An 18-year-old Kenyan Howe soccer player wants Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar to throw the ball for a moment and pick up a shovel to fight deforestation.
When Lesein Mutunkei scored, he planted 11 trees – one to represent each player on his team. It addresses the nation’s daily loss of an estimated 50 soccer fields of forest area.
“Football is a global game and climate change is a global problem,” Motonki said. “[It] He has the power to connect, share, educate and inspire my generation to create a safer and greener future. ”
Deforestation refers to the removal of forests and trees for agriculture, or to harvest resources such as timber. It contributes to global warming and destroys wildlife habitats. In 2018, Kenya’s forest cover was just 6%, according to the Kenya Forest Service.
That same year, Motonki started the Trees4Goals program to mobilize young athletes in his area to fulfill his pledge to plant trees every time they score goals. Now, he wants FIFA to use his billions of fans to take his influence globally.
In a recent email to CNN regarding Motonki, a FIFA representative commented, “This and other similar projects led by youth and climate advocates around the world are not only commendable, but necessary.”
Motonki said he has sent emails and social media messages to FIFA, and while he has yet to receive a direct response, some of the big names in the world of football have already acknowledged his efforts. After being identified in a series of environmental documents, Arsenal Football Club sent him a T-shirt signed on it.
These acknowledgments bring Motonki one step closer to his dream world as football teams compare their success to the size of the forests they planted, not just the number of trophies on their shelves.
Motonki explained that unlike a cup, a tree grows next to you.
Motonki began his journey as an environmental expert when he was five years old. In memory of special occasions, his family planted trees. “I was probably about the same height as the seed,” he added.
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This helped him associate the tree’s growth with celebration. But it was the late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai who inspired Motonki to turn his family’s traditions into a movement. Matai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which has since helped Kenyan communities plant more than 51 million trees.
This teenage soccer player plants trees every time he scores a goal
Motonki remembers that Maathai often told a story about a hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire while all the other animals fled in fear. For him, the lesson is that “whatever you think might be different, it makes a difference.”
This is where the idea of combining football with environmental protection arose. He started by planting one seedling for each target. Now Trees4Goals has planted more than 5,500 native trees in forests, schools and around football club training grounds.
Mutunkei begins his Trees4Goals training workshop with a lesson on the dangers of deforestation. He drives to a soccer game, and ends with a tree planting session. “Everyone is having a great time getting their hands dirty,” he added.
He took his 22 football teammates to plant 700 trees in Nairobi’s Karura Forest. The team got the job done in less than an hour, although most of them had no prior experience. “Planting trees was like a race,” Motonki said.
With nationwide reforestation efforts over the past several years, Kenya’s forest cover is now nearly 9%. However, the increasing demand for timber and charcoal to fuel infrastructure and population growth continues to contribute to unsustainable forest harvesting. Although the country depends on less biomass energy than neighboring Tanzania and Uganda, fuelwood still makes up about 70% of Kenya’s energy needs.
While it may still await support from FIFA, Trees4Goals has caught the attention of the Kenya Ministry of Environment and Forests. In exchange for tips on how to involve young people in environmental conservation, Motonki said the ministry had provided him with seedlings, and now it regularly collaborates with him to determine where to plant them.
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They choose woodland areas where there is less tree canopy coverage. While individual trees help the environment, growing them as a forest has even greater benefits for the planet, Motonki explained.
Engaging young people in environmental conservation is mostly about giving them the opportunity to do so. Motonki said that passion follows naturally.
His colleagues have started using Trees4Goals for their sports, including basketball and tennis. “Seeing that they have this responsibility because of the project that I started, that is the biggest achievement for me,” he added.
Motonki is receiving messages from young athletes from around the world, who say they have read his story and taken the Trees4Goals Challenge. I taught him that younger generations don’t have to wait for leaders to make a difference.
“Whether it’s about reducing your use of plastic, whether it’s planting that tree, or whether it’s just using your passion to create awareness about the problem – start now, take action now, speak now,” he said.