Local trees come to life in the UAE

Thanks to widespread tree-planting programmes, many of the UAE's indigenous species are once again thriving, despite the country's frantic pace of urbanisation.

Ghaf trees, seen here in Dubai’s Mushrif Park, are evergreen, drought-tolerant and can thrive in desert climes – and are widely regarded as the national tree of the UAE. Pawan Singh / The National
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We may not realise it, but it would be almost impossible for humans to survive in a world without trees.

Trees perform a multitude of complex, behind-the-scenes tasks, the majority of which go largely unnoticed by us – such as releasing oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide and combating soil erosion – but which are crucial for our happy existence on Earth. And, from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, who doesn’t love to sit beneath a verdant canopy listening to the leaves rustling in the breeze?

In the UAE, we may lack the rich variety of native trees often found in cooler or damper climates, but the resilient indigenous species that can survive here are still ­precious and must be conserved. Sheikh Zayed, the late President of the UAE, was a renowned environmentalist who spearheaded a number of tree-planting programmes in his lifetime and helped transform swaths of barren desert landscape into pockets of lush greenery.

Prosopis cineraria, commonly known as the ghaf tree, is widely regarded as the national tree of the UAE. This hardy, evergreen species, indigenous to the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, is drought-tolerant and a master at surviving searing winds and the fierce glare of the sun. However, rampant urbanisation and overgrazing by camels and goats are threatening its survival.

The Give a Ghaf tree-planting programme was started in 2010 to raise public awareness within the UAE of this symbolic tree, while encouraging people to plant trees and save water. Launched by Goumbook, a UAE-based company dedicated to promoting sustainability and green living, Give a Ghaf is the brainchild of Tatiana Antonelli Abella, Goumbook’s founder and managing director.

“An accelerating decline in ghaf trees and woodlands would imply a loss in cultural and biological heritage. Goumbook wants to lead its conservation by giving people the opportunity to plant wild ghaf trees and preserve their aesthetic, cultural and ecological significance,” says ­Abella.

Ghaf seeds are initially planted and nurtured in a nursery for about two years, until they grow into seedlings. The young trees are then ready to be planted – in parks, schools and other urban areas where natural shade and greenery are needed.

“To date, we have planted more than 1,000 grown-up trees in ­Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah,” says Abella. “These trees are planted by the collective efforts of individuals and corporations from all parts of society, and contribute to the biodiversity of the UAE.”

To mark the recent 43rd UAE National Day, Goumbook unveiled a new Give a Ghaf project aimed specifically at Emiratis to encourage them to plant ghaf trees within their properties and farms.

“We are ready to work with all landowners who are committed to making their land greener in a sustainable way, and we hope many Emiratis will get in contact with us to plant their national tree,” says Abella.

For a donation of as little as US$5 (Dh18), individuals can buy or dedicate a ghaf tree. This will get them a certificate, information on where their tree has been planted and an invitation to one of Give a Ghaf’s Community Planting Days, which take place once a year.

As symbolic as it may be, the ghaf is not the only local species being revived by community tree-planting efforts. The ­saline-tolerant mangrove is now thriving along the UAE’s coastline, particularly in and around Abu Dhabi and Umm Al Quwain. Its proliferation is another ­environmental initiative ­championed by Sheikh Zayed. Thanks to intensive planting schemes in more recent years, these patches of coastal greenery now provide habitats for a variety of wildlife, including birds, fish and turtles.

In a bid to preserve the natural beauty of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, the developer TDIC established a mangrove nursery on the island, where it grew an initial 750,000 mangroves from seeds collected on the island, and has planted more than half a million mangrove trees to date.

Meanwhile, the capital’s Corniche is becoming ever greener thanks to an initiative which involves schoolchildren planting trees on a plot of land that has been granted to the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) by Abu Dhabi Municipality.

Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili, ADEC’s director general, says: “This initiative aims to educate students on the importance of agriculture, to people as well as to the environment. Planting helps students gain experience and enables them to monitor closely its various processes to include soil planting, seeding, harvesting and irrigation.”

The Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) is responsible for numerous tree-planting schemes. The NGO commenced its tree planting in 2007 while coordinating and overseeing the planting of one million trees in the UAE, in support of the international Billion Tree Campaign, which was launched the previous year by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Under the theme For Our Emirates – We Plant, EEG runs a range of eco-programmes in which individuals and companies can get involved in planting indigenous trees such as acacia, neem, date palms, ghaf and sidra, to help preserve the environment and promote a more sustainable UAE.

Meanwhile, the Your Can for a Tree scheme challenges individuals to collect a specified number of aluminium cans in an allotted time, after which they have the privilege of planting a tree in their name. And in the Together We Plant programme, EEG encourages private companies and academic institutions to join together in planting trees.

“Through our campaigns, EEG has planted a total of 2,092,697 indigenous trees in the UAE and its neighbouring countries,” reveals Habiba Al Marashi, the co-founder and chairperson of EEG. And that number is about to increase: EEG is hosting a tree-planting ceremony today in Ajman as part of its Clean Up UAE 2014 campaign, and more than 400 trees will be planted at the end of the event.

The UAE’s tree-planting initiatives not only encourage people to learn about the local environment, but also to give back to the community by improving air quality, creating healthier outdoor spaces and restoring urban habitats for wildlife – plus contribute to global reforestation. We would do well to heed the Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the next best time is now.”