Knowing that he was going to do something good for the planet if he scored a goal motivated him to play better.
Hendrikus van Hensbergen had been planning to attend Timber Festival this summer to talk about his new book for young people, How You Can Save the Planet, which will be published by Penguin in March 2021.
The book promises to be a definitive guide to creating a better world wherever you live, and features a foreword by acclaimed writer and activist Robert Macfarlane, step-by-step guides to making a positive impact on the planet and inspiring stories of young heroes in the UK and across the world.
Lesein Mutunkei picked up the last handful of earth. He felt the soil crumble between his fingers as he dropped it in the hole. It was satisfying to see the earth piling up around the roots of the small tree.
Once he had finished planting, he watered his tree carefully. Lesein was seven years old. He grew up in the city of Nairobi in Kenya. His family liked to go camping in the nearby countryside and occasionally they would plant a tree.
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Over the next few years Lesein heard more about deforestation and climate breakdown in the news. He was shocked to find out that Kenya was losing 50,000 hectares of forest each year, the equivalent of 164 football pitches every day. He realized that planting trees is a natural solution to the climate crisis as they absorb carbon dioxide in the air as they grow.
At the age of twelve, Lesein came up with a simple idea. He loved football and so for every goal he scored, he would plant a tree. He called this initiative Trees for Goals. Knowing that he was going to do something good for the planet if he scored a goal motivated him to play better.
Students at his school started to ask what he was doing and so Lesein decided to get other students involved to make a bigger impact. The school was planning a trip to Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. Lesein spoke to his teachers about planting trees while they were there, and the school agreed.
When he got back home, Lesein thought about how he could make his simple idea more effective. What if, for every goal scored, eleven trees were planted, one to represent each player on the team? After all, every goal is a collaborative team effort.
The idea stuck. The school started Trees for Goals in their football, rugby and basketball teams and his football club adopted his idea. Soon they had planted nearly 1,000 trees around Nairobi.
Lesein decided he wanted to expand his approach across Kenya, but he would need some help. Fortunately, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry noticed his campaign on social media. He was invited to meet their board and the minister. They discussed how his approach could engage young people in the environment and agreed to provide him with trees.
Lesein began to get more and more media attention for his simple, clever idea. His school was so impressed that it nominated him to join the very first UN Youth Climate Summit in New York. He boarded the plane for his first trip outside Kenya. New York felt so big, with such high buildings. At fifteen years old, he was one of the youngest at the conference, and he felt so inspired by all the other young people he met. When he returned, he was invited to meet Kenya’s President and plant a tree with him.
Lesein dreams of creating a forest of Trees for Goals in each county of Kenya, then a forest of Trees for Goals in each country in Africa. He wants FIFA to adopt his approach and famous football players to start planting trees. Lesein believes we need to keep solutions simple and that sport can educate people and inspire them to do more for our precious environment.
Hendrikus van Hensbergen is the founder and CEO of grassroots youth environmental charity Action for Conservation.
Andrew Weatherall works at the National School of Forestry, University of Cumbria. Jo Maker is the Timber Festival coordinator, The National Forest Company. They are together the guest editors of this Special Collection in The Ecologist. To make a donation to support the next Timber festival, visit JustGiving.
Image: WWF-Kenya, Medium.