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It Started with a Challenge: One Month, 1,000 Trees
January 27, 2016

Woman with five children carrying seedlings (Courtesy of Greenpop)
Greenpop’s Urban Greening Programme plants thousands of seedlings every year at schools in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, South Africa. (Courtesy of Greenpop)

Misha Teasdale logged a lot of air travel working in documentary films.

But the travel didn’t square with his concern for the environment. Back at home in Cape Town, South Africa, he always recycled, rode his bike instead of hopping in his car and tried to be what he calls “a conscious consumer” — someone who considers the ethics behind the products he buys.

So a few years ago, after traveling 360,000 kilometers through 12 countries for a film, he calculated the environmental cost of the jet fuel. His calculations told him he’d have to plant around 600 trees. He rounded-up to 1,000 and recruited friends to give him two months of their time to help him plant. “I love convincing people to do things they generally wouldn’t want to do,” he said. Once they begin, they realize it’s more fun and easier than they had thought.

Teasdale’s idea started small, but with an effective plan for how to spread the word.

In the first month, he and his partners worked to raise money and awareness for the project they called Greenpop. They sold cards with seeds at busy traffic intersections that said “Join the treevolution.” They got the word out with “reverse graffiti” projects (text and art created by cleaning dirty urban surfaces). They rode through rush-hour traffic on skateboards and scooters wearing superhero capes. They attracted the attention of companies as far away as Norway and the U.S., and global corporations such as DHL funded seedlings and provided employee volunteers.

In the second month, they planted trees, learning as they went. The first five trees — in Masiphumelele in the Western Cape — took four and a half hours to plant. By month’s end, they could plant 300 trees in five hours.

The project attracted so much interest that they had 800 trees beyond the initial goal of 1,000, and other groups were eager to get involved. It was supposed to be a short campaign, Teasdale said. “We were going to plant a thousand trees then go back to our day jobs.”

Instead, they moved forward with Greenpop. Corporate sponsors began paying for the trees and the planters’ expenses. In the five years since starting, Greenpop has planted more than 57,000 trees at schools, hospitals, community centers and other urban sites as well as in forests and on farms across South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania.

Some companies working with Greenpop pledge to tie their production to tree plantings. For every so many products sold, companies pledge to plant a tree. Greenpop sends the GPS coordinates where trees are planted, so they can map them. Some companies display a certificate saying how many thousands of trees they have planted. “It’s a nice tangible thing for a company to be able to say,” Teasdale said.

Greenpop has become involved in reforestation efforts in Zambia and Tanzania and has “a database of projects across the continent,” according to Teasdale. This July, Greenpop will host its fifth annual Zambia Festival of Action. The event is modeled on large music festivals but focused on ecological education. “I want to change the culture around environmentalism,” said Teasdale. “It’s not just about trees, it’s about connecting people.”

Can Greenpop help you connect people in your country? How many trees could you and your network plant at a YALI event? You can find out how to get involved at Greenpop’s website.

The early stages of this world-changing project sometimes felt like struggling in the dirt to get the first of a thousand trees planted. What did Teasdale learn from those early setbacks?

“If you want to see your projects rise and do amazing things, it’s important to look at the most efficient ways of getting things done” and focus on those, said Teasdale. “It’s important to have reflective time that allows you to see where you had the most impact and where you didn’t have much impact. It’s very easy to have a hundred ideas, but it doesn’t mean those hundred ideas are going to be good for you or bring the right audience to you or be the most sustainable options for you.”