Dr Steve Fitch has grown Eden Reforestation Projects from a single sapling in Ethiopia to an NGO planting four million trees a month with an employ-to-plant based approach creating tens of thousands of jobs for those who need them most.
Gobe HQ | AUSTRALIA
There is a Thomas Merton paragraph from Guilty Bystander that for me resonates the ideas around the rush of modern life, the infinite distractions and the frenzy of activism messages that bombard us. Merton declares it a contemporary violence that pervades the idealist and dulls their ability to advocate peace fruitfully and bring hope through one’s own work. All of this was written well before emails and social media, before Facebook activism and the pressure to participate in every cause and message that circulates a typical modern day hyper overloaded sensory world. It made me think about simple things one can do to help effect change for good, like planting a tree.
Potentially in that moment of thought, the idealist becomes lost in where to plant the tree? What type of tree and where the sapling should come from? Who should plant the tree and maintain the tree’s growth and how effective is the planting of that single tree going to be? So begins the frenzy of activism and the dilution of the message that I believe Morton is suggesting neutralises our work for peace. Eden reforestation Projects seem to have mastered the art of performing simple actions to improve the quality of life for people in great need and cultivating the quality of the lands these people live on. It’s by no means a simple operation and encompasses a great deal more than planting trees, but fundamentally they are changing the world by planting trees and that’s about as cool as it gets.
You may have noticed here at Gobe we’re very much in love with trees and all of the magic that is born from the forests of our lands. You may also have heard us mention our biggest partner, collaborator, inspiration and the ultimate champion of the mighty tree, Eden Reforestation Projects. Eden Reforestation Projects was conceived in 2004 by founder Dr Steve Fitch when the good Dr. witnessed villages that were becoming threatened with relocation to refugee camps due to deforestation of their lands.
The fundamental aim of Eden Reforestation Projects is to alleviate the suffering of people in areas of impoverishment by the planting of trees and the creation of locally teamed workforces. They are a non-profit that operates with I-NGO status in all countries of operation and at the time of writing their teams have planted over 210,544,032 trees and employed thousands of local villagers.
The first sapling was planted in Ethiopia in 2005 with operations expanding into Madagascar, Haiti, Nepal and most recently Indonesia. They have no intention of slowing down and by 2020 Eden Projects aim to be planting 100 million trees a year and instilling hope through the employment of tens of thousands of local workers in the countries where poverty prevails.
Eden Reforestation Projects have recently begun operations in the wetland ecosystems of the Indonesian Islands. The local traditional fisherman of these islands relies on the mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass for their livelihood. In the last three decades over 40% of the mangrove forests have been decimated. The Eden team hopes to revitalise these unique ecosystems by restoring, re-planting and protecting the lands called home by over 40 million rural dwelling Indonesians.
Dr Steve Fitch, founder and CEO of Eden, sat down for an email chat to fill us in on the foundation of Eden, what they’re up to at the moment and what’s on the horizon. He’s quite an inspirational human and I hope you enjoy reading his insights from the couch at Rancho Cucamonga.
GOBE: Hi Steve, how are you? Let’s start by learning a little about yourself and your role with Eden Reforestation Projects. Where are you answering these questions from and what’s on your schedule for the day?
Dr Steve Fitch: I’m having the time of my life as Founder – CEO of Eden Projects. It’s early morning and I’m sitting on the sofa in my Rancho Cucamonga living room. (Yes, Cucamonga is a real place!) My days typically begin with international calls to key Project Nation leaders, since my morning is their evening. We always have a lot to process together, including budget matters, coordinating partner field reports, dealing with field challenges and of course coordinating the latest employ to plant opportunities.
What was your motivation for starting this organisation?
My original motivation behind starting Eden was to fulfil a specific request made by Hailemariam Desalegn, the President of Ethiopia’s Southern People’s Region. He explained the emergency level need in Ethiopia and the immediate action required in restoring the nation’s forest. He went on to describe the tragic consequences of a failed forest restoration project along the Udo Escarpment, where 11 villagers had lost their lives following torrential rainfall and flooding. In short order, I grew to understand the need to link poverty alleviation and forest restoration. The importance of caring for the poorest of the poor as a means to restore the world’s forest cannot be understated.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” provides the logic behind overcoming giants. The summary is you need to change the strategy rules to win the battle. Goliath was a heavily armoured infantry soldier and unbeatable so long as battle tactics stayed the same. David changed the rules by coming out as a light artillery soldier. Goliath didn’t have a chance. In like manner, Eden has approached the giant of deforestation in a whole new way. Providing fair wage employment to thousands of local villagers is the strategic rule change, which has empowered Eden to plant millions of native species trees each month. To date, we’ve won every battle.
Did you ever think you would be personally responsible for changing the world by planting trees?
Restoring the world’s forest through an employ-to-plant strategy was never on my agenda, but it’s now my life cause.
What have been some of the milestones for you with the work you have been a part of for so many years?
There are 3 transformational milestones to date. The first was my making the decision in 2010 to leave a secure six-figure salaried job and go full time with Eden when we were still a small and financially challenged organization. The second was securing a truly supportive and visionary Board of Directors. The third milestone was crossed when Eden began to partner with business partners like Gobe. Eden now has over 200 business partner groups like Gobe who put their social responsibility cause money behind their convictions. Eden’s business partners are overwhelmingly responsible for Eden’s leap in tree planting capacity. Planting production in 2009 was roughly 400,000 trees per month. In 2018, we are on pace to plant 4,000,000 trees per month – a tenfold increase in production capacity.
On your website, you state that it costs (at the base level) 10c to plant a single tree, with that covering all the costs from the nursery, transportation, the planting and the maintenance of a tree. This seems like such a low cost, can you shed a little light on how Eden Reforestation Projects has developed such a cost-efficient process?
