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Interview with Marie-Noelle Keijzer

Marie-Noelle Keijzer, CEO of WeForest, reveals the impact donations have made in Khasi Hills in northern India, one of our eight planting projects globally.




Kenya: I'll be introducing you to Marie-Noelle who is the CEO and founder of WeForest. We have two incredible projects with WeForest. One in the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil and the other in the Khasi Hills in Northern India. Today we're going to focus our conversation with Marie-Noelle on the latter because this is a new project for funding and there are some really beautiful aspects that we'd like to introduce you to.


It's one of the most bio-diverse regions in Asia and influences regional climate because it's technically called the cloud forest. The project is also helping a variety of endangered species similar to Brazil, and the project is largely run by a group of extraordinary women that we're going to hear more about soon.


So with that Marie-Noelle, I'd officially welcome you to the call. Thank you so much for being here with us today. And first of all, I would love for you to tell us a little about why you're so passionate about contributing to the reforestation of our planet.


Marie-Noelle: Thank you, Kenya. And congratulations on doing such a great job on the Brazil project. You did a great description of it. It's very close to my heart. You said something about the statistics that made me shiver, even though I know these numbers. When you hear about how many trees are being cut. Basically, what is being cut every year is the equivalent of (the size of) South Carolina and what's being restored through the work we do and the others around this call, and other organizations is half (the size of) South Carolina. So we're losing this race, and this is why I'm not going to let go; I'm not going to let it happen. officially like to welcome you to the call. Thank you so much for being here with us today. And first of all, I would love for you to tell us a little about why you're so passionate about contributing to the reforestation of our planet.


You asked me to introduce myself. I'm a mother who decided to do something about climate change. And actually, trees are the best technology to stop global warming. So there's no question in my mind; my objective is to do that in my lifetime. I'm dedicating all my energy; my whole team has been doing that for the last nine years. That's what I do. That's my job. To convince companies and organizations to do something about climate now and to do that with trees.


Kenya: Thank you so much. It's amazing to feel your heart and your commitment to this work. We use a term at TreeSisters called Feminine Nature Based Leadership, and I can feel that resonating so strongly in you. Thank you so much for that brief and powerful introduction. We'd love to bring our focus to the Khasi Hills project in India. I'd love for you to tell us a little bit about the science of the project to begin with and then after we can drop into the beauty of the social impacts. Can you start by telling us about the science behind this project?


Marie-Noelle: Well, actually WeForest is a group of scientists. Everything we do is based on science. So obviously when we started with a local team already working in India, we brought our knowledge about landscape restoration...forest landscape restoration. That's what we do when we plan what to restore, what species to plant, and how to make sure the trees bring more benefit to the people. Also, we developed social and economic activities, so that's all the science we use to do the best we can and measure the impact. It's not just about planting trees, it's about measuring, and if something's wrong, you have to correct it. And that's what science helps us do.


The other thing we started last year was actually to focus on water research. It's quite amazing because that area is the megalia state, known as Earth's rainiest area. So you think, why would you worry about water? Well actually, they have a shortage of water. Which is amazing. And so, we have started some work with the FAO to measure the impact of the trees we are planting on the water cycle. So that is ongoing now, and we're very proud that the FAO would have selected our project to work with us there. So science is in everything that we do. Again in planting, measuring, reporting and learning and training the people to do better with what they have. (FAO is the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.)


Kenya: Thank you so much. That was informative. I didn't know that you were starting to measure the water in that area. I know that that's something we're doing at a lot of our projects; it's a bit of a common theme. So it's great to hear about that. I know that one of the really special things about this project is that it's almost entirely run by indigenous women and they are one of the few matriarchal cultures in the world, which I personally think is really interesting. I would love for you to tell us a bit about these women and some of the stories about how they are impacted by this project.


Marie-Noele: Yes, and there is a little correction here. There is a little nuance between matriarchal and matrilineal. Actually, it's fair to say that this is a matrilineal tradition or a community. Where actually, the youngest daughters inherit the resources, and the children take their mother's surname, which is very different from how we do it obviously in Western countries. So that is very interesting. The downside is that women don't have political power, for example. The indigenous governments in the Khasi Hills are exclusively run by men.


