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In Difficult Times, Macedonia Plants Two Million Trees

March 15, 2008

By Christopher Deliso

You wouldn’t think they’d have time for it, but amidst all the domestic and international political turbulence surrounding their country these days, Macedonians managed to plant over 2 million trees — symbolizing one for each citizen in the nation — on Wednesday, March 12, in 43 locations across Macedonia. In a surprisingly adept show of logistics and coordination the government arranged for free buses to transport people from the major towns and cities to the forests in need of repair (Macedonia suffered over 600 fires last summer, and lost important sections of forest).

The initiative was the idea of the charismatic Boris Trajanov, Macedonia’s world-renowned opera singer and a UNESCO Artist for Peace. Trajanov, who has contributed to numerous humanitarian projects in the past, campaigned tirelessly for the Den na Drvoto (Day of the Tree”) project, using all his energy to convince the government that the ambitious planting effort was first, feasible, and second, cost-effective. First the authorities were skeptical, but were sold on it when Trajanov showed them the math behind investment (apparently, 25 eurocents per tree) compared to the future return.

However, the major immediate return that Trajanov and the project’s other high-visibility entertainers and public figures sought to gain was a conceptual one: to show the world, but first of all the country, that Macedonia’s alienated ethnic groups could indeed get along and do something for the common good. Their hunch proved correct.

Recounting how he managed to convince an ethnic Albanian mayor who “usually automatically refuses anything in which the government is involved,” Trajanov provides the example of a village in the ethnic Albanian DUI party’s stronghold near Kicevo. “This is an area where the police can’t even go into safely because of the hostility of the locals,” he notes. “But on Wednesday, you had the police and locals planting trees together!” Neighboring border police also helped their Macedonian peers drop some saplings.

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Health Minister Imer Selmani and pop singer Dani, right, were among the many public figures who turned out to plant trees (photo: Christopher Deliso)

Indeed, getting the people out into nature on a beautiful sunny day, along with politicians, celebrities and foreign diplomats, proved a fun and relaxing break from the usual, for the schoolchildren especially. However, a sense of ecological awareness is still lacking- as evidenced by the fact that children given juice packets immediately threw them on the ground when finished.

While it could be just attributed to kids being kids in this case, there is no question that Macedonia has a serious trash problem, something about which most every foreign visitor complains. Almost every inhabited (and many uninhabited) place in the land is blighted by trash, ranging from a few stray bottles and papers to outright dumps. Imer Selmani, Macedonia’s health minister, acknowledged the problem while planting trees near Matka Gorge outside of Skopje on Wednesday. “It is a problem of changing mentalities, which will take time,” he said. “Still, it is something the government is working on- the plan isn’t finished yet, however.”

Nevertheless, like many others, this plan may never get completed: what should have been a celebratory evening following the hard work over 200,000 citizens, the president of Selmani’s party (Democratic Party of Albanians) Menduh Thaci, announced that they would be leaving the parliament. This act of political maturity, coming as Macedonia is in the eleventh hour of lobbying for NATO membership in two weeks despite Greek veto threats over the name, represents just another episode in the chronic political torpor that is modern Macedonia. This kind of cynical gamesmanship, involving who knows how many other conniving individuals, goes a long way towards explaining why the average person doesn’t feel motivated enough to find a trash can. The country is already in it.

Still, in spite of all the worthlessness of Macedonian political life, the people did accomplish something worthwhile and commendable on Wednesday. Boris Trajanov hopes that the planting of 2 million trees will inspire other countries to emulate the experiment. Several of Macedonia’s neighbors were similarly devastated, Greece most severely of all, by last summer’s fires. “Imagine if they did this in the United States,” said the opera star. “If the initiative was carried out by the same ratio of people as were involved in Macedonia, you would have 30 million people planting trees!”

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Members of Macedonia’s Jewish Community planting trees above Matka (photo: Christopher Deliso)

Alas, if mass tree planting in the Macedonian spirit does not catch on abroad, it may not be for lack of good will. Despite all their great efforts in preparing for this unprecedented event, it seems the media helpers of the organizers and government did not give media outlets abroad the necessary advance warning. And so, while the Macedonian media was out in force, relatively few foreign journalists knew to show up. If applying the principle of proportionality to the phenomenon of media coverage, it unfortunately appears the case that tree-planting day was beaten in the international press by the stressful news of DPA leaving the government, and even by the memorable tale of a Macedonian court finding a bear guilty of stealing honey. Of course, this shows something as well about the strange appetites of media consumers abroad, but it’s not only that.

But other local groups with international connections took part. The most prominent among these was Macedonia’s Jewish Community, which made its contribution by planting 7,200 trees, something that was “symbolic on a lot of levels,” for Mike Goldstein, a retired general in the Vermont National Guard who has been close to Macedonia’s 200-strong Jewish Community since he first visited Macedonia, as part of NATO Partnership for Peace training in 1996.

The trees, planted in rows above a charred plain on Matka Gorge, represented the number of Jewish victims in the Holocaust; the day before the planting, Macedonian Jews held the annual commemoration of this tragedy in Skopje. On March 11, 1943, the Bulgarian occupying army followed Hitler’s instructions by deporting 7,200 Jews to Treblinka.

For the Jews, therefore, participating in the Den na Drvoto had a specific emotional significance, one which could not only honor the dead but at the same time bring happiness to future generations of Macedonia’s nature-lovers. And so the simple planting of trees, as adopted friend of Macedonia General Goldstein said, “can give hope to the entire country.” Now it is up to the people to remember the inspiration for doing impossible tasks for the common good, as it will do them well during all of the greater uncertainty and turmoil brought on by powerful forces, both internal and external, who seem to be doing their best to keep the country from moving forward.

Two of the biggest sponsors of the tree-planting initiative, Ljubco Karov of the popular comic trio K-15 and opera singer Boris Trajanov, detailed the successes of the Den na Drvoto at a press conference following the event (photo: Christopher Deliso)

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