Ocaya tracking seedlings in the nursery
The end of the year is always a potent time of reflection: to look back at where we’ve been, and look forward to where we’re going. For us at the Native Seeds Project, 2017 has been a year of growth, a year that has allowed us to spread our impact to more communities than ever before. Let me give you a little recap of where we’ve been, and why 2017 has felt like such a momentous year.
This project, like many good things, was born from a conversation. In 2015, a group of rural women, all of whom are traditional healers, got together to talk about their lives, their communities, their struggles, their triumphs. Over the course of the conversation, many of them started talking about their medicine, and the plants they derive it from. One mentioned how one plant that she often uses to treat coughs has become incredibly difficult to find. How years ago she only had to walk a few minutes to harvest the leaves, and now she must walk several miles to find one of the trees that is still standing. The other women began to chatter along, fervently validating her experience with their own. It suddenly dawned on them: our trees–the plants we have always used for medicine, for food, for timber–are disappearing. Then the question came: what can we do about it?
They began galvanizing. Brainstorming. Talking. Realizing that in this modern day, where the youth are moving to the towns and farmers with extra land are planting monoculture plots of pine for commercial timber, no one was really interested in the issue of this disappearance of native trees. They realized it was up to them to do something about it.
Of course, the task was daunting. These women already have a lot on their plates: they are healers in an area of the world where 60% of people still depend on traditional medicine as their primary source of healthcare. They are rural women in Uganda: some literate, some not, yet still expected to enter the cash economy so they can send their kids to school, their grandkids to school, and provide for their families. They are farmers, mothers, caretakers of their households. Suffice to say, they don’t exactly have a lot of free time on their hands. Not to mention that being a woman, and a poor woman, in Uganda doesn’t give you many opportunities to make you feel like you can start an association and get a project up and running off the ground.
But, these women were determined. So, we started small. We talked about what our vision was, and made a road map for how to get there. We started with capacity building trainings for the women, and started a VSLA (Village Savings & Loan Association) so that they could get access to capital, learn to save money, and begin to find financial stability. Then, we raised money to buy a plot of land, in the women’s association’s name, as a site to construct a tree nursery and begin to plant these native trees that the women were determined to bring back.
Flash forward two years to 2017. The small plot of land is now 7 acres, with a tree nursery that produced 12,000 seedlings this year. Our team is now 11 people, meaning we are providing full-time, eco-friendly jobs for 11 families. We just finished construction of a fully-equipped building so a nursery manager can live onsite, drilled a well for access to clean drinking water (for us and the neighbors), and finished fencing the land to keep our seedlings safe from grazing cattle and other animals. What was once just a field now is the home to demonstration agroforestry systems: groups of strategically placed native trees that provide different benefits to the people who plant them, from medicine to soil restoration to delicious fruits to sustainable firewood.
Our Forest Program Manager, Lincoln Ocaya, created a year-long curriculum to teach the women how to produce seedlings, plant them, and care for them. The women just finished the year-long course, and are now primed to go into communities on their own to train and plant seedlings with farmers. From this work, they will receive a stipend that will boost their economic empowerment and financial independence, in a way that also fulfills their original vision: to bring back the trees that used to grace their landscapes.
While the women were busy learning how to run a nursery and plant and manage tree seedlings, our Native Seeds Project head staff was conducting perhaps our largest success of the year: the distribution of the 12,000 native tree seedlings we produced. Village by village, our team talked with farmers, conducted climate change resiliency trainings, and got tree seedlings into the hands of those that need them most: family farmers that still depend on the land for their livelihood.
So, when we reflect on the fact that two years ago all of this was just a conversation under the mango tree, it reminds us just how capable we all are of making a change in this world. We are reminded that with a little determination, persistence, hope, and the solidarity and support of people who share our vision, doing good in this world is not only possible, but destined.
And it is this sentiment that we are carrying with us as we enter 2018. We are doubling our seedling production to 30,000 tree seedlings this year, and the 25 women we work with our more than ready to begin their new jobs as ‘tree trainers,’ going into communities to teach farmers about the importance of native trees in combating climate change and restoring their degraded landscapes, while also guiding them in the proper care and management of the seedlings they plant. We hope you will continue this journey with us, because what Margaret Mead said some years ago has never felt more true– to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Wherever you may be, I hope this holiday season is filled with family, friends, and hope for the year ahead.
Florence taking notes during tree trainer class
Julie and Robin checking on a farmer's seedling
Peter and David loading seedlings for villages
Made, excited for our successes of the year!