From the Gobi desert to the Pacific coast, Rotary clubs plant seeds for the future.

The Rotarian
Photo by Deborah Fletcher/Matthew Grasse

March 2007

Sometimes global problems seem so, well, global, especially when it comes to the environment. It can get downright overwhelming when you're constantly bombarded with headlines that scream, "EU Warns of Global Climate Chaos" (The Guardian) and, "Pollution in China out of Control" (Edmonton Journal). And then there are all the alarming statistics: The World Bank projected that, on average, 1.8 million people would die each year between 2001 and 2020 because of air pollution.

In the contiguous United States, the past nine years have been among the 25 warmest on record, an unprecedented streak, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But Rotarians are not ones to sit idly by, no matter how daunting the task seems. Maybe that's because they know a secret: Just as tossing a tiny pebble can cause a ripple across an entire pond, the smallest project can have profound global effects. Good ideas, after all, are contagious, especially if you're part of a worldwide network.

Take the Rotary International Preserve Planet Earth focus. It was launched by Past RI President Paulo V.C. Costa in 1990. That year, about 2,000 club projects aimed at protecting the environment began. Today, Rotary clubs around the world are doing everything from promoting alternative energy practices to planting trees.

Here are some ideas from a few that have been successful, just in case your club catches the "go-green" bug.

Korean Rotarians plant trees to stop desertification
California Rotarians promote alternative-energy solar ovens
Washington Rotarians restore coastal habitat
Rotarians in Mexico and Texas team up to open a computer lab in the El Paso Zoo
New Zealand Rotarians trust in Trees for Survival

Korean Rotarians plant trees to stop desertification

"Who else but Rotarians would attempt a feat like turning the Gobi desert green?" asks Sangkoo Yun, past governor of District 3650 (Korea). But that's exactly what Korean Rotarians are aiming for with Keep Mongolia Green, a Centennial Community Project that continues to grow. To prevent desertification of parts of Mongolia, Rotarians have planted more than 100,000 locally grown trees to form a windbreak forest.

Rotarians and Rotaractors from all 17 Korean districts traveled to the middle of the Gobi desert to build the windbreak, which covers 196 acres of desolate land. Rotarians also established two tree nurseries, dug and refurbished wells, and built 8 miles of fencing. A US$150,000 Matching Grant from The Rotary Foundation, $10,000 from each of the Korean districts, and $50,000 from the Mongolian government helped finance the project.

Mongolian Rotarians also helped with the planting, and some made individual donations.

Since the project began, administrators at the Korean Forestry Agency were so impressed by its success in the South Gobi region that they agreed to help plant trees in Mongolia for the next 10 years.

"For the local residents in South Gobi, [the windbreak forest] could mean the survival of their motherland," says Yun. "My dream is someday soon, the children of South Gobi will look after these trees as their personal tree of hope and will plant more trees as their hopes grow." Contact Past District Governor Sangkoo Yun at

California Rotarians promote alternative-energy solar ovens

In nearly a dozen countries, the Rotary Club of Fresno, Calif., USA, has helped people use the sun to make a hot meal - harnessing clean, efficient solar power for cooking.

Fresno club member Wilfred Pimentel and his wife, Marie, realized the need for an alternative oven while living in Nigeria, where they witnessed the environmental and health problems caused by wood-burning ovens used in much of the developing world.

"Chopping down trees strains the environment, especially in areas subject to mudslides," says Marie Pimentel, an honorary member of the Fresno club. She explains that the traditional method of cooking requires hours to gather wood and that burning can cause severe lung and eye problems, especially for women and children exposed to thick smoke inside tiny, poorly ventilated kitchens.

Solar ovens provide a solution. The couple introduced the idea of a sun-powered oven to their club in 1994 after learning about them through the organization Solar Cookers International. The simplest solar oven is constructed of local, recycled cardboard covered with aluminum foil.

"The CooKit is cardboard that's 3 feet by 4 feet, with an upper flap and a bottom flap and four creases so it's round, and the whole thing is covered in aluminum foil," explains Marie Pimentel. "It acts like a Crock-Pot."

As an added benefit, a solar oven can also pasteurize about a quart of water in an hour. The Fresno club distributes a thermometer called a water pasteurization indicator (WAPI) with the ovens. It contains a small amount of soybean fat inside a tube, which melts when the water has reached 149 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to kill most bacteria. "We make the WAPIs here in Fresno with a local Interact group," says Marie Pimentel.

