'Whether it's planting that tree or just using your passion to create awareness about the problem—start now, take action now, speak out now.'
A young football player from Kenya is hoping to inspire the biggest names in the sport to pick up a shovel in the world's ongoing fight against deforestation. Lesein Mutunkei, an 18-year-old amateur footballer, is on a mission to change the way athletes view success through his Trees4Goals initiative, which combines football and environmentalism. For the past few years, the teen has been doing his part to combat deforestation by planting 11 trees—one to represent each player on his team—each time he scores a goal on the football pitch. "Football is a universal game and climate change is a universal problem," Mutunkei told CNN. "[It] has the power to connect, engage, educate and inspire my generation to create a safer and greener future."
According to the Kenya Forest Service, Kenya's forest cover stood at just 6% in 2018. This was the year Mutunkei launched his Trees4Goals initiative to encourage young athletes in his region to join him in planting trees every time they score. Now he wants FIFA to leverage its billion-plus audience to spread his message throughout the world. Although the teen is yet to receive a direct response to the emails and social media messages he's sent to the association, a FIFA representative commended Mutunkei's efforts in a recent email to CNN. "This and other similar projects led by young people and climate defenders around the world are not only commendable, but also necessary," they said.
Mutunkei's journey as an environmentalist has also been acknowledged by Arsenal Football Club which sent him an autographed jersey after learning about him in an docu-series. Such accolades get Mutunkei closer to his dream world, in which football clubs measure their success by the size of the forests they've planted, rather than the number of matches they've won. A tree—unlike a trophy—he explained, grows alongside you.
Mutunkei began his environmental activism when he was five years old. His family planted trees to mark key occasions. "I was probably the same height as a seedling," he said. While his upbringing taught him to associate the growth of a tree with celebration, it was the late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai who inspired the youngster to transform his family heritage into a campaign. In 1977, Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement, which has subsequently helped Kenyan villages plant over 51 million trees.
Mutunkei recalls Maathai often telling a story about a hummingbird attempting to put out a forest fire as all of the other animals fled in terror. The takeaway from the story for him was that "however small you think it may be of a difference, it does make a change." This was what inspired Mutunkei to combine football with environmental activism. He began by planting one sapling for every goal he scored. Today, Trees4Goals has planted over 5,500 indigenous trees in forests, schools and around football club training grounds. Mutunkei begins his Trees4Goals workshops by teaching attendees about the hazards of deforestation—the clearing of forests and trees for agriculture or to harvest resources like timber which contributes to global warming and damages wildlife habitats—and ends with a tree planting session.
Kenya's Ministry of Environment and Forestry has taken notice of Trees4Goals, providing Mutunkei with saplings in exchange for advice about how to engage young people in conservation. Now, the ministry collaborates with the teen on a regular basis regarding decisions about where to plant saplings. They select forest regions with a lower tree canopy coverage as although individual trees does help improve the environment, planting them as a forest provides higher global advantages, Mutunkei explained. The teen has also inspired his classmates to take Trees4Goals to their respective sports, including basketball and tennis. "Seeing that they're taking that responsibility because of the project I started, for me, that is the biggest achievement," he said. "Whether it's reducing your use of plastic, whether it's planting that tree, or whether it's just using your passion to create awareness about the problem—start now, take action now, speak out now."