It was interesting to observe the diverse reactions when I told people that I was going to spend most of my Christmas holidays in an unknown village planting trees. While some applauded the initiative and expressed their interest in being involved, others dismissed me as an urban intellectual playing at being a farmer.
The organisation of the first phase of the tree-planting initiative flowed naturally and each person played their part without any kind of hierarchy or set of rules. It all worked very smoothly and everyone was happy with the results. A couple of months in advance we created a WhatsApp group to share ideas and information. Many different topics were discussed before we met at Las Cuevas de Cañart (CC): the best ways of planting trees, particularities of the village, sustainability, climate change, sustainable agriculture and organic food. As a result, when people met for the first time in person they felt as if they already knew each other and shared a common purpose.
The preparations involved engaging stakeholders, organising accommodation, providing vegetarian food, agreeing several aspects with the landowner (who is now a key driver of the long-term project) and selecting and buying trees. As it was going to be the first time I had been there, we treated it as a preliminary visit in which we would evaluate the location and plan future action. I didn’t invite too many people as I didn’t want to disappoint anyone if things were not as expected. However, I had to disappoint several people who had expressed an interest in coming because the accommodation we arranged couldn’t hold enough people. I invited them to join the second phase, but this is something I could perhaps have done differently. Although we had to deal with several uncertainties since most of us were unfamiliar with the location, the local stakeholders and the available resources in place, in hindsight I think I could have involved more people in the first phase. We had many positive surprises at CC as the place and the people turned out to be amazing.
CC Phase 1 went very well. People aged from 4 to 40 were involved. The adults were architects, engineers and teachers. We planted holm oaks, a local native species, choosing locations with different particularities in terms of trajectory of shadows during the day and the seasons, slope, natural water flows and kind of ground. We decided to test these different variables before deciding on the best locations and techniques for more extensive planting in the future. People enjoyed the experience and were very motivated in implementing creative ideas to increase the resilience of the trees in such an extreme environment: rocky and dry soil, with freezing temperatures in winter and high temperatures in summer. We protected and irrigated the trees very thoroughly and during the second phase we plan to evaluate the results and continue taking care of them.
A couple of people volunteered to cook vegetarian food for everyone sharing the house we had rented. Some of us decided to try to switch to a vegetarian diet permanently. This is the kind of thing that happens when you encourage co-leadership, co-creation and collaboration. Unexpected additional outcomes come out of the initiative. However, I have to admit that it’s difficult to escape from long-held beliefs. When I was a child, my mum would buy me a good piece of beef if I was feeling sick. She told me that it was a shot of vitamins that would aid my recovery. This last week I’ve had flu and I’ve found myself thinking that I should eat some beef to help me recover my strength!
People continue sharing information regularly in the CC Phase 1 Whatsapp group. We comment on different news and technical issues to share what we know and learn more about sustainable lifestyles and climate action.
We’ve organised a second phase of the project that will take place from 6th to 11th April and new people have already confirmed attendance. This time we’ll be planting three different local native species (acacias, oaks and holm oaks) and we’ll plant them in a different area which is technically more challenging. We’ll need to hike to the top of a mountain where there’s no footpath and no river close by, so we’ll carry backpacks containing the required tools and as much water as possible to water the newly planted trees.
We are now brainstorming the question of how to leverage more resources in an innovative way. Personally, I’d like to escape from the traditional “donation” model by developing a collaboration model that isn’t based on capital flows and allocations.
Our CC Phase 2 WhatsApp group is already online and I sense that we’re embarking on an initiative that could become part of something much larger. Time will tell.
It has been a great experience to see a simple vision become a reality in such a natural and fluid way, as if it were meant to be. When I started thinking about this leadership challenge, I had no idea that things would turn out the way they have, but putting theory into practice has been extremely satisfying. I’ve also found a collaborative approach that fosters creativity, authenticity and diversity to be much more fruitful than the classical hierarchical approach. As a result, I feel more encouraged to start promoting the next phase of the project and appearing in social media to inspire others. We plan to film a series of interviews in which people discuss their experience, motivation and reflections after participating in the initiative.
One of the most rewarding things was to see how some people who were previously in absolute denial about climate change have now begun to campaign for nature-based solutions as a way of tackling the climate emergency. During the week we spent in CC, we went to an agricultural fair held in another village. After a speech given by a national expert, I asked him about the plans in his sector to combat climate change. He told me that they didn’t think they could do much as it was an extremely complex issue. I tried to convince him that they shouldn’t just passively wait to see what happens and that there are proactive measures we can take which are much simpler and more effective than they might think, such as creating and maintaining new forests (I argued the associated benefits). He told me that the scientific community was building its own discourse without reference to them. It also took a bit of courage to stand in front of a group of sceptical farmers with strong beliefs and personalities, but the experience was constructive. These interventions fostered reflection within our group and stimulated further discussion and debate.
In setting up the initiative I’ve had to overcome some scepticism and prejudice. For instance, when I told a group of farmers that I wanted to help them plant trees to learn from their experience, their initial reaction was to laugh and tell me to forget it. The second time I approached them they told me that I shouldn’t say silly things, that I wouldn’t come and that I wasn’t strong enough. The third time, I just asked them what time they were heading to the land and where they were meeting. I had to insist a lot for them to take me seriously. It was very early in the morning and freezing, but I went along, helped them prepare several hundred trees and then planted a few dozen using my arms and feet like everyone else. Afterwards they complimented me on my skill and said that I could be a farmer. Our perceptions of each other have now changed and communication channels are open.
I have to say that I understand their initial reactions as farmers necessarily live fairly sustainably. For them planting trees is a way of life, not the latest fashion. They produce their own food, reuse food-waste to feed livestock, don’t travel much and don’t buy unnecessary goods. I can understand that their perception of sustainability might not be the same as that of urban consumers who depend on food produced by others, commute to work and are always in search of the next fulfilling experience.
In developing and implementing this initiative I have consciously applied principles of High Impact Leadership based on the Cambridge University model. I have attempted to foster a concrete initiative which isn’t overcomplicated, which can be replicated on a large scale, and which anyone can participate in, regardless of their age, gender, background or nationality. I have sought to observe, learn from and work with people such as farmers, not to remain aloof from them. Conscious that most of the world’s population has not yet engaged with sustainability, I have sought to cultivate something practical that can engage people from very diverse educational backgrounds and cultures.
To sum up, putting theory into practice in a way that is so simple and can be so easily replicated has proved incredibly rewarding. It’s said that great oaks from little acorns grow. Let’s hope so.