painful, just to leave my family here because of a circumstance that is beyond my control,” Jawanda said. “Somehow, I need to be close to my family all the time. So, it's a difficult situation for us as men.”
Women who are left behind are quite vulnerable, explained Caroline Pugeni, project coordinator for Score Against Poverty (SCORE), the grassroots organization and MCC partner that organized the food distribution. In the culture, women have little to no decision-making power, yet they need to feed, educate and parent their children alone.
MCC photo/Meghan Mast
Planting season for 2022-23 was supposed to start in October, so in early January, I sent an email to Pugeni to ask how crops were growing.
“Any delay in rains in the next few days will result in complete crop failure,” she wrote back. If rain did come in those next few days, crops may survive, but the yield will be compromised. In March, she confirmed that 85% of crops in three districts of Mwenezi had failed because of too much rainfall variation.
My heart sank. What have we done? We, meaning those of us in the world who have ignored the warnings of our climate scientists for at least the last 20 years, probably longer.
I’ve sat in my perch in Pennsylvania, where my lifestyle hasn’t been noticeably affected by climate change and read the headlines. I have watched powerful people who profit from oil and coal industries deny the existence of climate change. And I watched environmentalists beg our legislators to act.
Although my husband and I have made some significant changes in our house and property over the years to be kinder to the environment, climate change still seemed like a distant problem. I figured my passionate environmental friends could deal with it.
But now, when I think about the Zimbabwe farmers planting one tree in an effort to protect and feed their families, I am ashamed of my nonchalance. As a Christian, I have committed to love God and my neighbors. Yet, my very lifestyle isn't loving to them.
Unlike me, they don't have the luxury of choosing whether or not to address climate change. They must act now.
Farmers are changing the traditional way they have farmed to conservation agriculture – a farming method that is more productive in areas with little rain. SCORE has been teaching this method and encouraging families to use less wood by introducing fuel-efficient stoves, solar power and biodigesters.
MCC photo/Meghan Mast
They’ve also started the Women Coalition Against Climate Change (WCCC) to educate people about how to mitigate and cope with climate change.
At a WCCC meeting, I talked to a Pentecostal elder, who changed her church’s all-night prayer meetings to daytime meetings, so they didn’t need to use carts of wood to light the space. She convinced all the churches she leads to plant trees on their properties.
I talked to an assistant to the district chief of Mwenezi, who said the district now has a law that makes it illegal for anyone to cut down a live tree without permission. Cut down a tree? Pay the fine with a goat.
I listened as one of the WCCC speakers explained climate change to the group’s members, who have committed to share what they learn with other people in the community.
“Climate change is caused by these countries, the western countries,” said speaker Esnath Guvuriro as she looked my direction. I nodded vigorously so she would know she was not offending me and because I believe it to be true.
MCC photo/Meghan Mast
The lifestyle of these families in rural Zimbabwe did not cause climate change, even if they cut down trees and their country has a coal industry. In the big picture, their contribution to climate change is a drop in the bucket compared to what we Americans and other prosperous countries have done.
Guvuriro singled out gasses from industries, vehicles and nitrogen fertilizer as some of top culprits of ozone layer destruction. But she didn’t stop with blame.
“So what are we supposed to do as the Women Coalition on Climate Change?” she asked the group. She answered her own question: Don’t cut down trees. Plant trees. Why? Because trees take in the carbon we produce.
MCC photo/Meghan Mast
As I listened and thought about what I had learned during the week, I realized that my skepticism gradually had evolved into admiration.
So when I was asked to say a few words to the WCCC participants, I heard myself telling them that I was so inspired by their efforts to address climate change that the next car I buy would not use gasoline.
They clapped enthusiastically, but my gut churned with the economic disparities and injustice I had just named. I was promising people who walked to the meeting that I would buy a car that cost tens of thousands of dollars, so that I don’t pollute the atmosphere I share with them.
I was embarrassed by unintentionally revealing that I can spend that much in front of people who are trying to figure out how to make food grow out of dry ground. On the other hand, I think the promise I made is appropriate.
"I earn more. I cause more harm to the environment than they do. So, I owe more to fix it. Perhaps this car is my tree?"
- Linda Espenshade, MCC news coordinator
I earn more. I cause more harm to the environment than they do. So, I owe more to fix it. Perhaps this car is my tree? Or maybe there will be a better option than electric car, which I’ve learned recently also has justice and environmental problems related to mining of critical minerals.
I look around and see other people in U.S. who are planting their “tree.” I have friends whose farmhouse was previously heated with fuel oil, but now they are using a more efficient heating and air conditioning system powered by electric, which is completely offset by their solar panels. Their once-rented hayfield now has hundreds of native trees growing on it.
My church has installed chargers for electric cars. We’re encouraged to charge ourselves a gas tax and use it to address climate change.
I asked my cousin, who is an expert on environmental sustainability, what she thought about the one tree initiative in Zimbabwe. She said their efforts are absolutely essential.
Everybody must do something, she said. Some people advocate with the government, some teach, some quietly set an example, some lead businesses that voluntarily reduce their carbon output and others work for environmental organizations. Some plant trees.
It doesn’t help, she says, to get lost in blame and hopelessness. Keep changing. Do one thing. Then another.
For me, it’s my next car ... and a lot of steps in between. What’s your next tree?