First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: Stefan Grozdev

I dreamed a forest into life

I planted a forest of 7,500 trees. People laughed at me. People marvelled at me. I was called a fool. I was called a saint. Looking back, I can’t believe I did it but I found a way – with determination and the help of 300 volunteers.       

I have always been concerned about the way humanity is addressing climate change. We are not acting fast enough, for which we will all pay a painfully high price – particularly the most vulnerable communities. 

Will my forest change anything profoundly? Of course not. We need deep, systemic transformations in the way we organize our economies and societies, and in what we value. But my forest is a step in the right direction. In this decisive decade, which marks our last opportunity to escape the catastrophic impacts of climate change, every effort matters. No action is too small.

In this decisive decade, which marks our last opportunity to escape the catastrophic impacts of climate change, every effort matters.

Raya UbenovaPublishing & Design Team Lead at the International Labour Organization (ILO)

Initially, my efforts were individual – cycling to work, not eating meat, reducing flights, consuming local food, donating to tree-planting organizations and to carbon-capture-and-storage initiatives, and helping my family do the same. However, mounting scientific evidence about the magnitude of climate change urged me to do more.

Raya Ubenova stands in front of a desk and works at a computer.

At work at my publishing and design job at the International Labour Organization. I cycle to the office, but I wanted to do more for the environment.

© Anders Johnsson

In 2020, I was sitting on a beach in my home country Bulgaria during my holidays, reading a very action-oriented book by Christiana Figueres – one of the architects of the Paris Climate Agreement – and Tom Rivett-Carnac. I thought “What can I do? What can I do?” And then I said to myself, “Just stop reflecting and do something!”.

For two years I had been reflecting. Should I go for a PhD? Write a novel about the climate crisis? A children’s book? But who needs another novel or another PhD student on Hothouse Earth? I was very torn about where I should put my energy and eventually on this beach I thought “Ok, let’s start small. Let’s purchase a piece of land and plant trees.” Even if this is far from an ideal solution - forests are prone to fires, trees take a long time to grow and store CO2. What we really need to do is stop generating emissions. However, planting trees is a simple, effective and proven technology for CO2 sequestration, if it is done properly.

But how? Where? How would I organise the planting and ensure that it is done professionally? These were all questions I did not have answers to. I shared the idea with my family and they laughed at the beginning. Then they saw I was serious.

A single oak sapling planted in the ground.

One of the oak saplings we planted.

© Kalina Komitova

I started looking for land in Bulgaria in April 2021. My criteria were that it should be the largest amount of land for my budget, degraded or abandoned, in a mountainous or semi-mountainous region, with a current or former forest nearby. I eventually found the right terrain close to a village called Tserovo, around 50 minutes by road from Sofia. It was beautiful. Nature was already re-foresting – ideal conditions to help the process. There I met a farmer who was ploughing his cherry tree orchard. I explained that I wanted to plant a forest for carbon sequestration. He laughed and said, “You are either very rich or very crazy.” My next step was to organize a soil-health analysis. This time the farmer was completely bewildered. However, despite our different outlooks, we became friends and later he helped me with everything he could.

Although I had never done anything like this before, I was reassured and empowered by all those people and organizations who are planting forests in countries all over the world. What moved me even more was all the unexpected help I received from people I knew and from strangers. Experts from the Bulgarian Executive Forest Agency, for example, put me in touch with a licensed forester – Associate Professor Nasko Iliev – who prepared an afforestation technological plan, gave guidance on planting and soil preparation and recommended a range of tree species. He embraced the initiative and refused to charge me for his services. Similarly, the environmental NGO Gorata.bg., who named my initiative, “Raya’s Dream Forest”, helped me find instruments, tree saplings and volunteers.

A crowd of people stands on the slopes of Raya’s land with mountains in the background.

I couldn’t believe how many people showed up to plant the saplings with me.

© Raya Ubenova

On Saturday, 13 November 2021, some 300 tree-planting enthusiasts flocked to the land, ready to do some good and have some fun. Joy, shared purpose and a sense of strong community were in the air. There were all generations, including many kids. The youngest, under one year old, was carried by his mum in a kangaroo pouch. It was very inspirational.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic at the beginning though. My mum was very concerned at first. She was worried that I was spending savings to do something that would not benefit me directly. But the week before the planting her opinion swung, and she said she would cook for the volunteers. And she outdid herself! She took a day off work and prepared eleven large ‘banitsa’ (a traditional Bulgarian savoury pie), four casseroles of potato salad, 100 steaks. It was a massive effort on her part, which really touched me. On tree-planting day, we pitched a tent, served tea and coffee and when people asked her who she was, my mother proudly told them, “I am the mother of the mother of the forest.”

Raya Ubenova smiles for the camera with members of her family.

My family has been a huge support to me.

© Nikola Rahnev

Looking back, this was so much work. I cannot believe it happened. It only worked because of the commitment and support of so many people along the way. For instance, one of my friends who came to the planting was worried that the saplings might get lost in the undergrowth. He kept on returning to the land by himself for days after the planting, to put little white labels on each sapling. That’s 7,500 labels!

A crowd of people spread over a hillside in Bulgaria at work planting oak saplings.

All the volunteers worked hard to plant the saplings in just one day. They planted oak, linden, sycamore and other tree varieties.

© Raya Ubenova

But it doesn’t end there. A young forest needs care. Just like a child. It requires maintenance two-three times a year, which involves cleaning weeds, ensuring saplings can “breathe”, and replanting any trees that have died. Moreover, Bulgarian summers are getting abnormally hot and dry, and the saplings will perish if they are not watered. I’m committed to provide this care in 2022, 2023 and 2024, hopefully with the help of many enthusiastic volunteers.

I would like to live in a clean, peaceful and just world and I can’t expect this to happen while I am standing back.

Raya UbenovaPublishing & Design Team Lead at the International Labour Organization (ILO)

When people ask what drives me, I tell them that I don’t find my action so unusual considering the unprecedented changes required to avoid catastrophic climate impacts on people and the planet. Presumably like you, I would like to live in a clean, peaceful and just world and I can’t expect this to happen while I am standing back. Small acts like mine can help sequester some CO2 but they also have an invisible power – to inspire more action. We are much more capable than we think. If I managed to plant a forest of 7,500 trees, imagine what you can do.

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