Caribbean Tree Planting Week: A region-wide coalition gets serious about climate change action

Professor Rosalea Hamilton planting a tree as part of the Caribbean Tree Planting Week initiative. Jamaica's Lasco Chin Foundation, in collaboration with the Kiwanis Club (Division 24 North) visited the JP Farm in St. Mary to plant 300 Jamaican mahogany and blue mahoe trees. Photo courtesy Hamilton, used with permission.

The inaugural Caribbean Tree Planting Week took place virtually from July 5 to 11, and Jamaica-based professor Rosalea Hamilton, chair of the Caribbean Philanthropic Alliance (CariPhil) and CEO of the LASCO Chin Foundation, along with her enthusiastic team, are campaigning for it to be a regular fixture in the regional calendar. The ambitious Caribbean Tree Planting Project (CTPP) has, so far, encompassed 22 territories and 347 partners since its inception. Participants planted 1,517,463 trees between February 2020 and June 2021, a remarkable feat in the context of COVID-19 restrictions.

The week was packed with online events involving cultural and civil society activists, representatives from the region's Indigenous peoples as well as its diaspora, academics, conservationists, musicians, spiritual leaders and, perhaps most importantly, young people. One young Bahamian shared his love of composting; an Indigenous Surinamese woman described her people’s fight for land rights under threat of spreading deforestation; other conversations focused on everything from women’s empowerment, to mangrove restoration and even the fascinating history of the baobab tree.

Professor Rosalea Hamilton. Photo courtesy Hamilton, used with permission.

Via email, I interviewed Rosalea Hamilton, the co-founder of CTPP, and Trinidad-based development strategist Talya Mohammed, who moderated a lively session with Caribbean children and works with many of the young volunteers.

Emma Lewis (EL): Where did the inspiration for this initiative come from?

Rosalea Hamilton (RH): We started sowing the seeds of the Caribbean Tree Planting Project (CTPP) in April 2019, when a group of Caribbean philanthropists met in Jamaica at the WINGS philanthropic peer-learning event. It was here that we decided that it was important for us to collaborate regionally to more effectively achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in the Caribbean.

This led to the creation of The Caribbean Philanthropic Alliance, which was launched in September 2020 at the SDG Action Zone at the United Nations in New York. This happened during the aftermath of the catastrophic Category 5 Hurricane Dorian, which devastated The Bahamas. In this context, and given our shared experience with hurricanes and climate events in the Caribbean, it was easy for all of us to agree to do a project that can contribute to addressing the existential threat that climate change poses for all of us in the Caribbean. By February 2020, the CTPP started … the seeds started to take root!

Development strategist Talya Mohammed. Photo courtesy Mohammed, used with permission.

EL: How critical is the youth component of the project to you?

Talya Mohammed (TM): The youth component of this project is extremely vital for sustainability. Essentially, the project was conceptualised by youth members […] leading to the formulation of the CTPP. The youth voiced their concern about the lack of cohesive and united climate action in the Caribbean, with [localised] efforts in each island, but not set as a regional goal. We are the heart of the project, whilst the senior members are the soul.

Leading and interacting with the youth has been challenging and inspiring. Whilst they all are passionate about the cause, they are also highly involved in academic pursuits and/or entrepreneurship activities. Time management has been an early lesson of this high-paced, action-oriented project. It is phenomenal to witness the opportunities that they are all taking advantage of with globalisation and access, while still doing their part to contribute meaningfully to this project. Leading our team in Trinidad and Tobago has been a wonderful experience; encouragement and mentorship have been my role, which allows them to take the lead on ideas and implementation. Allowing them to spread their wings to make decisions and troubleshoot problems is important to develop their critical thinking, a necessary [skill] for them being able to lead projects, and take over and carry on the work.

EL: What role has digital technology and social media played?

RH: Digital technology has played a huge role […] keeping us all connected and in constant, easy communication. The ease in sharing documents, pictures and videos enabled us to organise events such as the CTPW very quickly and comprehensively. For me, the only real limitation in relying only on digital technology is the absence of personal interactions and related personal/social experiences, [which] gives us a better understanding of individuals, their communities and their society.

