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Can Poetry Help to Plant Trees? (August 2020)

By Charles Barber | Newsletter No. 105 August 2020

An Inga Nursery in Cameroon

Having been involved with the charity Rainforest Saver since its inception, I have always been conscious of how a relatively small charity, based in Edinburgh, can make a big difference to the lives and livelihoods of poor slash and burn farmers overseas. Yet the problem of tropical rainforest destruction can seem so huge, that I have also been conscious that however much RFS manages to raise, through the generosity and efforts of its supporters, there is so much more that could be done, if we only had a bit, or preferably a lot, more money. 

I have always been interested in how the arts can help to raise the profile of issues, and possibly even attract more supporters to a cause and raise a few funds to add to the kitty. One only has to think of Live Aid to see how artists, if sufficiently inspired and engaged can come together to make a huge difference. Alas though, I’m not a famous musician with a bunch of famous musician contacts and friends, so Rainforest Aid might have to be put on hold for a while. Indeed, if I have any artistic talent, it lies merely in sometimes being able to string a few words together in a way that some people sometimes appreciate. 

I have always loved poetry (even at times if I didn’t really understand what the poet was going on about) and in recent years I have started writing it again. What I often enjoy doing is trying to write poems about subjects that might at first glance not seem so poetic, or even attempting to put into poetic form issues that might more sensibly be covered in an article or even a book. Trying to tell the story of Inga Alley Cropping and the creation and development of the charity Rainforest Saver probably falls into that second category. Yet poetry can sometimes connect with and reach people in a way that factual, even well written articles seldom can, and so I have decided to write a 24 hour poem on Facebook to try and raise the profile and some much needed funds for Rainforest Saver.

Atanga Wilson, An Inga Teacher & Farmer in an Inga Alley before it was pruned for its vital mulch 

What poetry can sometimes do very well is tell stories. One only has to think of ‘The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner’ or ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ to realize how effective it can be in both keeping the reader in suspense, and relating tales that can haunt, fascinate and move the heart and mind. Poems can also help to educate. I was helped to read by that wonderful book The Cat in the Hat, which in a very funny way made the challenge of deciphering the letters a very enjoyable task. 

Many people know that tropical forests are being destroyed for timber or to plant palm oil, or to clear space for roads or mines or cattle, but not so many realize that they are also being destroyed by millions of poor small-scale farmers, who are merely trying to feed their families. What I find so wonderful about the Inga Alley Cropping System is that it  offers these poor farmers a chance to obtain better harvests and a more secure future, and ensures that more of the precious rainforests, so vital for preventing erosion, storing carbon and preserving biodiversity, are left intact. If my poem can in some way get across how remarkable that is, I will feel I’ve at least partially succeeded.

Cameroon Farmers taking part in an Inga Alley Cropping Workshop

Of course the other measure of success will be how close I come to my fundraising target. I realized it was a bit ambitious when I set it, yet had previously done a 24 hour Facebook poem for RFS and raised over £500, so I considered my £1,000 target at least feasible. After all, didn’t I now know so many more people that cared about green issues, many of whom I also counted as friends. What I perhaps failed to take into account though was the time in which I was asking for money. The midst of a global pandemic, in which the economic future for numerous people is worrying and uncertain, is perhaps not the best time to start pestering people with my RFS begging bowl. Yet when this awful pandemic is finally over, I trust that most people I know in the UK will still have a roof over their heads and be able to put food on the table. We are right to be worried about our own future, but if Covid 19 has taught us anything, it is that when it comes to nature, we are all very much connected. If the tropical slash and burn farmers continue to destroy the land, they’ll have no choice but to move to the shanty towns in the cities. The land they farmed will have been stripped of trees, leaving only barren wastelands under which impoverished villages will be more likely to flood. That vital store of carbon will have all been burnt away, and who knows how much the dread factor of global warming will have been accelerated. So, is it not worth supporting this gardener-poet, for all funds raised will go to try and ensure this nightmare scenario on numerous tropical hillsides doesn’t happen. Such an outcome will not only affect poor farmers and their families, but will increase the chances of more of us, wherever we are in the world, experiencing more severe droughts, fires and floods.

A Cameroon Farmer with a large maize, grown in an Inga Plot

Yet, having visited some hillsides in Honduras, I prefer to imagine a very different scenario. Inga Alley Cropping can give poor farmers a chance to grow food in a sustainable, organic way in landscapes that are both beautiful and biodiverse. If I’m ever lucky enough to have grandchildren, I would like them to visit a Honduran, Ecuadorian or Cameroonian Inga Farm, not only to maybe buy some delicious fruit and vegetables, but also to experience the wonder of the rainforests with their parrots, toucans, monkeys, snakes and butterflies. All of us have the power to either save or destroy these vital treasure-chests of biodiversity. It is the farmers though, if they are given the support and opportunity, that can help stem the tide of destruction. 

So, if you can afford anything, please donate to my forthcoming poem. All donors will receive a copy of the finished work with a few added pictures thrown in. One of the great things about writing poetry is that it’s a lot easier than trying to farm infertile tropical hillsides.


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