However, women have a major role in everything related to social and economic activities, and we measure that pretty much at 70%. So women control all the social, and economic activities up to 70 per cent, which is significant. And the way we work there is with women's self-help groups. So they created clubs and groups of women who manage activities. They don't receive money from us, but they receive in-kind sponsorship. For example, pigs, chickens, cooking solutions in order to improve their livelihood activities, reduce the use of wood obviously to protect the trees. So they take full and sole ownership of running the seventy self-help groups and five farmer clubs. So they are quite dynamic. And also, nurseries are run by these women's groups. In the long term, our objective is to assist them in taking a stand in political decisions, but I guess that will take some time. We can't do everything first. First things first.


Kenya: Wow, that's beautiful. And I'm just wondering, too, to dive just a little bit deeper into that. How do their lives change on a personal level? What does that look like for them?


Marie-Noelle: Well, very much...so, for example, in India we've seen a lot of pictures on that, that women and girls go out and collect firewood, for example. Well, that is a real problem because they go out there alone early in the morning; it's dangerous, it's fatiguing, and while they do that, the girls don't go to school, so it's quite a burden on the women. What we have done there is we have provided efficient stoves so that they don't need so much fuel wood. That has two benefits, it improves the lives of these girls and these women and protects the forest. So that is very specifically something that we do.


We also grow special products and herbs that produce oils that can be sold, providing additional income. As I mentioned before, all the animals they grow that also is a way for them to gain financial independence. So in many different ways, women grow and develop themselves as a stronger person in that society, and as I said, maybe one day they could also get political power. Why not? There's no reason why they wouldn't.


Kenya: Wow, that's really incredible, and something's coming to my mind that I saw once in a campaign from another reforestation organization and the term, was deforestation is sexist. It was this whole story about how women are affected by deforestation, and so it's really amazing to see the other side of it. How reforestation is uplifting women in this way. That's one of the things that I love about all of our projects actually, they do have a very unique and special emphasis on empowering women, which I'm not sure that everyone in the network knows about. So I hope that's interesting to all of you listening.


Marie-Noelle: Yes, we don't believe, for example, in traditional development aid where you pour money somewhere and don't create any dignity for people, and that's the other thing with trees, you can do something and give them jobs, help them send their children to school and get out of poverty... get out of the poverty vicious circle.


Kenya: Yes, absolutely. And I know we're going to hear a lot more about that theme from Debbie from Eden a little bit later. And I could talk about this project all day with you, Marie-Noelle, but we are short on time. So I want to say thank you so much for giving us that insight into this project. Before we finish, I'd love to ask you one last question, bringing it from the local level to the global level...from your knowledge and expertise, what kind of global impact can trees from these projects and tropical trees in general, have on the world?


Marie-Noelle: Well, that's an excellent question, and obviously, as I said before, my main purpose is climate change and stopping global warming. So we have explored, and we have studied the science around that. You might know that the New York Declaration is saying, that the New York Declaration on Forests, which was made in September 2014, says that if we half deforestation rates and add 350 million hectares of forest, which is the surface area of India, by 2030. If we stop deforestation totally by 2050 then we can stay under the 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase, which is the threshold we should not exceed. And trees have a very important role to play in lowering the temperature and global temperatures in 2 ways.


First, trees...half of the tree biomass is carbon that is stored in the trees and the soil. Even if you cut the trees and made furniture out of them, then it will still be stored. The carbon cycle is so essential to cool our planet because it's not enough to stop emissions. We have to remove the excess carbon from the atmosphere, and trees are the best technology for that. They have all the other benefits we've already mentioned with you, Kenya and Clare. It's so clear that it is a solution, and it is possible. There is so much degraded land just waiting for us to go and restore. It's possible. And a surface like India, a country like India is large, but it's still done because it only means 25 trees per person on Earth, so it's not crazy, right?


So that's the carbon cycle, and there is another cycle that nobody knows about, or that very few people care about to know is the water cycle. And actually, that is something that we are studying with our scientists because it is not well known yet. Trees make clouds. Clouds cool the planet. And that is why we plant trees in tropical countries because they make more clouds there than in the North. And the Albedo effect on the trees is more positive in tropical countries than in the North. If we could increase cloud cover thanks to the trees we could stop global warming as well. That would be a way to cool the planet.


So both factors combined carbon absorption or reduction and cloud nucleation both have a very strong impact on climates and can help us get out of this big challenge that we face.


Kenya: Thank you so much for sharing I really want to appreciate the level of depth that you bring to the scientific aspect of these projects, and I'm sure it's been an absolute delight for our network to hear you speak about that. So I really want to thank you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of the whole network and all of your team as well, I'd love for you to share our appreciation with them on behalf of our network. I'm so inspired, and I'm sure people listening on the call are just as inspired too. Thank you Marie-Noelle.

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