One of the educational offerings of Caribbean Tree Planting Week that was shared on social media. Photo courtesy Talya Mohammed, used with permission.

TM: Without digital tools and supporting infrastructure, Caribbean Tree Planting Week would not be possible. It has been amazing to see [people] embracing technology to do the work and foster the […] relationships necessary [for] a project of this scale. [We did have] connection issues on each island, with Tropical Storm Elsa announcing herself suddenly and with severity. Other limitations [were] hardware reliability and resources in general to manage all the aspects of digital technology, both human and financial. The project is intensively volunteer-based [so] we have been working with many skilled, tech-savvy [people], [with everyone] doing their part and learning as we go to accomplish tasks.

EL: What would you like to see coming out of Caribbean Tree Planting Week?

RH: Better public awareness and understanding of the importance of planting trees and the need to ACTIVELY protect our environment and cultural heritage. I want Caribbean people to really understand the benefits of trees. Trees enable us to breathe, give us clean water, reduce pollution, provide food, protection and homes for animals and humans, and much more. When we see trees through this broad lens, we will see how our collaboration in planting trees across the Caribbean enables us to address all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Tree planting will not solve all the problems in the Caribbean, but it is an important seed to plant in addressing most.

“Plant like a Rockstar”: Youth Tree Planting Ambassadors plant trees at WIRRED in Barbados, working with the “One Tree, One Bajan” campaign. Photo used with permission.

EL: Do you see it branching off into other related projects?

RH: YES! As we grapple with the serious social and economic implications of [COVID-19], our branches will be spread in other areas. We are committed to empowering Caribbean people, especially our women and children, who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We must empower Caribbean people to not only address the immediate COVID-related challenges that we face, but also to tackle the root causes […] that have persisted prior to COVID. This includes empowering Caribbean people to actively advocate for climate justice and defending Mother Earth and all human beings. We are actively seeking partnerships, as well as financial and in-kind resources to strengthen the work of philanthropic organisations that are actively empowering men, women and children across the Caribbean.

TM: It must. [In most countries] the project was based upon existing projects or activities of non-profits and other organisations doing this work. What this project did was connect dots, [allowing] collaboration and learning from others. The next step would be building better connections in order to collate data for monitoring and evaluation of the project and its many moving parts through its many partners. This is essential for sustainability and monetisation and/or downstream activities and products that will be generated by the different trees being planted—especially in agro-processing and reporting on SDG 2: Zero Hunger.

Tree planting on July 10, 2021 at the newly opened Harmony Beach Park in Montego Bay, Jamaica, with singer and tree planting ambassador Jamila Falak (left), and a representative of the Urban Development Corporation. The trees planted included the Blue Mahoe (Jamaica's National Tree), Lignum Vitae (its National Flower), and Jamaican Mahogany. Photo courtesy Rosalea Hamilton, used with permission.

EL: We do a lot of talking about climate change in the Caribbean, but this is a great example of climate action. What else do you consider important at this time?

RH: Climate Justice is very important. As we tackle climate change, we must consider issues such as fairness, equality, human rights, and the historical responsibilities for climate change. The Caribbean contributes less than one per cent to global greenhouse emissions, but we are increasingly bearing the burden of the environmental devastation that climate change events bring. We must actively advocate for the changes we want and invest the resources required to make [them].

TM: Public sector entities are understaffed and under-resourced themselves to implement and upkeep compliance. Yet we do host many conferences and talk shops. The CTPP was action-oriented, along with the action of education, which requires strategic communication tools […] as well as the use of digital media [to] ‘talk to the people’. United action is needed, hence the Caribbean Tree Planting Week was designed so that any Caribbean person can make a change by signing the letter.

Other planned actions involve fundraising to ensure that the trees which have already been planted can be monitored, and that all downstream activities from tree planting are capitalised upon.

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