Spotlight on the UNEP Goodwill Ambassadors

Restoring the land

by Don Cheadle

The Appalachian Regional Restoration Initiative (ARRI) is a capacity-building effort between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the US Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, and the San Francisco–based Baum Foundation.
As a newly appointed UNEP Goodwill Ambassador, I am learning all about the hows and whys of the environmental threats currently facing our planet. The science behind the issues can be daunting, but it seems irrefutable. Over the course of my own lifetime I have seen change not only in my own backyard and the cities I grew up in, but also in the far-flung places I’ve visited.

In my work as an actor and a humanitarian, I have witnessed the devastating impact of dwindling resources from Rwanda to Darfur. And this year in the United States, we experienced the most devastating oil spill in human history. These experiences constitute why it is not a huge leap for me to envision the very real threats we face if we continue to use up the planet’s resources faster than they can be replenished. The choice to conserve and live more mindfully is not some sort of esoteric concept; it is a selfish decision to not bite the hand that feeds us.

Though the impact of humankind on the environment is apparent everywhere, the area that stands out the most for me – both in terms of the rate of destruction and because of its myriad resources – is the forest. But the good news is that we have more information than ever on the wide-ranging value of forests, and beyond conservation, we are starting to restore and transform destroyed habitats back into viable ecosystems.

I was moved by one such story of revitalization in an area that is endowed with natural resources, but which has long struggled with poverty. The Appalachian region of the eastern United States is home to some 23 million people, but the exploitation of its coal reserves has left a scarred and damaged landscape. This is an area whose forests support some of the world’s greatest biological diversity in temperate regions.

The Appalachian Regional Restoration Initiative (ARRI) was created in an effort to reforest active and abandoned mined lands. Since 2007, volunteers have planted over 40 million trees on 87,000 acres across the Appalachian coal states. The results generated by the initiative have resulted in a proposal to plant 125 million trees over the next five years, restoring forests on approximately 175,000 acres, creating more than 2,000 green jobs and sequestering three to five times more carbon than the current grasslands. In a region facing high unemployment and environmental degradation, ways of increasing local wealth and job opportunities while sustaining biodiversity and aiding the recovery of damaged ecosystems are invaluable.

The UNEP hopes that this project will help achieve their Billion Tree Campaign goal to plant a tree for every one of the United States’ 320 million citizens, and that it will serve as a model for other high-impact grassroots initiatives around the world. I, in turn, hope to help raise awareness both for the issues and for the successful projects that may inspire people to become better informed and to make their own contributions.

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