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In China, Planting Trees to Make a Difference

Tori Zwisler, founding executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute-Shanghai.

Tori Zwisler, founding executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute-Shanghai.

SAN FRANCISCO, October 20, 2009 - Tori Zwisler is the founding executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute-Shanghai. The Institute focuses primarily on the Roots & Shoots program, which promotes environmental concern, care for animals, and care for people among Shanghai’s youth. Roots & Shoots works with 170 schools in Shanghai with the aim of planting one million trees in Inner Mongolia by 2014 to fight desertification. It also works with offices to reduce carbon footprints, promotes poverty alleviation through education in Anhui province, works with migrant schools, and has helped coordinate the largest recycling program in Shanghai. Zwisler is a U.S. citizen and has been living in China for more than 20 years.

Tori Zwisler appeared at the Asia Society Northern California panel discussion on “The State of Environmental Activism in China” on October 20, 2009. In this interview with Asia Society Northern California's Neha Sakhuja, she discusses the Million Tree Campaign initiated by Shanghai Roots and Shoots to fight desertification in China, and the need for environmental activists to avoid antagonizing the government.


NS: Tell us about the Million Tree Campaign and how the idea came about.

TZ: Shanghai Roots and Shoots initiated the idea of the Million Tree Campaign in 2007. The program aims to plant one million trees by 2014 in Kulun Qi, Tongliao municipality which is in the far eastern region of Inner Mongolia in China to fight increasing desertification.

It all started when we were in a minivan travelling to Chomin Island with Dr. Jane Goodall. We noted that the transportation we were in was not ideal for the environment and the CO2 emissions were something we could not avoid. This got us thinking about how we could offset such a negative impact. Tree planting became an obvious choice for carbon offsets and also an opportunity for individuals and organizations to fight global warming.

We are keen to make it more personal for people in China contributing to this project in making the connection with their environment. When people see the trees they bought grow, they recognize it as an effective way of reducing carbon footprints for the next ten to 20 years and realize that they have tangibly offset their emissions

NS: How have the communities responded to the campaign? Has there been a change in their attitude toward protecting their local environment since the project began?

TZ: The whole thrust of this program is education of the community, so the first step before anybody buys  a tree is to make a commitment to change one’s habits  reduce carbon footprints by recycling more, reducing energy requirements. We want to push people towards a carbon-neutral position. We have 20,000 trees presently after three years. Every single one of them was purchased by some member of the community in Shanghai. This shows an encouraging response from the community towards this program.

We also engage with school children and farmers in Kulun Qi, educating them about the importance of tree planting and how it helps in water conservation and prevention of soil erosion. Communities in Kulun Qi are currently below the poverty level in China. They don’t have enough income or occupation to keep them busy. The weather is brutal as the winters are eight months long. We can get them to increase their income with intercropping, but also pay them to maintain the trees that help them to sustain their income for the months and we also set up a system to give them survival bonuses on year two, year five and year seven of the program. We encourage them to keep trees alive so that they can improve their incomes.

NS: Does joint forest management encourage more farmers to join this program?

TZ: I hope so! We are only in year three and things in China move slowly, and so far we have had a very positive response. Our presence is always there and we are not an NGO which visits once a year, plants a tree and never returns. People have started to see our involvement with them. We try to improve their techniques and increase their yield on the trees. We hope we are making a sustainable difference slowly and surely.

NS: Most traditional agricultural practices are sustainable, how has this disappeared over time?

TZ: The best insight about what went wrong in Inner Mongolia was the book Wolf Totem [author Jiang Rong], which tells the story about the agricultural collectivization imposed on the nomads by the settlers in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution in China, and the ecological mismanagement and disasters it caused.

The place where we are growing trees used to be forest land which was cut down to make way for farm plots. The grasslands were overused by the herders without any thought towards the historical use of the land. The grasslands disappeared due to growing number of sheep and goats and the desert encroached. This could be considered agricultural mismanagement at its worst.  

Next: "We are creating environmentalists who can work within the system."