Macedonia seeds hope in 5 million new trees

The tiny Balkan country greets spring – and safeguards the environment – with a massive reforestation initiative.

SKOPJE, Macedonia – Campaign season has arrived in Macedonia, with presidential and municipal elections next Sunday. Nevertheless, the locals made time for the third installment of the "Day of the Tree" initiative that began last March to help reforest this small Balkan country and raise ecological awareness.

On that first showing a year ago, more than 150,000 Macedonians planted 2 million trees in one day (symbolically, one for each citizen). Six million more were planted in November. Saturday's event saw a combined 5 million trees planted nationwide by a diverse network of volunteers.

The Tree Day’s leader is Boris Trajanov, a world-renowned opera singer. “Our primary goal with this initiative is to create a greener Macedonia and to help our planet,” he said, while heading to the planting site of Ajvatinovski Rid, a dramatic ridgeline in the northeast. Along the way, schoolchildren giggled and waved and asked for more Tree Day buttons and flags.

“The kids are crazy for this!” beamed Mr. Trajanov, a father-of-three. “I love to see this side of it also – the people really enjoy being out in the fresh air, and having fun planting trees.”

About the size of Vermont, Macedonia boasts similar mountains, lakes, and verdure – but with much more litter. Building ecological awareness for future generations is an important part of the tree planting event, said Dutch Ambassador to Macedonia, Simone Filippini, speaking at another planting site just outside the capital, Skopje.
“The natural environment is the prime source of Macedonia’s beauty, and of its future tourism potential,” the ambassador said. “We hope this event will help build consciousness among Macedonians, to appreciate the beauty of what they have, to take care of it, and to teach their kids to do so, as well.”

Also helping out with a shovel at the site was Macedonia’s top diplomat, Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Milososki. He’s been kept busier than most European statesmen of late because of Macedonia’s peculiar predicament: its name. Neighboring Greece, which itself has a province named Macedonia, refuses to allow the country to join NATO, even under the "provisional name" agreed under UN auspices in 1995 – the unwieldy "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." (The Monitor wrote about the issue in-depth here)

At the Bucharest NATO summit last April, then-President Bush and other world leaders were dismayed when Greece blocked Macedonia’s invitation, despite the fact that Macedonia had fulfilled all the technical criteria and already was contributing troops to US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Domestically, Greece’s hardening stance has made it politically difficult for its own leaders to step back from a position that European Parliamentarian Charles Tannock recently stated was “bringing Greece into ridicule,” due to Athens’ sworn veto on Macedonia’s European Union aspirations so long as the country does not change its name.

Nevertheless, Minister Milososki remains patient. He’s also proud of how the Tree Day initiative has facilitated interactions between Macedonia’s sometimes fractious ethnic populations. “Tree Day is a uniting action, and investing in ecology is investing in our common future,” he said. Indeed, a major goal of Tree Day leader Trajanov’s team is to involve other Balkan countries in the next mass planting, scheduled for fall. So far, Montenegro has shown particular interest. Is there any interest from Greece?

The minister is sanguine. “I would be very happy in the future to plant a tree together with my Greek colleagues, on our common border,” Milososki said. “We could name it as the ‘tree of Greek-Macedonian friendship.’”

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