5 Times People Used Trees to Change the World

These people have used trees to fight climate change, help with diplomacy, and save their island.

By Heather Brady
Published 22 Apr 2018, 09:57 BST
Seen in August 2011, Felix Finkbeiner has made it his life's goal to plant trees. And ...
Seen in August 2011, Felix Finkbeiner has made it his life's goal to plant trees. And he is getting a lot of help.
Photograph by Benno Kraehahn

In honour of Earth Day, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite National Geographic stories on people making a big impact around the world through trees—planting them, climbing them, and advocating for them.

Here are five stories celebrating trees and the people who love them.

This Teenager Has Planted More Than 14 Billion Trees

Felix Finkbeiner has been working steadily since he was a child planting trees to combat the effects of climate change. He spoke to the United Nations General Assembly when he was just nine years old about the inaction he saw from adults who were supposed to be preserving the planet for future generations.

Realising that he and his peers would be living through the consequences of their passivity, Finkbeiner started the environmental group Plant-for-the-Planet, which then partnered with the UN’s Billion Tree campaign. Together, they have set a new planting goal of one trillion trees, or about 150 trees for every person on Earth.

A Man in India Planted a Forest Bigger Than Central Park

Jadav Payeng has been working since 1979 to plant hundreds of trees to save his island, which is threatened by erosion.

Northeast India’s Majuli Island, the world’s largest river island, was becoming a barren wasteland due to climate change. The Brahmaputra River that flows around it was eroding its shores at a steadily increasing rate.

The island, home to 150,000 people, has lost over half its land mass to erosion since 1917. But Payeng, a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, is protecting it by turning it into an oasis with a forest larger than Central Park. The forest is now home to elephants, rhinos, tigers, and more, and Payeng must protect it from a new threat—the humans who want to use it for economic gain.

This Man Brought Flowering Cherry Trees to Washington, D.C.

Cherry blossoms burst forth in pink every spring around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.

David Fairchild, a food explorer working for the U.S. government in the early 1900s, worked to bring fruits and plants to the United States at a time when the country feared foreign species. He introduced peaches, avocados, mangoes—and came up with the idea for bringing Japanese cherry trees to America.

After seeing the trees in Japan and becoming enchanted by their beauty, Fairchild ordered some for his home near Chevy Chase, Maryland. So many people came to see the trees’ first bloom the following year that he gifted 300 of them to the city of Chevy Chase.

As Congress worked to beautify Washington, D.C., which wasn’t considered to be an attractive city at the time, Fairchild (along with folks like Eliza Scidmore) supported the popular idea that cherry trees could be planted around city’s Tidal Basin. With support from President and Mrs. Taft, who had just entered the White House and were looking for a way to build up diplomatic relations with Japan, thousands of trees were ordered.

The first attempt at shipping the trees failed because they were poorly packed and full of infestation. The second attempt succeeded, and the blossoms are still welcomed with joy every spring in D.C. over a hundred years later.

Villagers in Georgia Risk Their Lives for Christmas Trees

Nordmann firs, Europe’s preferred Christmas trees, grow in the forested valleys of Racha, a mountainous region of Georgia. But the process of harvesting the seeds from them is more akin to the Wild West than a holiday tradition.

The people who live in nearby villagers climb high up into the fir trees without equipment, often endangering their own lives during the fast-paced harvest, to gather the pinecones that grow at the top. The pinecones, which contain the firs’ seeds, are then shipped in big batches to companies that grow new trees for the Christmas season.

While the climbers use the opportunity to make a small amount of money, critics say the safety of those harvesting the seeds needs to be a greater priority.

“If you think that [Christmas] is about the birth of Jesus Christ and people are dying to get the Christmas tree into your living rooms, this is really insane,” adds Michael Kraus, the German safety coordinator and harvest manager for Fair Trees.

One Man's Dream to Transform London Into One Big Park

The oldest of the city's eight Royal Parks, St. James's Park offers lovely views.
Photograph by Simon Roberts, National Geographic Creative

National Geographic explorer and self-described “guerrilla photographer” Daniel Raven-Ellison isn’t necessarily planting trees himself. He did, however, notice the millions of trees growing throughout his home city of London and used them as part of his argument to redefine the city as a national park. His plan became a reality in July 2019, with London officially awarded the status of National Park City.

By redefining the definition of a national park, Raven-Ellison is hoping more parks can be created and integrated into the everyday lives of people around the world. London is already 47 percent green space, he says, and it’s highly biodiverse. By encouraging the country to officially value and protect its wild spaces, Raven-Ellison hopes people will benefit from having nature—trees included—thrive right outside their doorstep.


This article was updated in September 2019


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