Trees of Life: Faith-Based Planting in Maryland
At the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, an 800-member Sikh temple in Rockville, Maryland, big changes have been afoot — all in the name of helping the environment.
The temple, which for years has served thousands of free vegetarian meals on styrofoam plates with plastic utensils each Sunday as part of Sikh tradition, has traded in the disposable, nonbiodegradable materials for metal dishware and cutlery. Compact fluorescent lights and incandescent bulbs have now been replaced by LED lights, which use less energy and produce smaller electric bills.
And for the last few years, several Sikhs from the temple have also taken on a bigger project: a global effort to plant 1 million trees. That’s just the first step: The plan is to eventually plant millions more in the years to come, in nearly 2,000 locations around the globe, all in honor of the Guru Nanak, who founded the Sikh faith in modern-day Pakistan in the 15th century. The project is part of EcoSikh, a nonprofit that’s grown over the last decade to encourage Sikhs worldwide to look toward their faith for inspiration to combat climate change.
"Religious organizations need to come together to play a part in combating climate change, and this is our small way of contributing."
“A common Sikh prayer goes, ‘Pavan guru pani pita, mata dharat mahat,’ ” says Gunpreet Singh, one of several female community leaders at the Rockville temple and U.S. president for EcoSikh. “It means, ‘Air is the guru, water the father, and the Earth is the great mother.’ ”
The world has undergone rapid deforestation in the last three decades, with scientists estimating that the globe in that time has lost trees that in total make up an area the size of South Africa.
While replanting trees alone is only a part of combating climate change — alongside reducing emissions, relying more heavily on renewable energy sources, and other interventions — it can play an important role. According to the United Nations Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, “Forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change — thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests could provide up to 30 percent of the climate solution.”
Faith for Earth
The United Nations has also highlighted the role faith-based groups can play in protecting the environment because of their global scope and large land ownership. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Program’s Faith for Earth initiative found that faith-based groups care for 8% of the inhabitable land around the globe and 5% of commercial forests.
“Religious organizations need to come together to play a part in combating climate change, and this is our small way of contributing,” adds Singh. “That’s why EcoSikh works with gurdwaras [temples] across the country.”
EcoSikh has aimed to plant a sizable number of its trees in India for two reasons: first, because the faith was founded in the Punjab region that is split between India and Pakistan, and second, because of the major problems India faces with pollution and deforestation. In India, the organization has planted nearly 160 forests using native trees and a planting method called Miyawaki, named after a well-known Japanese botanist who focuses on using a mix of native trees planted at a density of three to five trees per square meter. Trees have been planted in batches of 550, a number representing the 550th birthday of the Sikh Guru Nanak, which occurred in 2018, the year that the large-scale tree-planting effort launched.
"The world has undergone rapid deforestation in the last three decades, with scientists estimating that the globe in that time has lost trees that in total make up an area the size of South Africa."
In the U.S., EcoSikh has focused on temple “greening” programs, fundraising, and volunteer efforts, such as those at the Maryland-based Guru Gobind Singh Foundation. In addition to projects led by Sikh families at the temple, the organization has in the past teamed up with Interfaith Power and Light, as well as the Washington National Cathedral, on projects to care for the local environment. Each year on March 14, congregants celebrate Sikh Environment Day, a holiday where activities include clean-up efforts of lands and streams of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including the Anacostia River in nearby Washington, D.C. It’s a part of Project Clean Stream, a program of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, which brings together thousands of volunteers over the year for cleanups in the mid-Atlantic.
While smaller in scale than what it’s done in India, EcoSikh, which has chapters in Canada and several other countries with large Sikh populations, has also taken to planting trees in the U.S. That includes 1,110 trees and shrubs at Little Tuscarora Creek in Frederick, Maryland, which were grown in order to restore the steam system and create a better habitat for trout.
Manpreet Singh and Gunpreet Singh, who also work with a colleague in Houston at spearheading EcoSikh’s environmental push in the U.S., said their work is not just faith-based altruism, but personal when it comes to helping their own families.
“We believe global warming and climate change will affect our kids in a big way,” notes Gunpreet Singh, who works as a physician and has two daughters. “As women and moms, we feel if we care for our kids, giving them a better earth is the best gift you can give.”