As a child, Gowri Rajan was scared of trees because of the reptiles and insects lurking in their roots, branches, and leaves.
"I wouldn't go near trees," says Rajan. "It's ironic that, later in life, a tree would be the reason I'm still alive."
On the morning of 26 December 2004, a tsunami slammed into Rajan's vacation house on the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, where her family and a few friends were staying for the holidays. The water violently crashed through the house, destroying everything inside. "I said my last prayers. I thought this was the end," she recalls.
When the water receded, it swept Rajan with it. But she saved herself by grabbing onto one of the few trees that hadn't been uprooted.
"For 20 minutes I held on with all my strength. I could feel the ocean pulling my body in," says Rajan, who lost three of her friends that day.
After the wave receded, she started to swim back to the house through the dark water, to rejoin her family and friends. A second wave came crashing in. A friend was able to reach Rajan and help her climb to the top of another tree. "I was saved by two trees," she says. "It's a miracle I'm still alive."
Now, Rajan is looking for a million people to share their tree stories to raise awareness and money to restore the island nation's trees.
Rajan is a Rotary member and leader in her region, which started the One Million Tree Stories project in December, 10 years after the tsunami. One of the region's Rotary clubs, the Rotary Club of Ibbagamuwa, is playing a prominent role because it had already been working on reforestation. The Rotary members are partnering with hundreds of local farmers, a bank, and government agencies. The Sri Lankan army will help plant the first trees. The goal is to plant 1 million trees this year along the banks of protected reservoirs in the Kurunegala district, in the country's North Western Province, and another 4 million trees over the next five years.
Rotary members and the public can sponsor a tree for 100 Sri Lankan rupees (about $.75 cents) and are encouraged to tell their own tree stories on the project's Facebook page. "Research shows every human being is emotionally connected to a tree in some way or another," says Rajan. "We want to hear these stories. It will help create a personal connection to the tree you sponsor."
Rajan says 40 cents of each dollar donated to the project will go to The Rotary Foundation, while the remaining 60 cents will be used to buy trees and care for them during their first two years. Every tree will be tagged and entered into a computer system that will enable sponsors to monitor its growth.
According to the Sri Lankan government, the nation's forest coverage has declined from 53 percent to 29 percent over the last two decades.
Don Nihal Wanigasekara, president of the Ibbagamuwa Rotary club and the originator of its tree-planting project, says widespread deforestation is contributing to "the destruction of our planet."
"Although the government has imposed laws to control deforestation, more effort must be made to help our country's natural habitat," says Wanigasekara, a mechanical and mining engineer. "Planting one tree has an enormous benefit to the environment," he adds.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a single tree can absorb a ton of harmful greenhouse gases over its lifetime, produce enough oxygen for four people every day, cool the air as well as 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day, and provide an estimated $273 of environmental benefits in every year of its life. Trees also control storm water runoff and reduce the risks of both flooding and drought.
Wanigasekara estimates that Sri Lanka needs a minimum of 20 million new trees over the next 10 years to be able to counter the effects of the carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels.
"Our club unanimously accepted to take on this project because we know how crucial it is to make the environment safer for future generations," says Wanigasekara. "We all have a personal responsibility to keep this planet green. I hope a million trees is just the beginning."