Land degradation is a widespread problem. All over the world, experts warn about the dangers of deforestation and the vast expansion of deserts. Efforts to stop this process are often unsuccessful: somehow it’s hard to battle desertification. We met Charlotte Jongejan and Ray Steele from Land Life Company who take on the same challenge all over the world. They are making promising progress. We talked about how their easy and down to earth solution is spreading rapidly.
You’ve won the Sustainability Start-up Prize, won a EU commission grant, won the prestigious Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. What makes you so successful?
Steele: “We have got a very clear mission and it’s easy for people to understand what we’re aiming for and how we are going to do it: we want to reforest earths degraded land, by planting trees.”
Jongejan: “That’s right. Plus we are a very dynamic team, with young, fresh and passionate professionals that work closely, but internationally. We work in 25 countries now!”
Can you tell me a little bit more about the technology you use?
Jongejan: “We started with the technology alone. That worked. 90% of the trees survive after the first delicate period of six to twelve months. Our Cocoon-planting technology is very basic, but effective. It has a doughnut-shape, you fill the biodegradable doughnut with 25 liters of water. In the middle you plant the seed or a tree in their first weeks. The water drips down into the soil, so that the tree grows roots and develops. There is a small defense mechanism so that animals can’t eat the tree in the first period and it won’t get damaged by wind or water. That’s all: very basic.”
Steele: “But the technology was only a piece of the puzzle. Pieces of the puzzle were missing. For example, we needed land access to make sure that the trees be secured and will survive the next forty years. Also, we must have a system to monitor the success. Sometimes we even looked for an implementation partner. In Africa, for example, we have appointed Climate Ambassadors for the long-term care.”
Jongejan: “It’s important to share and educate so that local people own the solution. But a little bit more about the technology: in the field we saw a lot of amateur mistakes happening on a small scale. We want to do it more professional and on a large scale. Because that’s what is needed to make man-made deserts in to green and lush areas.”
Doesn’t it sometimes feel that on the other side of the planet, people are cutting down trees much more easily than you are planting them?
Jongejan: “Any reforestation is a bonus. We are an added bonus. We build forests, in places where nature has completely disappeared, in man-made deserts. Besides planting trees, we always partner with governments and NGO’s who own the land and who can prevent forests from being cut down. We are an end-to-end restoration service and negotiate with governments to get forty years access to the land. We do work with governments and get forty years access to the land. That’s a full cycle of a tree, that’s when our time window closes.”
Steele: “We try to reverse climate change by chipping in, but what we do is only a part of the answer.”
What has been your greatest success?
Jongejan: “If I have to pick just one project, I would pick the project we did in Cameroon, on which we recently based our short documentary ‘It Will Be Green Again’. In Cameroon we saw the need of refugees to live in a more sustainable environment. They used to cut down trees miles away in order to be able to cook. Now we are planting trees just outside the camp and provide the refugees from Nigeria with an alternative to wood: bio briquettes. Moreover, we managed to establish a small factory to nurture trees. This whole project, in cooperation with UNHCR, led to an enormous feeling of satisfaction, since we both have a solution for the environment, as well as for the people living there.”
Steele: “Yes, that’s my favorite too, but that’s maybe also because we normally work in the more developed countries like Mexico and China. The reason being their stable governments who can guarantee a long-term investment. A thing I would like to add is the employment opportunities we managed to create in the briquettes factory and the nursery. Bringing new life to a dark place is a very special feeling.”
Jongejan: “The personal lesson I learned in Africa is to let loose. You can’t work it all out from the beginning to the end. Sometimes it just turns out differently. But that’s fine. If you work locally, let go and give the people you work with the space to move and trust in a good outcome, it’s going to be fine. Especially in Africa.”
What was your experience working with a governmental organization or an NGO?
Steele: “The work we did with UNHCR is quite unique. The camp is really overcrowded, but we still managed to pull it off together.”
Jongejan: “We act as efficient as possible. NGOs are dependant on the funding they receive to implement projects.If a flow dries up, the project stops or freezes. We don’t work like that: we invest and make sure we deliver. We move quickly and are innovative. An NGO doesn’t need to be innovative. Although we partner frequently with NGO’s to gain land access or work with minorities like in refugee camps or for instance with an Indian Tribe in the Salton Sea in California, NGO’s seldom are the sole funder of a reforestation project.”
As a successful social enterprise, what would you recommend others?
Jongejan: “Observe before you act. See where the momentum is in the corporate world. Read ‘The Economist’ and ‘The New York Times’ to see what trends are out there. Try to go with what the big corporations want and need. Generation Z wants to bring back carbon footprint. But the big companies will do what they are good at. We can solve their problems. We have a good and positive story, everyone is welcome to join us.”
When the interview is done, we go outside their office to shoot a few pictures. When I try to make sure there is not too much sun in their faces I think of the obvious possibility there is to plant trees on a massive scale. It strikes me that this company isn’t forty years old. Where were you all this time?