HARARE, April 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An avocado tree stands just outside the gate of Silibaziso Mangena’s home in Westlea, a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.
The tree, hanging with fruit, is the tallest in a row of four avocado trees.
Mangena says she planted the first tree in 2010 after the death of her oldest child. The others were planted together later, after she lost her three remaining children in a car accident.
The 66-year-old widow said that on each occasion she was given the avocado seedlings by Nyaradzo Funeral Assurance Company, the country’s largest funeral home business, with which she had taken out a policy.
“People from Nyaradzo told me they were sorry I had lost my firstborn son, saying they were also sorry that his death dented the environment as they would bury him in a coffin carved from a tree, and therefore they had to replace the tree,” Mangena said in an interview.
“They did the same at the deaths of my three other children, and that is why you see these avocado trees here.”
Nyaradzo is just one of several Zimbabwe funeral companies trying to ensure that as the dead are put in their graves – usually in wooden coffins – trees are planted to mark their lives and to help fight deforestation.
The companies, supporting an old tradition of planting a tree to mark a death, are distributing free seedlings and promoting planting in cemeteries and at homes as a way to help restore a parched country – and offset their own use of timber.
With both deforestation and drought creating worsening problems in Zimbabwe, the memorial seedlings could play a small but highly symbolic role in mitigating the effects of climate change, funeral company officials say.
“Zimbabwe may become a desert if deforestation continues,” said Patience Fusire, a manager at Nyaradzo. “As users of wood products, we said we should be replacing the wood we use through planting trees.”
Three smaller, locally owned funeral companies – Farewell, Homebound, and Vimbo & Rutendo – also are now planting trees when they preside over burials.
Nyaradzo carries out between 17,000 and 20,000 burials each year, and since 2013 has given each grieving family a tree seedling, which they can plant at home or where they like, including at the cemetery, Fusire said.
Altogether, the company aims to plant 500 million trees around the country by 2026, working primarily with schools and households. It says it has overseen planting of 5.8 million trees since launching the programme seven years ago.
Justin Bakare, a Ministry of Agriculture extension officer based in Harare, said the government was working with Nyaradzo to support the fight against deforestation.
Bakare said that even if some bereaved customers do not plant the trees they receive, Nyaradzo’s overall impact is significant.
“The firm now also plants trees even in schools and villages, even when there are no funerals, but just doing it for the sake of building up more forests,” he said in an interview.
Residents of Harare who live near Glen Forest cemetery say they can see the results.
“Now there are much taller gum trees, pine trees and even mango trees within Glen Forest Memorial Park because of trees that Nyaradzo has planted at burials,” Chamunorwa Rukweza, who lives a stone’s throw from the cemetery, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The trees are giving shade to mourners in the midst of the heat.”
To try to reach its half-billion tree goal, Nyaradzo offers prizes, from wheelbarrows to watering cans, to people who participate in the initiative and plant the largest number of trees.
Apart from the campaign by funeral companies, villagers in other areas of Zimbabwe – such as Mwenezi district in Masvingo Province – also have taken to planting trees in community cemeteries.
“When we cut down trees, clearing land to bury our dead, officials from the Forestry Commission here told us we were endangering our environment and urged us to replant trees inside village graveyards,” said Elison Moyo, one of the village heads in Mwenezi.
“We don’t wait for burials in order to plant trees, but we do it regularly as community members,” he said.
The climate change coordinator in the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate sees the cemetery planting push as symbolic of growing environmental concern by many Zimbabweans, who have been hit by increasingly extreme weather.
“When trees are planted at burials, it shows the rise in environmental consciousness which has engulfed the nation and how environmental issues and climate change have been embraced by various sectors,” said Elisha Moyo, who is not related to Elison.
Gertrude Pswarayi-Jabson, the county coordinator for PELUM Zimbabwe – a network of organisations working on Participatory Ecological Land Use Management – said adding trees in cemeteries, in particular, is in some ways simply returning the land to its origins.
“Most burial sites were once forests and were cleared to pave the way for humans to bury their dead,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“A wide diversity of trees, plants, herbs, wildlife, grass and insects were destroyed to create these burial sites and planting trees could be a way of bringing back lost biodiversity.”
Reporting by Jeffrey Moyo ; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering : Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate