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Launching Hungarian ReLeaf.

We've offered the opportunity. Will anyone respond?How many times have each of us asked that question as we embarked upon a new venture? We at AFA were certainly haunted by that question when we launched Global ReLeaf in the United States in the fall of 1988. Would the public react favorably? Were trees really important to people? More importantly, were those people ready to break out of their daily routines and begin actively working to make a difference in their environment and communities?

Those were the questions in the minds of Hungarian environmental leaders Judit Vasarhelyi and Gyorgy Gado in january of 1991 as they proclaimed the launching of the Hungarian Global ReLeaf program. Would their people respond favorably? Could the new effort overcome the stigma of the compulsory tree-planting cereof the previous regime?

Well, the answers are in, and they are enthusiastically, overwhelmingly, positively, "Yes!" The story of how that could happen so swiftly, in a country still trying to work itself out o the shadow of the old Iron Curtain, is both inspirational and educational. The environmental movement is truly global, and the model inspired by Global ReLeaf works everywhere.

The story unfolds in June of 1990, when Neil Sampson, executive vice president of the American Forestry Association, was invited by the Independent Ecological Center-a nonprofit conservation organization established in Hungary under the sponsorship of the Soros Foundation -to go to Budapest for a workshop designed to help the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe as they established new governments and new private-sector institutions such as nonprofit conservation organizations. After almost a half-century without a significant private sector, or any citizen organizations, the Hungarians were hungry to learn what had succeeded-and failed-so that they could take advantage of that experience as they embarked upon their own efforts.

One of the opportunities, it was decided, was to move forward swiftly with a citizen-action element. Global ReLeaf looked like a good model to follow. But there were questions-big ones. People who had lived all their lives under communist regimes had no experience in private-sector initiatives. Individual rights had been minimal, and all environmental action was a government function-decided upon, implemented by, and controlled by the state. Failures had been common, and public cynicism about environmental projects was skyhigh. Proposing a tree-planting project was old hat-the government had been proposing them for years, and the failures were widely known. How, then, would a brand-new private-sector organization be perceived by the Hungarian people?

In the face of those unknowns, the Independent Ecological Center moved

The announcements were distributed widely through a program flyer, and reported in newspapers and on radio and television. Local groups were asked to submit proposals for community tree-planting projects, where they would work with professionals to develop a good plan, with local officials to gain needed permissions, and with other sponsors such as nurseries to help provide the necessary trees.

Again, the big question-would anyone respond? A rapid turn-around date-February 15-was needed in order to assure spring planting success. Unfortunately, it also would limit the number of project applications. George and Judit hoped for a minimum of 20 good proposals to evaluate for the six grants they were prepared to award.

On the plus side, the short deadline almost eliminated the tense time of waiting to see if the program would be well received. Within a few days, the phones began to ring. How could they apply? What was needed in a plan? Could their community qualify? At the Independent Ecological Center, the small staff was overwhelmed with questions, and volunteers helped answer the phones and sort applications as they began to come in. A technical group led by George Gado began reading each application and assessing its merit.

The trickle of applications became a flood. By February 15, some 303 applications had been logged in-and the total funding requests added up to 64 times as much money as the program had available! Clearly, some hard decisions were in order.

A month later, the national campaign was launched at a tree-planting event in the village of Nagymaros, on the Danube Bend north of Budapest. The local band played, and families, foresters, and youth groups joined with national environmental leaders to plant trees with the country's popular president, Arpad Goncz, U.S. Ambassador Charles Thomas, and AFA Executive Vice President Neil Sampson. President Goncz planted the first linden tree within view of the site citizens had rallied to protect from a huge dam just two years earlier.

The initial question had been answered-in no uncertain terms. The Hungarian people had responded to Ultess Fat Utodaidnak exactly as people in English-speaking countries have responded to Global ReLeaf-overwhelmingly. It really doesn't matter what language people speak, or what their ethnic or cultural heritage. People the world around know in their own hearts that the environment is their responsibility. A damaged world is a world that endangers the future, and the only real way to address that damage is to work to repair it.

Pollution of the environment must be reduced, and restoration of damaged environments must begin. Tree planting offers one opportunity for people to take an important, positive step. It won't fix everything, but we also know that it can fix some things. And for most people, fixing something is better than doing nothing. The lesson in Hungary is that it doesn't matter a whole lot what language you use to express these feelings, because people respond to them powerfully all over the world.

Those who have had the tremendous experience of working with a Global Releaf campaign, no matter where they have been involved, know the enormous power that is unleashed as people begin to turn their enthusiasm and energy toward the improvement of the environments that shape their daily lives. It may be planting urban trees along a city street, or placing an energy-saving tree next to a house, or helping reforest a hillside that has been denuded in the past. The effect of the action is similar, and not all of it is connected with trees. Much of the benefit is the impact upon people-Hungarians, Americans, or anyone-who learn the lesson that repairing and restoring our environment is one of the most rewarding actions any of us can take. AF
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Special Coverage: Forests on a Shrinking Globe; Hungarian Global Releaf program; includes related article
Author:Smith, Dan
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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