Mario Robles del Moral

1996 Associate Laureate, Environment
Spain, Born 1958

Project Goal

Establish a national reforestation programme in Spain

Location: Spain

Trees for Life

A relatively small-scale initiative established by Spanish nurse Mario Robles del Moral in September 1993 has evolved into what is fast becoming an environmental project of global proportions.

Four years ago, Robles del Moral was named an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Awards for a voluntary reforestation programme in his native Spain. Since then, his Forests of Spain (Bosques de España) Foundation has been renamed Forests of the Earth (Bosques de la Terra) — to better reflect its international activities — and has motivated more than 600,000 people worldwide to plant at least one tree and provide it with necessary follow-up care.

“After winning a Rolex Award, people and organizations from different countries wrote to us for information on how to develop their own similar programmes,” says Robles del Moral, “so we started to share information and thinking.”

He admits that the award has been a catalyst for a number of other conservation initiatives, not least Forests of the Earth’s first international conference, which was held in Benalmádena, Málaga, in November 1997. This hugely successful event attracted around 100 delegates from 18 countries, including seven in South America, as well as Nepal and the former Yugoslavia.

“Domingo Jiménez Beltrán, director general of the European Environment Agency, chose the conference to propose an interesting official declaration,” Robles del Moral recalls, “telling the world that we should consider our old forests as cathedrals, which must under no circumstances be removed to make way for anything else. New forests, he said, should be viewed as motorways, which need to be properly engineered. And industries that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere must compensate by offering to pay for reforestation schemes — so new trees can absorb this damaging greenhouse gas.”

Global Forested Path

According to Robles del Moral, dialogue with industry representatives at the 1997 conference prompted Forests of the Earth to establish Greenway, its most recent and potentially far-reaching programme.

“Greenway will be a reforested path of green around the world which, like Australia’s great barrier reef or the great wall of China, is big enough to be seen from the moon,” Robles del Moral asserts. “At first it will be just points on a map, later it will be lines and eventually, with the collaboration of everybody, the lines will be joined and we’ll be able to circumnavigate the globe along this green path.”

His vision may seem overambitious — even far-fetched — but already the Greenway project, initiated just last year with 130 hectares of land in Churriana, Málaga, and five hectares in the Montes de Málaga National Park, is working to develop large-scale reforestation projects in seven Latin American countries.

“With the collaboration of the Spanish Foreign Office, the telecommunications company Telefonica CIA and several other companies, we are advancing with projects in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina,” Robles del Moral says, “where the need is urgent. The terrible rain damage we hear of in these countries — floods and landslides — is not always due to natural disasters. A lot of the time it is the logical consequence of deforestation.

Greenhouse Gases

“And now that global climate change brought about by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is generally acknowledged as the planet’s ‘big problem’, we need to spread the word that reforestation is the best antidote. Not only do trees take in carbon dioxide as they grow and thrive, but forests are crucial to the health of water supplies, the soil and the air we breathe.”

The Greenway approach is two-pronged, Robles del Moral explains. The first aspect is educational, “to make people see that forests are marvellous friends that we need to care for”, and the second is to establish professionally planted and managed forests comprising millions rather than hundreds of trees.

Robles del Moral chose the name “Greenway” since it is a word that is easy for people to understand internationally. And sure enough, the project is now inviting collaboration from public administrations, private companies and social collectives worldwide, all of whom will be invited to attend the Forests of the Earth’s second international conference, which is scheduled to take place next year.

In 1999, Robles del Moral invited Ted Turner, the high-profile head of the U.S.-based Cable News Network (CNN), to participate in Greenway. Suitably impressed, Turner brought the project to the attention of the United States’ National Arbor Day Foundation, and in April 2000, Robles del Moral received the prestigious Arbor Day International Award, “in recognition of his role in international tree planting and environmental stewardship”.

“And who knows,” Robles del Moral reflects, “maybe Ted Turner will plant a tree, and all the people working at CNN too. And perhaps he will promote the campaign through his television network in the way that J. Sterling Morton, founder of National Arbor Day, did in his Magazine of Nebraska back in the 19th century.”

Nurturing the Earth

It is all quite an achievement for a former nurse from Andalusia with post graduate degrees in toxicology and AIDS, as well as environmental management. Yet despite his obvious dedication to the first of his two nurturing professions, Robles del Moral was always destined to be more than a nurse. By his own admission, he has been interested in conservation since his childhood days as a boy scout.

Eager to do “something special for the earth”, Robles del Moral established an institute for environmental research, Instituto de Investigaciones Ecológicas, or INEC, in his native Málaga, in 1992, relinquishing his position as a senior nurse at the regional hospital to become its full-time director. Still going strong, the institute operates as a non-governmental organization, offers post-graduate courses in environmental subjects, hosts a number of national ecological events and provides a job placement service for ecologists.

In 1993, concerned by the fact that almost half of Spain was suffering the effects of soil erosion — mostly due to human-induced deforestation — Robles del Moral embarked on an ambitious crusade to persuade his compatriots to become “forest rangers” by planting and caring for native trees. He persuaded INEC members to initiate the Forests of Spain campaign and to urge ministers, mayors, leaders of environmental organisations and local dignitaries across the country to join the cause.

Within three months of the Forests of Spain’s launch, a local coordinator had been appointed in nearly every Spanish province. The first national reforestation campaign took place in Málaga between October 1994 and March 1995, the local authority having donated 2,500 hectares of now-protected land. Some 48,000 forestry students, together with 1,000 members of the public, planted a staggering 110,000 trees on this land. The programme attracted support from, among others, the European Union’s Life Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNESCO and the Spanish Ministry for the Environment.

“We have since organized activities all over Spain, in little villages and big cities, establishing agreements with town councils and regional governments,” says Robles del Moral. “We have planted thousands of trees in National Parks, on municipal land and elsewhere,” he adds. “And for the past five months we have broadcast a programme on Spanish public television that provides a platform to present environmental issues to viewers in Spain and South America.”

Going for Millions

Yet even these huge achievements are not enough for Robles del Moral, and Forests of the Earth is setting sites for Spain even higher, in line with its plans for elsewhere on the planet.

“We have fully exploited environmental education,” he insists, “but hundreds of new trees in a province is not enough. It’s a good starting point, but now it is time to include professional reforestation — the formation of real, commercial forests with millions of trees — in our activities. It’s like a car; if we only have two wheels, it won’t run. We now need all four wheels.”

What is needed, he explains, is for everyone, from all levels of Spanish society, to understand the importance of the environment and trees. “We need millions to be planted every year, to compensate for the fact that 130,000 square kilometres of forest — an area the size of Greece, or Florida — are lost to fires every year.” And only five per cent of these fires can be attributed to natural causes; the rest are human-induced. “But once a person plants a tree,” says Robles del Moral, “he or she never forgets it, and their relationship with nature becomes especially careful.”

In addition to his role as director of the INEC, Robles del Moral is coordinator of the International Programme of Forests of the Earth, which he describes as a “civil and cultural initiative; a measure of each human being’s possibilities”.

That may be so, but few other human beings have done more than this dedicated and inspiring former nurse to change public attitudes towards conservation and ensure that this groundbreaking programme — like so many of the trees planted in its name — is now bearing fruit.

Fiona McWilliam

Other 1996 Associate Laureates