Time for Tree Aid as charity's efforts to help Africa branch out
As the West Country charity Tree Aid marks 25 years of vital work, David Clensy looks back at the growth of the organisation...
It really couldn’t have begun in a more suitably named place – the Yew Tree Inn, in the village of Chew Stoke. It was here, in this quiet little Somerset pub, that a group of foresters gathered for a lunchtime pint.
It was the mid-1980s and the world’s focus had turned to the horror of famine, with television images from Ethiopia and neighbouring countries transfixing a generation in humane, helpless angst.
But as Band Aid’s charity single played in the background, the group of lumberjacks discussed the plight of the despairing African families facing starvation on dusty plains 7,000 miles away.
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Working all day with trees, for the West Country foresters the long-term solution for the Ethiopians seemed almost obvious. Why rely on fragile crops, when trees – so much more resilient to periods of drought – could serve to provide everything from nutritional fruit and leaves to berries and bark?
As well as providing food security in the dry seasons, trees could also provide shelter for livestock from the sun, help to build a relatively self-sufficient local timber and farming industry, as well as gradually rebuild the landscape – allowing soil to gather and become evermore enriched in nutrition and water retention.
But they couldn’t have known then what their idle bar room banter would lead to.
Today, a quarter of a century on, Tree Aid is a major global charity with an annual turnover of £2.5 million.
From the moment you walk into the charity’s head office in Brunswick Square, Bristol, it’s clear from the maps that decorate the walls that this is now an organisation with far-reaching branches, touching lives in Mali, Niger, Ghana, Kenya, Burkina Faso, as well as in Ethiopia.
The charity’s CEO, Dr Philip Goodwin, joined the organisation two-and-a-half years ago, after eight years living in sub-Saharan Africa, working for the British Council.
The 47-year-old welcomes me into his office, where his desk overlooks the sycamore trees of Brunswick Square. However, Philip’s focus is on countless thousands of gnarly dry-land trees across Africa.
“We’re not talking about the big rainforest trees, which is what most people think of when you mention Africa and trees,” he said. “In fact, the kind of woodland we’re talking about doesn’t look particularly exceptional – people look at pictures of these trees and ask me what all the fuss is about.
“But it’s no exaggeration to say that trees like these can save the lives of families in the region during the worst periods of drought each year.
“People can live off the things that trees give us – not just fruit, though of course that’s important, but in these regions people also eat the leaves and the bark, which also provide important ingredients to bush medicines.
“Some of our woodlands around the world are small private areas of forest. Some are owned and run by the communities themselves, some are relatively big business operations, while some are just literally a couple of trees outside somebody’s hut – we try to tailor our support to what works best for individual communities.
“Everyone knows the role trees play as carbon-catchers and nurturers of the environment – but as incidents of drought and famine continue to increase across Africa, it is critical that the role trees play providing a vital source of food and income is also recognised,” he says.
The charity receives funding from a range of organisations, ranging from Comic Relief to the Swedish government’s international development agency, but the charity also relies heavily on smaller donations from individuals to enable it to continue its work on the ground.
It employs African charity workers to give training and agricultural education to villagers and provides tree stocks – with more than a million trees planted each year.
“In Africa’s drylands, 73 per cent of agricultural land is under threat of desertification,” Philip said. “When land is degraded, the impact on communities can be devastating. As soil becomes unproductive, sources of food and income disappear. Planting trees can be a solution – more fertile land leading to more food and greater income.
“We believe this is the time for trees,” he says. “It’s time we used trees to improve life for millions of people across Africa.”
To find out how you can help, visit the website at www.treeaid.org.uk.