Feb 03

More Than One Million Trees and Counting

“In 2012, I set what I thought at the time was a bit of an outrageous goal,” says Dr. Ed Louis, director of conservation genetics at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and founder and general director of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP). “I said I wanted to plant a million trees in Madagascar over the next five years.”

Since 1998, Louis and the zoo have been conducting a biodiversity survey in Madagascar, collecting samples and distribution data from the plants and animals there. Among other things, their work has led to the discovery of 23 new species of lemurs. But for every victory, there have been enormous challenges. “Environmentally, economically, politically, Madagascar is in the top ten of every bad list there is,” says Louis.

The island nation is considered one of the most diverse and ecologically-important biodiversity hotspots -- areas with unique plants and animals whose very existence are under threat -- on the planet. Generations of slash and burn farming, mining, illegal logging and poaching have resulted in the loss of more than 90 percent of Madagascar’s original forest, which has contributed to an overwhelming majority of the country's animals being classified as endangered or critically endangered species.

Louis knew that the future of Madagascar’s biodiversity – as well as the economic survival of its people – depended on reversing the deforestation trend. So he and his team, with help from supporting organizations including The Arbor Day Foundation and Save Our Species (SOS, a joint initiative of IUCN, the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank), developed an elaborate reforestation plan. “In 2012, we planted 45,067 trees for the year. Now, we plant more than that every month.”

Getting locals involved across the four field sites where they are planting has been key to the plan’s success. “We needed people to take ownership,” Louis says, noting that about 40-60 percent of working Malagasies in the Kianjavato area are employed by the MBP in some capacity.

"We have planting events: 7000 trees on Wednesday, 7000 trees on Friday. We utilize the women in the area to do the work. They are better at it: they don't get bored and they are disciplined. There are about 2,214 primarily women enrolled in the program." In the tree nurseries, most of the managers and reforestation assistants are men employed by the MBP NGO, and, in addition to their salary, receive credits each month after they have worked one year with the NGO. The nursery also employs single mothers for half-day work (so childcare isn’t an issue), to help with daily chores that continually refill the nurseries with new seedlings.

Tree planters, who are daily contract workers, are paid an agreed upon day rate (depending on the site, the going rate is generally about $1.50 for a day’s work), and they also have an incentive program. Each planter who is enrolled in the conservation credit program has a badge, which entitles them to one percent of the total number of trees planted on that specific planting day (i.e. 7000 trees results in 70 conservation credits deposited into that member’s account). The whole system is computerized to maintain the records and create reports. Credits can be cashed in for anything from sewing machines, biofuel efficient stoves, backpacks and boots, to… solar panels.

“These sites are not on the grid, so we have to use a lot of green technology,” explains Louis. “For example, Engineers Without Borders, from UNO and UNL, came in to put solar panels in our schools. How do you pay for that, when 90 percent of the population earns less than two dollars a day? So, we had each of the kids come in for one day and plant trees, and "write a check,” with their credits to Engineers Without Borders to get the required in-kind donation necessary to buy and install the solar panels."

MBP also works with Conservation Fusion, an international non-profit organization, founded and directed by Susie McGuire (Louis's wife) that is dedicated to engaging and educating the local population about responsible, sustainable stewardship to the environment.

"We're creating a platform where, in the future, hopefully they'll be able to own their land," says Louis. "We've divided the mountains in two. The top half is for lemurs and the forests, the bottom half belongs to the locals for their cash crops. We're creating entrepreneurship, ecotourism and everything that trickles down to build a solid economy.”

Louis says they’re on the road to being completely self-sustainable, but that they never could have gotten where they are without the support they’ve received from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and the community. “I don't know if we would have been able to do this, working anywhere else.”  In fact, the Omaha World Herald recently published a feature story in its Sunday edition about Dr. Louis’s work.

As for the millionth tree? It went in the ground in early December, planted by the Malagasy village elder who had planted the project’s very first tree. Now that the system is in place, Louis estimates they can plant the next million by the end of 2018, and a million a year after that. “If we can do that for ten years, we will have 15 million trees and the ones we’re planting now will be starting to mature,” he says. “If you combine everybody's efforts, you can really make a change.”

For information about supporting the MBP and other conservation and education programs at the zoo and around the world, please contact the Omaha Zoo Foundation.