[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
Scott Sabin, MA, is executive director of Plant With Purpose, a nonprofit Christian environmental organization with operations in seven countries. Sabin is the author of the book Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People as well as many other publications.
In this interview Sabin discusses the role trees play in raising the living conditions of the poor and Plant With Purpose’s philosophy and methodology as it seeks to raise communities out of poverty by restoring land from degradation.
To learn more about Plant With Purpose and to get involved in their effort to plant 10,000 trees by raising 10,000 dollars before Earth Day (April 22) visit the Trees Please Campaign page.
Sabin: The most important assets a poor farmer has are the soil and water. Rural farmer’s lives literally depend on the health of these two resources for food, water, and their income. Out of desperation to feed their families, poor farmers turn to their most valuable resource, trees, to cut down and sell for charcoal. Without trees, the land dries up and rain becomes less frequent, causing streams to dry up. The topsoil quickly erodes, which means crops can’t grow and people go hungry. Trees act as a natural filtration system to improve the quality of the water. Trees hold the soil in place to prevent soil erosion, which can lead to mudslides in a heavy rainfall, wiping out entire communities. As watersheds become replenished, water flows once more and the soil becomes more fertile, allowing farmers to plant crops for food and as a source of income.
Flourish: If deforestation is already a problem where you work, why won’t people simply cut the trees that you are planting? What’s different about the pressure to deforest after you plant the trees? Or to put another way, why don’t people just do this work themselves, if it has the potential to lift them out of poverty? Why does it take charitable donations to make it happen?
Sabin: The farmers we work with do in fact plant the trees themselves. In each of the countries where we work we hire local staff to train farmers on proper agro-forestry and planting techniques and to work with them. Donations go toward the staff’s salaries, vehicle repair, or toward an initial loan or to purchase parts for a project such as a cistern or latrine, which the community pays back in cash or through tree seedlings. After we have partnered with a community for some time, they have renewed hope and other means of income, from their business or by selling vegetables, so there is no need or pressure to cut down the trees. They are in a different place than they were before we partnered with their community. Farmers do cut down some trees, though, but those are specifically planted for timber use.
Flourish: Who owns the trees (and the land that you plant the trees on)? Is that important?
Sabin: It varies in the countries where we work, but mostly farmers either own their own land and use the trees for their own use, or they are involved in a community plot. This is the case in Mexico, for example. For the community plot, the group votes every five years on how to manage it, and then they all share the harvest. In Thailand, we mostly work with Burmese hill tribes who have set up their homes on government owned reserves. We are working with the Thai government to help these refugees obtain ownership over their land, and also for the government to see the benefits of sustainable agriculture and agro-forestry techniques on the land.
Sabin: In each country where we work we are conscious of the eco-system and strive to plant native species. These include fruit trees, trees that can be cut down for lumber, or pine trees. As I talk about in my book, Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People, I’m frequently asked if we’re planting “that miracle tree”. But the identity of the miracle has changed over the years from leucaena, a fast-growing tree in Southeast Asia, to the moringa, neem, acacia, and even eucalyptus. Creation is far more complicated and subtle. God loves diversity and He gave us many remarkable plants and trees, most of which we are just beginning to appreciate.
Flourish: What else do you do besides plant trees?
Sabin: Planting trees is just one of the many ways Plant With Purpose works to come alongside the rural poor and help them to lift themselves out of poverty. We also implement savings and loans groups to help communities generate their own income to start businesses and care for their families, and we foster spiritual renewal by coming alongside local churches to help them be leaders and agents of change in their communities. Additionally, we train farmers on proper agro-forestry and agriculture techniques to help them diversify their means of income and food security. Through this holistic approach to sustainable development we have seen lives transformed from a vicious cycle of poverty and despair to a victorious cycle of dignity, hope, and ongoing opportunities.
Flourish: Which countries do you work in? How are they different?
Sabin: We work in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Burundi, Thailand, and Tanzania. In each country we implement various programs based on the greatest needs. To give a couple of examples, in Mexico we work with the local farmers to create greenhouses. These thrive in this region because they are able to produce tomatoes and other produce much faster using this method, and since it’s so dry the greenhouses are able to capture the provided moisture. In Tanzania, communities have formed Village Community Banking Groups (VICOBA) as a way to sustainably generate their own income. This provides farmers with opportunities to start small businesses and pursue entrepreneurial businesses to increase their savings and provide for their families. VICOBA is working well in Tanzania and so we are currently working to implement this model in Mexico.
Flourish: How do you measure the success of your projects?
Sabin: We measure the success of our programs by conducting impact evaluations. These include such questions as: How many meals per day are people eating? Are basic needs being met? Are people saving money? Are churches catalyzing development and change in their communities? Is a multiplier-effect taking place where community members are telling other groups about our programs? Are relationships being restored between people and the earth, people and God, and each other? We also plan semi-annual accountability visits to see what type of impact we are making on communities.