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Good Cheer, Cooperation Prevail as Macedonians Plant 6 Million Trees

November 23, 2008

Text and photos by Christopher Deliso

On Wednesday, Macedonians made history – for the second time this year – by planting some 6 million trees in a single day. An initiative of the non-governmental organization Den na Drvoto (‘Day of the Tree’), this astonishing event was the second coming of the inaugural efforts of March 12, when 2 million trees were planted all around Macedonia, representing one for each of Macedonia’s citizens.

Although Wednesday’s planting efforts had been envisioned back then, they were given extra urgency by the fact that, as in 2007, summer wildfires destroyed vast tracts of forest around the country. 2008 was a very dry year- good for the winemakers, but bad for rivers, lakes and forests, and so the Tree Day events were especially welcome.

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Macedonian Army soldiers made a big contribution to planting trees at the ridge above Miladinovci, as elsewhere in the country.

The plantings were held at about 100 locations throughout Macedonia, with only a few of the more elevated locales being canceled due to freezing conditions. Organizing the logistics alone was a monumental task, involving hundreds of volunteers, the guidance of forestry officials, and a great effort from the Macedonian army. Soldiers alone planted around 120,000 trees.

Incredibly enough, the whole organization was spearheaded out of a single office in the center of Skopje. Of course, the Day of the Tree enjoyed the wholehearted support of the Macedonian government, something that was the decisive factor in creating the conditions for the event to be successful.

Indeed, the prime minister himself, Nikola Gruevski, was greatly impressed and persuaded by the Den na Drvoto planners into supporting the venture. Sadly (but predictably) the government’s support for this environmental movement led newspapers supporting an opposition perceived to be arrogant and disdainful of the people to make petty criticisms. Organizers shrugged them off, however, stating that any past planning mistakes would be corrected in the future.

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Boring away, this drill was going full throttle all day on the ridgeline, digging holes for volunteers to plant trees in.

Despite the influence and efforts of the organizers, the Day of the Tree succeeded primarily because of the good cheer and eager cooperation of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Macedonians, who steadily streamed from their homes, or were trucked in by bus to out-of-the-way locations throughout the day. Not only were they in a good mood because of the public holiday from work and school, but planting trees proved to be genuine good fun, bringing people back in touch (literally) with the earth- ground that was in many places sodden and soggy from morning rains.

These conditions made just getting to some of the sites a challenge. In Miladinovci, a village near the OKTA oil refinery on the Skopje-Kumanovo highway, many hundreds set out on a walk of almost an hour just to reach the planting site, comprising rolling hills that had been denuded of trees by fire. The way was muddy, slippery and steep, but everyone from schoolchildren to retirees got there (some special individuals, like EU representative Erwan Fouere, got to travel by Jeep, of course). One of the main foreign supporters of the initiative, Dutch ambassador Simone Filipini, laughed off the poor conditions: ‘this is what I brought my boots for!’ she said.

Up on the hill, serrated by long rows of carefully dug shallow trenches, teams of volunteers led by Trajanov planted tiny saplings. Each was set firmly in holes that were being dug with gusto by a man with a huge hydraulic drill- the definite MVP of the day. Ardent supporters of Tree Day from the entertainment world, such as pop singers Karolina and Rebeka, planted dozens of trees in the muddy ground as cameramen jostled for shots- a new approach to getting the dirt on celebrities.

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Macedonian celebrities like pop singer Rebeka were happy to help the Tree Day organizers finish the job.

Organizers such as Trajanov were kept informed of the proceedings at other sites in the rest of the country all day by phone. The mastermind of the Day of the Tree was delighted to announce that by 1 pm, approximately 5 million trees had already been planted. The result left him optimistic about the future.

‘You know, this morning, I didn’t really know what to expect,’ said Trajanov at that moment. ‘But seeing this turnout, how much the people really love Tree Day, and really enjoy being out and making a difference for our environment, it makes me very certain we can actually plant 20 million trees on March 12.’

This incredible goal is something the campaign is preparing for during the winter ahead, in terms of both organizational and promotional work. The tireless efforts of Boris Trajanov internationally have also resulted in agreements with several neighboring states, such as Montenegro, to simultaneously participate in the March planting. ‘It is a great way for the people of the Balkan countries to show their common dedication to cooperation for a better future,’ said the singer, who also serves as a UNESCO Artist for Peace. ‘And eventually, who knows? Maybe we can spread this movement to the whole world!’

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Good news! Organizers from around the country inform Boris Trajanov and manager Viktor Pavlovski that they've surpassed the 5-million-tree mark.

The massive tree planting on November 19 was preceded by a week of promotional activities around the country and small, symbolic plantings in several places.

On November 16, the Den na Drvoto team visited Kokino, that wonderfully weird set of stone formations atop a windswept hill in eastern Macedonia where astronomical observations were carried out in remotest antiquity.

During the visit the archaeologist from the Museum of Kumanovo who discovered the site, Jovica Stankovski, vividly explained the topography of Kokino and its uses to an appreciative audience. Renowned Macedonian poet Svetlana Jocic read pastoral works of her own and poems of famous Macedonian poets of yesteryear.

Three trees were planted at the base of the site, which may be used in the future for operatic performances and concerts, according to the organizers.

Later in the day, they planted more trees on the grounds of the Staro Nagoricane municipality, joined by Mayor Vlasta Dimkovic, and then were given a detailed tour of the village’s 14th-century Church of Sveti Georgi, known for its sublime original frescoes.

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At the Singulic 'Children's Village' for orphans, Boris Trajanov gets some planting assistance from eager kids.

The following day, the Den na Drvoto team visited the ‘Children’s Village’ in the eastern Skopje suburb of Singulic, an Austrian-funded ring of homes for children abandoned by their parents. These children, who come from all Macedonian ethnic groups, live in the surprisingly modern facilities under the watchful eye of several ‘mothers’ who look after them.

In a touching moment, the excited children performed a carefully rehearsed song for Trajanov and the other representatives of the Tree Day initiative.

They then got to help plant trees in their yard, and play host to their special guests, offering drinks and desserts with great hospitality.

The day finished with another symbolic tree planting, outside the newly built Boris Trajkovski Sports Hall in Skopje- a somewhat easier venue for foreign luminaries to reach than the muddy hilltop trenches of Wednesday.

Here, a row of trees was planted following a short speech by Trajanov in front of a crowd that included the foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, US ambassador Phil Reeker, several European ambassadors and representatives of international organizations, singers and many journalists.

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Singer and Tree Day supporter Karolina Goceva lends a shovel outside the Boris Trajkovski Sports Hall.

This dedicated flurry of activity of the week past indicates that a handful of determined individuals, even from a small country like Macedonia, can indeed make a big difference, and set an example for their neighbors- most of which have also suffered from fires and man-made environmental depredations in recent years.

If the Tree Day initiative catches on, as indeed seems to be the case, a little Balkan country that many project to be foundering in the back of the pack will have found a way to take a leading role on the international stage- one tree at a time.

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Boris Trajanov gets some assistance from a major foreign enthusiast for the Den na Drvoto campaign, Dutch ambassador Simone Filippini, outside the sports hall.

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