Gordon Okumu — Transforming Trees into Water in Kenya
Gordon Okumu, an International Studies major at the University of Oregon, has visited his hometown of Migori, Kenya, every December since moving to the United States in 2016. On each trip, Okumu has noticed a decrease in Migori’s tree count.
“I realized that the place that I grew up when my grandma took me in was much more a forest and today is much more of an open land,” he said.
A need for firewood motivated the town to curtail its forestry, which created a two-headed problem. Migori residents rely on rainfall as a source of clean water, so fewer trees result in less transpiration, less condensation, and therefore less precipitation.
Over the last two years, Okumu has developed a solution to handle both problems brought about by the reduction of trees. His non-profit, titled Angels of Africa in Migori County, began the ‘Two-4-One‘ campaign: at its core, every community member receives two trees to plant. One tree represents the removal of carbon dioxide from the air, and the other represents the supply of oxygen for wildlife to breathe. Not only does the ‘Two-4-One‘ campaign replenish Migori’s greenery, but it also teaches the community about the importance of trees to the environment.
The campaign was prompted by Okumu’s initial efforts to provide the town with safer access to water. When he was 14 years old, Okumu’s mother died from typhoid, a waterborne disease. He intended to build a well in Migori to expand its water sources past just rainfall and prevent such diseases, but because of the lack of tree cover, the well had to reach depths of 900 feet to effectively accumulate water.
By establishing tree coverage throughout Migori, residents can build new wells at more feasible depths.
“We are still going to fundraise until we get to build that well,” he said. “But we also are going to recover our environment, so that in the future, if another Gordon comes up from this community and wants to drill a well, it should not be a 900-foot well.”This past December marked the second year of Okumu’s tree planting work in Migori. In December 2018, he and volunteers planted 5,000 eucalyptus tree seeds. One year later, a bigger group of volunteers planted 45,000 seedlings of various native trees, like the African Mahogany. 35,000 African Mahoganies were introduced in a single day, and the leftovers were distributed door to door to more than 1,000 families.
To ensure people don’t cut down the eucalyptus and African Mahogany trees once they grew, Okumu instituted a rule: if you cut a ‘Two-4-One‘ tree down, you must plant two more.
By cutting down a tree, all the carbon it once stored gets released back into the atmosphere. Okumu learned such details through discussions with his faculty mentor, International Studies Associate Professor, Derrick Hindery, who influenced him to add post-planting stipulations.
“[Planting trees] can affect the regional climate through capturing more water in the soil and the groundwater, providing more income for community members, and reducing the burden on women that have to walk for fuelwood, in addition to the obvious benefits of producing oxygen and sequestering carbon,” said Hindery.
Okumu’s original goal was to simply re-establish Migori’s greenery but realized from his time at UO that more can be done in terms of education and longevity.
He stated, “In my program, the tree planting is not only going to be beneficial to Kenya but beneficial to the whole world.”