The simple answer is at most of our project sites, 10 cents USD per tree is all that is necessary to hire the workers to grow, plant and guard the trees to maturity – and cover overhead expenses. But, there are several important efficiency keys including:
- Economies of scale. Eden only takes on massive projects. Business savvy minds know that larger production efforts result in a reduction in the cost per unit.
- Expensive and complex groups fail to remember that trees have actually been growing all by themselves for billions of years. Time and again I’ve encountered well intending groups who turn forest restoration science into overly complicated systems. Intricate seedling nurseries and planting systems easily break down and stretch budgets to the breaking point, and they leave little fiscal room for village worker salaries. Eden consistently builds simple and inexpensive large nursery and tree planting systems. Simple is what ensures cost effectiveness along with the capacity to multiply our large-scale efforts. Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) is part of our secret sauce.
- Finally, with our mission at the forefront, we do all we can to keep overhead at a minimum, which is only 18% to date in 2018.
Eden Reforestation Projects has recently begun reforestation operations in Indonesia, can you tell us a little more about why you chose Indonesia as the next site and what are your plans on the wondrous islands?
I grew up in the Philippines and had a number of boarding school roommates whose parents lived in Indonesia. Since childhood, Indonesia’s biodiversity has fascinated me, but that’s not sufficient reason to open a work. Again, please embrace the reality that growing trees is NOT the hard part. The difficult part is finding reliable leadership and building complex infrastructure in impoverished nations. So, the simple answer is through relational connections I was able to recruit proven trustworthy leaders and begin building essential operating systems.
How many jobs does Eden Reforestation Projects hope to create in Indonesia and what do the majority of these jobs entail for the local workers? (Interested to know about the variety of roles the local workplace is involved in, from planting trees, to transport, maintenance, administration etc.)
We plan to hire thousands of villagers in Indonesia, and since Eden keeps things simple we don’t require all the expensive tech types to do our work. Therefore, the overwhelming percentage of our employees are committed to what matters most – forest production.
What are some of the greatest challenges Eden Reforestation Projects faces in Indonesia and your other areas of work?
So, while the answer isn’t very egalitarian, it’s still the truth. Corruption is rampant in virtually every developing nation, and our project nations are no exception. Corruption is the primary reason why impoverished nations are and remain impoverished and why they are experiencing ecological destruction.
How do you plan to overcome these challenges?
Rampant corruption has become a tragic norm in deforested nations, which is why securing trustworthy leaders and developing reliable systems is an absolute.
The overall message that I receive from Eden Reforestation Projects is one of “What can you do?” as opposed to “What not to do”. Would you agree in a world where there is a seamlessly never-ending stream of messages stating what not to do it is equally if not more important to promote the positive messages of what people can do to help affect change?
Climate change is likely the greatest challenge the world faces today. Unquestionably we need to consume less and consume smarter, but reactivity will only get us so far. Therefore, Eden proactively utilizes the employ to plant methodology to tackle poverty and deforestation at the same time. Please know I’m a realist and know Eden is not going to restore all of the world’s forest. However, I do believe we can make a huge difference in nations like Indonesia and Madagascar, and we can show others what they CAN do.
A great many of our readers are photographers and likely to be visual people, can you give me an idea of the land mass that Eden Reforestation Projects has re-forested since beginning its work? For example, how many football fields worth of trees has Eden Projects planted?
To date, we have planted over 210 million trees and as noted above we are adding 4 million more per month. At an average planting density of 7,500 trees per hectare, we have restored 28,000 hectares. How many football fields does this equal? There are variances in size, but a football field (Soccer fields for Americans) typically measure in at 100 meters long x 50 meters wide, or 5,000 square meters. A hectare is 100 meters by 100 meters or 10,000 square meters total. If you do the math, this means Eden has restored 56,000 football fields of forest even as thousands of impoverished villagers and their dependents are lifted out of extreme poverty.
Also, there’s one more worthy note on the subject. In recent years Eden has been entrusted with guarding massive stands of healthy forest in Madagascar. We have yet to measure the perimeters of these areas, but without a doubt, the guarded areas triple the size and impact of our planting sites. That’s a lot more football fields covered in trees.
I find it very impressive that there is an opportunity for anybody to donate and help the cause of Eden Reforestation Projects ranging from a single figure amount to business partnerships. Can you tell us about The Eden League and how much impact a small group of friends who donate can make?
All the bad environmental news out there today leads the average person to believe they are powerless. But, what if the average person stopped making excuses. What if we stopped waiting for the big planner groups like the UN, EU and World Bank to solve the problem of global deforestation? They’ve already had 60 years to fix the problem. What if the average person started believing they could make a difference however small it might seem at first?
I’m not Martin Luther King Jr., but I do have a dream. I believe the issue of global deforestation will only be resolved if millions of ordinary folks rise up and act on what they CAN do. Imagine 1,000,000 individuals donating as little as $20 per person per month. That number translates into 2.4 billion trees (1,000,000 x $20 x 12 months x 0.10 per tree) or 640,000 more football fields (2,400,000,000 trees/7,500 trees per hectare x 2 football fields per hectare) What if two million individuals rose up and took action? The idea behind the Eden League is we have the power to change the world if we stop making excuses and start behaving proactively. That’s my vision and I’m sticking with it. Together we can change the world.
Thanks for your time Steve, any final thoughts or advice for people out there who love trees as much you?
John Lennon wrote in the song Imagine, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Let’s imagine a transformed world and act on what we’ve imagined. Let’s take charge of our global future by caring for the poor and the environment through one simple solution. After we’ve resolved global poverty and deforestation, we can go home for a well-deserved respite.