A Musing on Tree Plantings and Past Aid Mistakes
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 10:35 am
The recent discussion about the tree planting voluntourism excursion offered through the Royal Caribbean Cruiselines brought to mind my own experiences leading volunteer tree plantings.
These community tree planting events consumed many years of my life when I was an undergraduate. For three years I oversaw the restoration of Denzil Stewart Nature Park. This included a yearly Trees and Trails Day where hundreds of community volunteers would come to the park to help plant native trees and shrubs and work on the nature trail. These volunteer days took months of preparation. It would have been far quicker and easier for me to plant all of the trees myself. But Trees and Trails Day was a great way to get people out to the park and feeling like they contributed something, the essence of voluntourism.
Unfortunately, not only did preparing for the planting days take more of my time than if I’d just planted the trees myself, but many of these trees later died. Even though the plants were native they still required twice a week watering for the first two years of their life. With no water piped into the park all the trees and shrubs had to be hand watered by hauling five gallon buckets up from the river. While it was easy to get hundreds of people to show up to do the “sexy” work of planting trees, it was far harder to get a reliable flow of volunteers willing to do the grunge work of hauling buckets of water twice a week for two years.
We thought we’d solved the problem a couple of years into the restoration when we set up a drip irrigation system using water from the canal above the park. Unfortunately the debris in the water regularly clogged the tubing requiring someone be at the park each time the plants were watered to ensure the system was working.
There was no money to pay someone to do the work. Although we asked for donations at each of these work days we rarely received them. I’m assuming that most people felt that their time was donation enough (although I’m only guessing, I never had the guts to ask). We couldn’t get grants to cover the cost of hiring someone to water the trees. Buying trees was seen as project costs but hiring someone to keep them alive was seen as overheads.
I made many mistakes during my three years overseeing the restoration of the park. Had I to do it all over again I would do many things differently. Here are some of the lessons I learned:
- Tree plantings, like all other types of aid, are not a one off event but require prep work in advance and long term maintenance afterward.
- If you don’t fund overhead costs you could lose the money that was invested in program costs.
- When planning a project the entire life of the project should be planned, not just the beginning.
- Preparing for volunteer events can take more time and energy than just doing the job yourself, therefore the amount that people “give back” should be kept in perspective.
- Sometimes sheer determination and force of personality can carry an ill-conceived idea much further than it should.
Unfortunately, the mistakes made at the nature park were not my last. I have dedicated many years to well-intentioned projects that have had varying degrees of success. It is from my own mistakes and from seeing the mistakes of others that I learned the hard way that good intentions are not enough to ensure successful aid projects.
I urge anyone reading this post not to follow in my footsteps. Take advantage of the many blogs and resources out there to learn about good aid practices and common mistakes. After all, there are far worse outcomes than a bunch of dead trees.