Macedonians today, under weather conditions still unusually welcoming for this period of the year, are engaged in setting up the Tree Day campaign- a massive planting action that covers the face of a nation; a true Green Peace heaven, with a tradition that now adds yet another year to a streak that started back in 2008. An event that commands tremendous media attention, it is by far unprecedented.
Yet for all this, there is a surprising lack of noise. Millions of trees are being planted each year, but little to no statistics to cover up the whole project, uniting the dots. And while this is the biggest Arbor Day campaign per capita since the Spanish village of Mondoñedo held the first documented arbor plantation festival in the world, organized by its mayor in 1594, far less effort is being put into research and analysis.
Popular lore often holds true that when officials are silent there is usually some fuzzy affair going on in the back. This raises some questions… Telling the story all over again is likely to provide some of the answers.
A nation together
What have set the stage for such a massive and collaborative effort, happened in the summer of 2007, when wildfire destroyed more than 35,000 hectares of forest. Soon after, an ingenious idea came in the form of an invitation – Boris Trajanov, opera singer and UNESCO ambassador of peace, along with a small number of activists proposed the backbone of what would become the largest tree planting event in the world.
He stood in front of Macedonians saying “we can do this”, explaining how “the goal is to make Macedonia greener” and make people more aware of the needs of this planet.
The government at the time, now still in office, decided to unequivocally back the project, by providing the funds, transportation, seeds, professional help by the Macedonian Forests institution, and finally announcing a national holiday so the public sector and schools can be involved as well.
The first time this campaign took place 2 million trees were being planted. And since the symbolic aimed for “one for each citizen of the country” it was only fit that the campaign should be supported by a large number of people.
The government helped in organizing the event, providing transportation and encouraging the public sector to participate. Schools were also included, under the idea that children should start learning about preservation of this planet from a young age.
Dotting the map, two million trees were being planted, in a collaborative effort by 200,000 people – roughly ten percent of the country’s population. From a concept standpoint, this was the biggest leap a county can make in order to help preserve nature. What a proud day to be a Macedonian.
The campaign followed each year afterwards, adding to the net sum of forest covered land. The first year 2560 hectares were being planted, then 3915 the year after, followed by 2017, and then 744 in 2011. In addition, during this period, the forests in Macedonia grew more than 3000 hectares.
Fifty million trees planted- the government said in 2014- with a success rate of 61% compared to the average European planting success rate of 35%.
Adding to the forest fond near artificial lakes, fire torn regions, naked hills and in close proximity to rural and urban areas alike, Macedonians started addressing natural disasters, landslide, floods, and the extinction of some animal species…
But to track all this became exceedingly difficult. For the first time questions were being asked about the legitimacy of this program and the return of investment respectively, so in an absence of some answers controversy started to surround this campaign.
The cost of a tree
For those Macedonians with enough years under their belt, this whole campaign creates a Deja vu moment. They cannot help but associate it with Ex YU tree planting efforts, where socialism would have massive numbers of people planting over vast regions. The mount Vodno, standing tall over the capitol of Skopje, was indeed planted during one such action.
The similarities though somehow don’t seem to end there. What unites this campaign with those of the past is seemingly a unique socialist trait- massive actions were being undertaken without carefully weighing the outcome.
It seemed like no one knew to the exact extent how much was being spent, and what all effort amounted to at the end. The investment and the return of investment were both being parts of an equation full with significant unknowns.
But many people decide to stop being curious in favor of being blindly optimistic. Majority of Macedonians nowadays don’t put much stock in research and analysis as an important component of a successful endeavor. And this perfectly aligns with the too compelling narrative of this campaign.
In the meanwhile, press releases throw but a tiny bone, expanding ambiguity further. Statements about the campaign contain within them less numbers than a second league football match press usually would. This leaves room for opposing legislators to cast reasonable doubt on the entirety of the campaign.
Whereas the officials claim expenditure to be less than a million euros per year, the opposing party strongly disagrees.
They also cite numbers that place Skopje, the capitol, as the most polluted city in Europe, stating that no research is being made to point the exact reasons behind it. To many it seems hypocritical that the country that invests so much time energy and money to plant trees is also doing nothing to stop the pollution of its metropolis. Instead, more and more trees are being chopped down all over the city center.
A nation divided
Macedonia has, during these last couple of years, entered a phase of media deafness. People find it hard to believe what they see on the news and read in the papers. Spin statements are flying all over the place, and the ruling and opposing party managed, somehow, to turn every topic of discussion a politically colored one.
Where opposing legislators ask questions, attacks of conspiracy and theft are often being highlighted. On which the ruling party usually accuses how opponents’ political incentives are skewed towards maintenance of the status quo. Drama of the highest caliber. Nonstop.
So what about a day that wears “plant your future” as a unifying slogan?
Same drama that ultimately leads to the creation of this article- Not much is being publicly revealed by the officials, while the opposition looks for conspiracy at every turn. Highly unproductive back and forth that serves no answers and lessons to learn from this magnificent collaborative effort.
Both sides are looking in the wrong direction while we are missing out on one of the most incredible chances to learn about how to preserve nature.
Skopje it seems, bearing the above hypocrisy in mind, is most skeptical according to the number of people that came to participate. Instead, more and more empty buses are running circles towards and from the designated areas. The provinces and small towns though show more promise, as more hectares are planted by the hour.
There is a question here on whether or not state effort can significantly reduce pollution by enriching the forest fond. One that Macedonians are so close to answering but are somehow concerned with petty accusations on the one end and scoring political points on the other, all the while creating this weird anti-government and anti-opposition phobia that would make the average Macedonian smear at this article, and to some extend the campaign itself.
A unique example that even the highest degree of collaborative effort behind a noble cause, can affect negatively on a nation, instead of strengthening the roots of collaboration with every new tree planted.
Today, children and employees from the public sector alike are once again getting their hands covered with dirt, in an attempt to save nature. Whether or not they get to succeed is still an open question. If nothing else, awareness increases among the youth, and an example is being set – one that the Balkan countries, one after another, are slowly starting to follow.