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Ethan Budiansky Headshot

How Christmas Trees Could Save the World

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Christmas trees make our homes festive, give us a place to store our presents, and put us in the holiday mood. But what if they could do more?

What if your tree could feed a child and help protect her from deadly diseases, help a farmer grow food by restoring degraded land, improve water quality in a rural village, or even protect a community from a devastating hurricane? It can, if you think of a Christmas tree in a different way.

Last year, Americans purchased nearly 30 million evergreen trees to decorate their living rooms, a collective retail value of about $1.15 billion. If they had spent the same amount of money reforesting land in impoverished countries, they could have planted 11 billion trees.

The same $50 the average family spent on a single tree alone could plant 500 trees in countries such as Haiti or Kenya -- enough to reforest more than six acres of land.

As the Head of International Programs with Trees for the Future, I work throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and other regions developing and managing reforestation and community development programs centered around sustainable agriculture and tree-planting. I have seen first-hand the problems that arise when trees are cut down.

In many countries where we work the lack of trees worsens other chronic problems--increased erosion, less drinking and irrigation water, more disease, and poorer soil fertility and crop yields, which leads to malnutrition.

When planted near agricultural land, trees help increase food production. By improving soil fertility and decreasing erosion through agroforestry extension, farmers increase their crop yields while also making money doing such things as raising livestock or producing honey, fruit and even snails. Trees also provide other marketable products such as construction materials, biodiesel, fuel wood, and artisanal products helping to increase economic development. The root systems of trees also help absorb extra rainwater and stabilize the soil, reducing the devastating impact of hurricanes.

For most of us, we are never as close to trees as we are during the holidays. Bringing a fresh, live, evergreen into our living rooms reacquaints us with nature up close. During the rest of the year we tend to forget about trees and their potential usefulness.

Let me tell about two of the special trees that have help revitalize some of the communities where I work:

-The Moringa, or Miracle Tree, is proving to be a long-term solution to Haiti's devastated communities. It's hardy, fast-growing, resistant to droughts and flooding, and it serves multiple purposes. The miracle tree not only provides leaves that help combat undernourishment, but it can also help fertilize the soil, restore degraded farmlands, and increase the amount of food farmers can produce. Because of the Moringa leaves' nutritional benefits, individual vendors in Haiti can sell it at local markets, providing reliable cash income. The leaves are rich in beta carotene, iron, protein and potassium and can be used in sauces and to help reduce malnutrition especially in infants and nursing mothers. Moringa works well with different species including gardening and commercial crops like tomatoes and corn. When integrating planting Moringa with agricultural initiatives and gardening activities it can help increase food production.

-The Neem tree, which we plant widely throughout communities in Africa and India, is helpful in preventing the spread of malaria as it provides a natural insecticide which can be easily extracted from the tree's leaves and seeds and made into soaps, creams, and powders. These are effective at repelling and controlling mosquitoes. Neem can also be planted around compounds and villages to reduce the prevalence of mosquitoes in areas where people live. These trees also absorb substantial amounts of water through their root systems reducing areas of standing water where mosquitoes breed, helping decrease the incidence of malaria.

So this holiday season, as you admire your adorned evergreen tree with its glistening lights and shiny ornaments perched over beautifully wrapped gifts, spare a moment to think of the millions of people around the world who rely on trees for their everyday survival and livelihood.

For them, the present doesn't come under the tree, it is the tree.

Ethan Budiansky is head of international programs for Trees for the Future, a leading nonprofit organization providing economic opportunity and improving livelihoods worldwide through seed distribution and agroforestry training. To learn more, go to: http://www.plant-trees.org