50,000 trees – the lasting legacy of Dongria Khond

We remember an inspiring activist who saw the connection between flood risk, tree planting and climate change – and acted on it.

Joanna Watson02 Aug 2021

One of the joys of working on experiments is the chance to meet and work with inspiring people who are already involved in finding and encouraging others to get involved in taking practical action. One such was Dongria Khond who died in June.

Dongria kneeling by tree sapling and looking up at camera
Dongria kneeling by tree sapling and looking up at camera Treesponsibility

We met her when we were exploring ideas about tree planting as part of Friends of the Earth’s campaign to double tree cover in England.  We had discovered that there is indeed an appetite out there to lead community tree-planting and help the landscape regenerate but people need support, leadership and a range of skills.  Christian Graham from the Experiments team explains how when we met Dongria, she was thinking about how to pass on her knowledge and ensure a legacy for her work and was keen for us to help.

“I first met Dongria at the Trees workshop I was organising in Leeds. The aim of our workshop, as with many of them, was simple to describe but hard to do in practice: how might we double tree cover in the region? It was a chance to hear from decision makers, landowners, activists, academics and others what had worked, what hadn’t and what would they love to try. As ever, the aim was to dream big, and then start somewhere with the smallest possible actions we could take.   

A long-time activist, Dongria’s sense of mischief and passion for tree planting was something I could immediately connect with and we shared some war stories over a morning cuppa. Hers were, of course, far better than any of mine.  The idea she contributed - Re-tree-it - also fell into relatively simple to enable, but great potential for impact category: she only wanted to find a way to share her hard-won expertise with others so they might repeat her success.  It was clear from seeing the nods around the room that the wisdom underlying that aspiration commanded deep respect from her peers and others – and deservedly so.”

Dongria had gained her knowledge and understanding through the community group Treesponsibility that she founded in 1998 – acting on the realisation that the Calder Valley was going to need a lot more trees to manage flood risk with the coming impacts of climate change. She pioneered natural flood management and had a passion for campaigning and educating the volunteers with whom she planted over 50,000 trees since 2015. More recently she founded The Source Partnership, which brings together a wide range of partners including community groups and government organisations to promote natural flood management techniques.

As a tribute to her leading example, Calderdale Council’s Cabinet have adopted White Rose Forest canopy tree- planting targets for Calderdale and members agreed the council should promote an ambition for a 18.73 per cent tree canopy cover target by 2050, to help address the climate crisis.

We supported Treesponsibility in the early stages of launching Dongria’s innovative training programme for leaders hoping to run tree planting groups themselves, assisting them with a webinar to better understand the needs of participants. Treesponsibility began their trial training programme in Autumn 2019.

Carla Doran from Friends of the Earth’s England Team remembers Dongria as “an amazing activist who was ahead of her time and just made things happen. What seemed like a good idea then, has turned into something completely essential now. If the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, then we can be thankful that that is exactly what Dongria did. She was positive, always moving forward, practical and a wonderful energy to be around.  I didn't know her well, but the times I spent with her have had a deep impact on me and she will always inspire me”.

We have been privileged to support Dongria in sharing her deep knowledge and skills by co-funding a video where she takes her audience through all the practical steps involved in tree planting. Through watching this film, even though I never met her, I get a strong impression of the powerful and dedicated person she was and know that she has left a long-lasting legacy in the Calder Valley where she lived for many years.