“Give-a-Tree.rf”—Russia's Collective Reforestation Project

In a recent interview with Evgeny Voropai of Social Technologies Greenhouse, Sergey Skorobogadov, head of “Podari-Derevo.rf” [ru] (Give-a-Tree.rf) explained how a socially-conscious project can bring a profit and how quantitative indicators can stimulate activity in people.

E.V.: Sergey, you are the author of the “EcoChristmasTree” [ru] idea, and now you are involved with “Give-a-Tree.rf,” why such an interest towards greenery?

S.S.: The ideas of a clean environment and ecology are important to me. When you do something that is important to you, it finds you by itself. For several years I've been working with the separate waste collection theme, and I've gotten my family, relatives and friends onto it. I even organized  separate waste collection in the apartment complex where I live. Now my neighbors also support the idea of separate waste collection.

As far as trees are concerned, this theme has constantly intersected with initiatives I observed or participated in. You can say that everything began with collecting recycling and trash in forests, then there was the whole thing with “EcoChristmasTrees.” Here we offered what seems to be a simple alternative to chopping down trees, we rented out live Christmas trees in pots, so that in the spring they could be planted in the ground, this is hugely important for forest and plant conservation. The holiday season is over, but the desire to continue with this theme remained. “Give-a-Tree.rf” is a logical continuation of that project.

A present of a tree — I think it doesn't get any better than this. Instead of trash and useless things that clutter up space, the users have an opportunity to give something useful.

E.V.: Forests are disappearing, and that's a fact, but land allotted forests is also disappearing. Hectares of forest get converted into cubic meters of lumber or square meters of “usable space.” How many trees should be planted each year to balance the number those chopped down? 

Sergey Skorobagatov, Director of “Подари-Дерево.РФ”

S.S.: You know, I wouldn't name any numbers. There is a wire range of data, and they are all different, from different sources. Besides, I don't think that there are any objectives ways to assess the situation.

But it would be great if a person could plant two or three trees per year, on their own. This doesn't just pertain to Russia, but the world as a whole. This is important, because according to studies this is the amount of trees a single person “throws out” into the trash each year.

E.V.: “Give-a-Tree.rf” is part of the “A Billion Trees” program. Is it realistic to plant that many seedlings? Does Russia have space for this many plantings?

S.S.: “A Billion Trees” [ru] is a UN program which we have joined.  It's a worldwide campaign that proves that the simple act of planting a tree elicits a response and unites people. This is precisely the solidarity that it is currently necessary to demonstrate on a national level everywhere.

“A Billion Trees” is a  good reference point, a good goal. You understand, in what we do there is no end result, there is no end to this. So a billion is a number that is in front of you, it sets the necessary mechanisms in motion.

E.V.: Your project has many nuances that need to be taken into account when planting. There is the type of tree, the time and season of planting, the appropriate climate, type of soil, the natural landscape. Who is in charge of all that?

S.S.: This is probably the simplest stage of the work we do. “Give-a-Tree.rf” works with forestries, and foresters themselves recommend what, where, and how to plant. Because of lack of necessary resources, our project is of a special interest to them.

Somewhere a parasite destroyed some firs, somewhere else there was illegal clearing of oaks or a forest fire — all this isn't always solved by forester efforts. So, where possible, we join them. They help us with experience, we help them with reforestation. In urban ares we want to work under the motto “Where there is an empty lot – there will be a park.”

Now the project is active in Moscow, Moscow Region, St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region. We are thinking of starting to plant pines on the Baikal, we have how almost completed our technical preparations for that initiative. I am sure many Russians will find this interesting.

There is one more option, that for now exists only as an idea. The head of the “Save a tree” initiative, Nadya Tverdaya, who is also involved in the project, but who lives in Thailand, has suggested planting palms there.

E.V.: Remote planting of trees is a great example of online expansion into the offline world, a way of delegating. But volunteers don't go to plant trees after every online order. What are the mechanics of the whole process.

S.S.: We plant trees in the Fall and the Spring, but we sell the certificates year round. The users can choose to become a sponsor of a tree that we have already planted, or, if he so wishes, can participate in the next planting of seedlings.

It's all very simple. Volunteers plant trees, give them numbers, marking them with a corresponding sign, take the exact GPS coordinates, and all of these data are saved in the system. With the purchase of a certificate, the users receives a tree with an individual number, coordinates, photographs of the planting process, and a pretty personalized certificate, which can be printed out, framed, and hung up on a wall.

Screenshot of Подари-Дерево.РФ's interface.

E.V.: In your profile on “Give-a-Tree.rf” you write: “It is interesting to try to combine something that is practically incompatible — making a profit and good deeds.” Any luck? Is this an effective business model?

S.S.: You know, yes. We are happy with the results. Of course, like any start-up, “Give-a-Tree.rf” required certain expenditures. And so far the project isn't profitable. The good news is that the plantings are slowly starting to recoup themselves. I haven't analyzed it yet, but I think that on the last one we may have broken even.

E.V.: Is the motivation of people who bur or gift certificates important to you? How much of this is trendiness and entertainment, and how much is social responsibility?

S.S.: These days it's really trendy. To give a tree is cool. I think that these days trends are an effective motivator. This is why it is important for ecological stories to become popular.

We have been contacted by some commercial firms. People see a good initiative, see the potential, and want to participate. For them it is at the same time a good deed, and PR-stunt. It's great when the business sector starts to notice constructive  stories. The benefit of the “green” topic is that it's close to the business sector, to political and social activists.

E.V.: “Give-a-Tree.rf” is a seasonal project, what do you plan to do during the winter, and will you come back to it next spring?

S.S.: The sale of certificates will take place year round. No one is planning to stop. As I've said, there are already planted trees, the task is to find owners for them. So there is no seasonality here.

The website will continue working in the same capacity in the late fall and winter, and early spring. The planting of trees takes places several times a year and take less time than running the website and serving our customers.

The interview was conducted by Yevgeny Voropai. May 2013. You can find the original [ru] interview on the Teplitsa of Social Technologies website.

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