ALTERNATIVE LIVING- “We Build Cities Where Forests Used to Stand”
An Interview with Nochi Motaharu
Little from Nochi Motaharu’s upbringing in the suburbs of Osaka could have predicted his life’s purpose today: to reforest the world’s deserts. He has planted over 250 trees since his arrival in Jordan about a year ago, but when asked about his goals, his answer is simply “to keep planting.” Indeed, this man who has made no earnings if not for the sporadic workshops he has helped host, has much to teach us about what it means to “earn” a living— to be worthy of the abundance of the natural world and when the time is ripe, to pay back our debts.
In college, while studying Sociology and Anthropology, Nochi noticed that in every field, people were trying to locate and communicate the problems humanity faced, but rarely offered solutions. When it was time to take a leap into the professional world, he was at a loss. “I was never able to connect what I studied with the jobs available,” he says. No obvious path appeared before him.
Nochi Motaharu found himself immersed in a career in the business and corporate fields—fields which focus on linear growth, or financial headway expecting to maintain its growth ad infinitum. “The economy is one of our major motivators,” he explains as we sip our warm teas in a creative space in Jabal Al Webdeh. “We focus on production and services, and sometimes forget they all come from natural resources,” he explains, a touch of frustration entering his voice. While the world focuses on this linear growth, many wonder how the future will look like while searching elsewhere, expecting someone to provide answers.
“Sounds like it’s someone else’s task to find them,” Nochi says, now with a smile, “people talk about how it’s going to be—but NO, it’s what WE do and how WE do it that matters most.”
He sits upright fixing his posture and glancing around the room as the early end to the autumn day lets darkness overtake the rush and colors outside. Inside, the lights are turned on, allowing some textiles on the wall to show their shapes and richness as Nochi explains that the answer is rather simple: using nature’s gifts must be more like using a tool box. “You use it, you put it back,” he says, “Same as when you use any other tools.”
Nochi soon realized he could not just talk about changing the world, and that he had to do something about the things that irked him. This active spirit is a crucial aspect of the personality and grit of a man who has made it his responsibility to reforest the desert. He has lived up to the occasion and turned the cliche into artistry: actions do speak louder than words.
In 2011, Nochi was living in Tokyo when Fukushima shook Japan. “The news showed us nuclear plants exploding and governments making announcements to keep everyone calm, but from past experience, I knew governments play a role to keep the public calm… I knew I had to get out of there.”
During this period, he began to think seriously about his life, and where it was going. He was working for trading houses, and dabbled with music and fashion, but still felt he wasn’t doing anything of real value and recognized a deep need to make a significant contribution to society.
Having a job was luring “money-wise,” Nochi explains, “Every year, you make more.” But still, an unrelenting and instinctive feeling was telling him he was moving further away from something more important.
“Until that point, I had spoken about many possibilities, but I was not feeling satisfied—even though I was feeding myself.” Food reoccurs several time throughout our conversation, not solely in its material sense but in the context of nourishment and what it takes to truly “feed” a life and cater to our deepest needs. “My intention is to make food forests,” Nochi adds, “and planting medicinal and biologically beneficial species that help with other parts of the natural process, like erosion control.” His favorite local species include the Carob tree, Acacia, Salt Bushes, and Cypresses. With no doubt in mind, “now, I’m sure I need to live for what I think is meaningful, which means planting trees,” he says.
In Japan, Nochi grew up surrounded by forests, and often headed up to the mountains with his family after school, where they looked for wild bushes and fruits, and watched the seasons transform the character, resonance, and colors of the woods.
Now in his adult life, when the idea of “GREEN THE BROWN” crossed his radar, things began to fall into place. He learned more about trees and their needs, then thought of heading to Central Asia, or West or North Africa, but knew nobody in those places. Finally, a friend introduced him to colleagues in Palestine who were working in the field of reforestation. Not only was Nochi’s mission now being born, but working in the Arab world was new territory as well as he set off on the journey head-on.
While forests cover less than 0.8% of Jordan (mostly around Jerash, Dibeen, and Ajloun), Nochi quickly learned that not many people were actively working in reforestation in Jordan. “What I saw was the opposite,” he says, “people trashing the place—without the intention to do so.” It is disheartening to learn that places like Mount Nebo were once entirely covered in green. Although government ministries have been involved in “greening,” what seems lacking is a broader vision and active, emotional involvement in the work.
These days, many locals receive phone calls and messages from Nochi “asking for a favor.” The favor? To plant trees in their gardens and farms. His work is in service of society, deserving of praise rather than pointing to the generosity of those who offer up their unused space—but that is not how Nochi sees it. “I’m a foreigner in this country, so everything I do should be accepted by the people,” he insists.
And yet, people’s mindsets have remained an obstacle in the reforestation project, too many deeming the initiative valueless.
“If I can prove that planting forests makes you money, everybody will join,” Nochi laughs. But that scares him and the idea of people planting trees for cash strikes the wrong chord. Involvement in reforestation, like many other sustainability initiatives, requires a deeper calling. Though it requires reaching out to players across sectors, its work must be grounded as as a form of giving back rather than claiming more benefits from the earth. A conscious labor of love.
And yet, partnerships are essential to make this a success.
Companies like Mitsubishi, Louis Vuitton, and Mercedes Benz have been supporting reforestation projects in places like India as many others too shift towards spending their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds on creating forests. Indeed, the financial requirements that would enable large-scale reforestation are so high they would require the committed collaboration of civil society, government, policy workers, as well as businesses. Governments can take the lead by providing incentives and encouraging corporations through CSR or tax deductions, but the momentum depends on a wider web, and on individuals like Nochi Motaharu who have made it their life’s mission to bridge the gaps and restore natural abundance to our environments.
It is true, as Nochi believes, that much of civilization has pushed nature away. “We build cities where forests used to stand. We build walls, we cut trees,” he says as three girls sitting at a table close by pause a conversation about job interviews to listen into our discussion. “Too few have maintained, replaced, or repaired what was borrowed from nature,” Nochi continues—which explains why we live in such a deserted landscape.
But this is where Nochi recognizes potentiality. “When you plant trees, the forests will be back.” The results won’t appear overnight, but all good things take time and as the forests grow, they bring fresh air, cooler temperatures, and shade, among other things that better the quality of life for those who live by them. With time, they also bring fruits, resources, and economic potentiality. Take the Carob Tree for example, a historic and sacred tree in this land which can not only feed humans and goats, but carob has also been used as a chocolate substitute!
Combating climate change, cleaning the air, providing oxygen, as well as intangible impacts such as healing properties, marking the seasons, reducing violence, and encouraging civic pride are also among the benefits of planting trees in an ecosystem.
Throughout his time in Jordan, people have called Nochi crazy and stupid, but it is clear from the moment you meet him that he carries that rare trace of sanity it will take to restore health to our exploited Earth. Although he has come a long way from Japan to move his life’s work forward, this distance remains irrelevant in his mind, where boundaries stand as human inventions and nature, in its intertwining and omnipresence, boundless. “After all,” he explains, “we live in a world where every single thing we consume—including the food we eat, the cars we drive and the clothes we wear—comes from different parts of the planet, from many different countries.”
In this way, globalization challenges us to live not just as global consumers, but also as global creators and re-planters. And so, for all of us looking for a “life mission,” all we have to do is look around and like Nochi, ask “How will I give back?”