‘Taking the forest to the people’
Ask a college student how they spent the summer between high school and college and you might hear that they travelled with family, browsed course catalogs, or even found that perfect dorm room microwave. Ask Titus Chirchir what he did the summer before he arrived at Amherst College and you’ll get a slightly less common answer.
The physics major from Kabarnet, Kenya, spent his summer planting trees. “I planted twenty trees before I came to Amherst,” he says, noting that he’d hoped for more. “Twenty wasn’t enough. My goal was to plant fifty trees a year.” Chirchir will finally get the chance to add to his numbers when he returns to Kenya this summer as Amherst College’s second Dalai Lama Fellow. This time around, his goal is just slightly bigger: over the course of his yearlong fellowship, Chirchir plans to plant 100,000 trees in the Rift Valley in a project that will literally “give trees to the people.” The Dalai Lama Fellows program, now in its second year, provides funding and sustained mentorship for college students to “design and launch compassion-in-action projects” that help to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
Chirchir was first inspired to plant trees after witnessing the ramifications of a local land dispute. Owning trees is cost-prohibitive in much of rural Kenya, but people have a real need for trees as both fuel and lumber. To solve this problem, communities often live near or inside forests for close access to natural resources—not necessarily with explicit permission. When the government evicted a community from a forest near Chirchir’s hometown, it ignited a violent conflict and left people with nowhere to go. It occurred to Chirchir that if more people could afford to own trees, it would dramatically alleviate these problems—and the tree idea was born. That summer, he bought 20 trees and planted them at his home, hoping to continue the project whenever he wasn’t at Amherst.
Chirchir knew planting trees in his home community could address so much more than a dearth of natural resources, and he saw that the Dalai Lama Fellowship as a perfect way to zero in on a number of issues. “[Where] I come there are a lot of people who don’t have jobs, and it’s a semi-arid region. So I thought, wow, planting trees could do both of these things. It could eliminate this aridity and create jobs for the youth who don’t have jobs at the moment.” By adding 100,000 trees to the environment, Chirchir hopes to tackle at least part of Kenya’s tree cover problem: currently, trees cover only three percent of Kenya’s land, yet the international sustainability standard is ten percent. The implications of this problem are all too apparent. “One of the most obvious things you see is the aridity — the rain starts to become erratic, then the price of timber goes up, and you can see malnutrition because people don’t have food,” Chirchir says. Finally, Chirchir wants to both directly and indirectly make an impact on Kenya’s youth unemployment. This summer, he’ll hire two employees to tend the tree nursery for the project’s duration— Chirchir will only be in Kenya during the summer— and he also hopes the idea will light an entrepreneurial spark. “Most [unemployed youth] are just waiting for the government to employ them, [but] at the moment I don’t think the government has jobs for them,” Chirchir explains. “Hopefully, my project will show them the entrepreneurial side of life. [They] will start thinking of projects they can do for their own benefit instead of waiting for someone to hire them.”
As a Dalai Lama Fellow, Chirchir will receive ongoing mentorship from the program staff and a budget of $10,000. With his budget, he estimates he’ll be able to purchase roughly 100,000 seedlings of 20-30 different species. Although he’s not yet sure what species he’ll use, he wants to include trees that will provide either fruit or timber. It’s also important to include species that mature quickly “[so] that people can realize the benefits in the shortest time possible.” To generate excitement for planting trees, Chirchir will first give a small number of families trees for free. Around 200 families will receive 20 trees each, and he’ll sell the rest at an affordable price. Chirchir recognizes that the project could have a powerful— and lasting— impact. “By giving the trees to the people, and planting them on their own land, they will have a sense of ownership over the trees. This project will be taking the forest to the people."
Although Chirchir’s fellowship year officially begins in June, he’s already been hard at work developing and refining his project plans. His first major step was finding land to rent for the tree nursery— an accomplishment without which “I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else.” Chirchir recognizes that not everything can be planned. “This is an agricultural project that relies mostly on rain for its success,” he acknowledges. “My biggest challenge is the climate.” Like any good project that aims to benefit a community, Chirchir’s project will require flexibility and an openness to change. According to Dalai Lama Fellows program director Chris Simamora, this openness “has a lot to do with good leadership.” Simamora, who is also Chirchir’s project mentor, admires Chirchir’s willingness to tackle tough problems. “It’s very clear that he is a go-getter, that he is someone who sees a need and takes action. Many of us see needs, but we don’t feel compelled to take action.”
In June, Chirchir will travel to northern California to meet Simamora and his class of Dalai Lama Fellows. Together, he and the other Fellows will participate in the Ethical Leadership Assembly, a one week leadership development program focused on ethical and reflective leadership. Now that the fellowship is in its second year, Chirchir’s class will have the opportunity to meet last year’s team of Dalai Lama Fellows, who will arrive after the Assembly to present their projects. Chirchir is looking forward to the leadership training. “I hope that by the end of this project, I will be a better leader and more innovative.” Perhaps most of all, Chirchir is ready to resume planting trees— and one day, he hopes he can take his project to the national level. “According to my calculation, if everyone just plants fifty trees in their family, it will be enough to increase the country’s forest cover by seven percent, which would reach the required ten percent. That’s if everyone in the country does it, and I’m only working in one community. It may not make a big difference, but it’s something.”
Jenny Morgan is a CCE staff writer. She enjoys working in the darkroom and reading stories out loud. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.