The text came in the early morning hours via my WhatsApp. It was too early for an unimportant text, so I opened my eyes and reached for my phone.
“If you want to imagine what Idai is like, think of Katrina on a steroid overdose,” the first line read. “Mezimbite has been destroyed, trees, buildings, equipment. Fortunately nobody was injured or killed.”
I sat up from my bed alarmed. “Hurricane?!? I didn’t hear of any hurricane,” I thought, my brain trying to comprehend the severity of the situation after the fogginess of sleep wore off. The text came from my friend, Allan—forest conservationist and creator of the Mezimbite Forest Centre, a sustainable development operation that focuses on tree planting, training artisans, and making value-added products from the resources of the forest.
The first thing I did was search the news for a visual—at least to put the disaster into perspective. Beira, the closest city to Allan’s operation, was pummeled. On March 14, 2019, NASA’s Aqua satellite picked up the eye of the Hurricane ripping right through Mozambique’s fourth largest city, leaving only 10 percent of it intact and hundreds of thousands of people without a home.
Allan had departed for Austria just days before to present a paper at the World Wood Day Conference. Before he left, he bought enough food for the workers through April and stashed it in a container just in the event the Hurricane was bad. What Allan discovered while he was away, however, was that it was worse than bad—it was disastrous. “It took a lot of will,” Allan told me over the phone days later. “To hold myself together when presenting in Austria—knowing what happened to Mezimbite…”
I met Allan in person fifteen years prior at an ethical fashion conference in Paris. He had earlier reached out to me via email, after hearing about my own work in conservation from a friend. We hit it off immediately—and talked excitedly about our love of many things—but particularly our love for forests.
Born in South Africa and having become an acclaimed architect, Allan eventually made his way to neighboring Mozambique after witnessing the destruction of the beloved forests of the Miombo biome he grew up with—largely for trivial things…”jolly junk shit,” he’ll often say to me, which loosely translates into tchotchkes and disposables. A teaching fellow at MIT at the time, he decided to leave his position and put his time, talent and effort into something that mattered—to him, to the people there, and to the forest.
Over the past twenty years of setting up Mezimbite Forest Centre, he and his humble operation have become one of the largest tree planters in the country—restoring little patches of native Miombo forest here and there to a sum of over 1 million trees over a couple decades. “Not something to entirely boast about,” I could hear him say, “because most everyone takes the trees without putting them back.”
Sadly this is a sentiment that can be echoed in many places around the world. Nearly a decade back, I partnered with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to host an awareness campaign around the removal of virgin Indonesian forests for something as trivial as luxury paper bags, sourced by just about every name brand you can think of. This action later led to a paper buying policy among brands including Tiffany’s, Gucci, and Levi Strauss; and the divestment of the pulping company from its parent company in Asia.
Years later, I flew out to Indonesia to see forest destruction first hand on the Pandumaan territory in Sumatra; their forests, which provided for their livelihood and their way of life, were illegally removed to be turned into paper pulp or rayon. This later led to a campaign for transparency in the clothing supply chain–led by Canopy and RAN, particularly around rayon fabric. And even prior to this, I was made aware that the majestic Canadian forests were being cut down and pulped to make everything from books to rayon for clothes to paper towels. (Mind you, I have encouraged all my publishers to print my books on recycled paper...Still something I’m shocked I have to explicitly ask for).
So when the Guardian in an article entitled Wiped Out revealed that much of America’s habit for buying cushy soft toilet paper was literally wiping out our forests (as researched by NRDC’s “The Issue With Tissue” report), I wept a little inside. It’s so easy for us to unconsciously make less-than-great choices everyday, but when options for better choices present themselves—like recycled options, which sit side-by-side on the supermarket shelves—it’s inarguably an easy fix to make.
The week after Hurricane Idai made landfall at Mezimbite, I went to join Seventh Generation, the recycled paper product and eco-conscious cleaning company, at their “Root-In” event at Grand Central Terminal to raise awareness on using recycled bath tissue. (FYI: Seventh Generation scored an A in NRDC’s scorecard for one of the most environmentally-friendly companies in their sector). If you visit their website, it’s clear to see their stance on recycled paper products: “If every household in the US replaced one 12-pack of 240-sheet virgin fiber bathroom tissue with 100% recycled bath tissue, we could help save over 2,400,000 trees.” The Root-In event brought a few hundred trees to Grand Central, to represent how many trees we unknowingly cut down in a lifetime if we choose two-ply made with virgin forests. *Seventh Generation’s toilet paper is 100% recycled (minimum 50% post-consumer recycled).
Forest restoration is an option, of course, but as Allan has shown—not many will roll up their sleeves and step up to do the hard work. What would be the most sensible, is to not remove the forests so indiscriminately to begin with. This is where we—the responsible consumer comes in—to realize our role, educate ourselves about the options, and exercise our power through our own means—whether that translates into purchasing a better product—or getting involved in local community or global efforts.
After the Root-in event, for which you’ll see in the video, some of the trees had been (much to my elation and surprise!) donated to Los Sures, the senior citizen service center that I volunteer at daily—taking care of the chickens. They will be planted hopefully before the end of spring.
But I couldn’t help but think of Allan and his trees.
One of my many trips through the Mozambique countryside, Allan shared with me that when the land was laid barren—stripped of its trees—it provided a blank canvas for invasives to move in—changing the dynamic of the land. When such dramatic change occurs, sometimes human-intervention is needed in another way—to do enrichment planting of native species to maintain the original nature and biodiversity of the forest. Mother Nature is resilient, yes, but sometimes she requires us to do our part and occasionally help her when help is needed.