The Pimentels travel as Rotary Volunteers to train communities around the world how to use solar ovens, often working with local Rotarians as part of a Rotary Foundation Matching Grant project. "We go to a country at the invitation of a Rotary club president and ask him or her about Rotary club support, possible help from nongovernmental organizations, and the availability of foil and cardboard needed to make a simple cooker," says Wilfred Pimentel.

Adds Marie Pimentel: "I've seen women take pots out of the cooker, and the steam hits them in the face, and they can't believe that the food is cooked. Many of the women don't know what Rotary is, but they take your hand in both of theirs and look at you, and they say, 'Thank you for coming.'"

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Washington Rotarians restore coastal habitat

When the Bay Street beach in Port Orchard, Wash., USA, became littered with broken concrete and asphalt, Rotarian Wayne Wright grew concerned.

As a fishery and wetlands scientist, Wright, a member of the Rotary Club of Port Orchard, knew that concrete and asphalt dumping was hurting the natural habitat along the shoreline. He examined the area and found that debris had entered the intertidal zone, leaching hydrocarbons and chemicals, which polluted a place where crabs, clams, and barnacles usually thrived. "I thought, let's get the habitat back in order," Wright says.

With a team of 20 local leaders, Rotarians, and Boy Scouts and a $20,000 grant from the State of Washington, Wright headed up the restoration of the beach. The team removed 25 tons of concrete rubble and asphalt and delivered it to a local recycling plant.

"The biggest improvement is that the biology of the beach will return to a natural state," Wright explains, which will allow fish, such as juvenile salmon, and other smaller organisms to thrive again.

Contact Rotarian Wayne Wright at or 360-769-8400.

Rotarians in Mexico and Texas team up to open a computer lab in the El Paso Zoo

Hundreds of El Paso zoo goers, mostly children, are now using computers to learn about environmental ills and what they can do to help thanks to a Matching Grant awarded to the Rotary clubs of Juárez Integra, Mexico, and West El Paso, Texas, USA.

The US$17,000 grant funded 15 computers that run interactive programs to teach the importance of environmental efforts such as water conservation, geology, and saving endangered species. It also funded furniture, tables, chairs, and a printer - everything needed to created an interactive learning lab.

The educational program at the El Paso Zoo kicked off on 22 April 2005, Earth Day, and is still growing.

"We've recently hired two schoolteachers to help us get some curriculum materials together," says West El Paso Rotarian Rick LoBello, the zoo's education curator. "We're also making a brochure to distribute to teachers in the area to get them to bring their classes to the zoo."

So far, the computers have been used to promote a variety of endangered species conservation efforts. "We started an elephant conservation club and asked people to sit down at the computers and learn about endangered elephants in Sumatra using a 30-minute self-learning program," explains LoBello. The zoo encourages visitors to write letters on the computers to officials in Washington, D.C., about supporting conservation efforts.

In the near future, the zoo plans to move the computers to a new discovery center, where they will be housed with other educational exhibits, a library, a classroom, and an educational animal area.

Contact Rotarian Rick LoBello at or 915-521-1881.

New Zealand Rotarians trust in Trees for Survival

In 1991, the Rotary Club of Pakuranga, New Zealand - RI President Bill Boyd's home club - launched a national charitable trust called Trees for Survival. Boyd serves as a trustee on the blossoming effort, which encourages schoolchildren to grow seedlings in their classrooms and plant them on designated land that needs trees to help prevent soil erosion, improve water quality, or increase biodiversity.

The Trees for Survival Trust began in Australia and was redeveloped in New Zealand. Local sponsors donate boxes for growing the trees. Then, a local Rotary club provides the seedlings, planting mix, and other materials. The supplies cost the Rotary club about US$500 per year. Children plant the seedlings into individual containers and nurture them for a year until they're large enough to be planted outside.

The seedlings are always native to the area where they will be planted, according to President Boyd. Regional councils identify places where there is erosion or where water quality has deteriorated, and the children who've raised the trees go out on a one-day expedition to plant them. If they plant on the land of a private farmer, the farmer must agree to fence off the property until the trees have grown to sufficient size.

"The success of the project is such that the only limitation on it is the ability of the Trees for Survival Trust to provide the administrative support," Boyd says.

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Reporting by Joseph Derr, Vanessa N. Glavinskas, Maureen Vaught, and Tonya Weger. This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of The Rotarian.