Feature

Olivia and One Tree Per Child

If every child in Australia planted a tree before they reached the age of ten we’d have millions more trees greening up public spaces and improving our country’s carbon footprint.

Estelle Dee and Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John and Jon Dee started National Tree Day in Australia.

Ten-year-old Estelle Dee plants a tree at The Point Preschool in Oyster Bay, NSW, to promote the One Tree Per Child initiative

Jon Dee had the help of a translator at the Armenian launch of One Tree Per Child, making it a truly international occasion.

The President of Armenia, Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan and Estelle all help plant the first tree at the launch of the One Tree Per Child initiative in Armenia.

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What was the first environmental issue you were passionate about and what motivated you to do something?
Back in the 1970s I cancelled a tour of Japan due to the dolphins that were being killed in fishing nets there. That was probably the first ‘public’ issue, even though I have always been very conscious of what’s happening with the planet.

I was also very proud to be named the first Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Environment Program, in 1990. Of course, trees are something very important to us on so many levels. In fact, I have planted over 10,000 native trees on my property in Australia [Gaia Retreat and Spa in the hinterlands of Byron Bay], and it’s beautiful to see how it has created a new wildlife corridor for so many species of animals and birds.

You and Jon Dee started National Tree Day in Australia (pictured above). During the time you both fronted the campaign, more than ten million trees were planted. How did it start?
It began in 1993 when Jon and I were having a cup of tea at my home in Los Angeles. Jon was there to film me for a ‘Save the Planet’ TV ad and over my kitchen table we were talking about the fact that people weren’t planting trees like we did when we were young.

One of us said “someone should start a national tree day”. It was one of those light bulb moments. To cut a long story short, National Tree Day began three years later. I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved with that campaign. Those trees and shrubs have created a lot of habitat for Australia’s wildlife and helped to beautify many parks and urban areas around Australia.

You and Jon also ran a media campaign to save Tasmania’s Styx forests. The Tasmanian forest industry was unhappy about it, but do you feel validated for the position you took?
Yes, I do. I realise it was a very difficult period for the logging communities, but sometimes you need to stand up and say what you feel in your heart. At that time, Jon and I took the TV program, A Current Affair, to see the logging. It had huge TV coverage and for many Australians it was the first time that they learned of the logging of beautiful old growth trees in Tasmania that were hundreds of years old.

Not only that, we showed how the local native animals were being poisoned as well as losing their habitat.
That the Styx has now received World Heritage listing shows that we were right to stand up and join the many others who were also campaigning to protect that beautiful part of Australia.

You and Jon recently got together again to start a new tree planting push. What is One Tree Per Child and what do you hope it will achieve?

One Tree Per Child is an international project that I’ve started with Jon and his daughter Estelle. The idea is to have every child under ten plant a tree as part of an official school initiative. We’re seeking commitments from Education Ministers to add tree planting to the primary school curriculum in countries around the world.

We’re hoping millions of children will have the wonderful experience of planting a tree at a young age. As their trees grow, we’re hoping that the children’s love and respect for the environment will grow.

We planted our first tree for the project back in March in the middle of Hyde Park in London. A lot of very eminent peers such as Lord Stern, Baroness Howarth and Lord Hastings have become international patrons for the project, and the President of Armenia launched One Tree Per Child with us in Armenia. We’re launching it statewide with the Minister for Education in Tasmania and working to roll it out nationally in Australia.

You lent your voice to questioning the safety of the fracking practice used in coal seam gas mining and were criticised by mining industry types about you speaking out as a non-expert. How do you deal with that kind of backlash?
At the time, I expected to be criticised, but this, just like the Styx and the Amazon Rainforest, is an important issue to me. I realised that not many people were aware, as I wasn’t, of this potential environmental disaster going on around them. I have never claimed to be an expert, but I can use my voice to draw attention to these environmental issues.

How important is your continuing involvement in preserving Australia’s natural environment?
Like many other Australians, I’m just trying to do my bit. I believe we can all have an impact in protecting the environment by making small changes in our daily lives. It can be as simple as putting your recycling out every week or planting a tree. It can even be as simple as taking a bus or, even better, walking to work - it’s healthier and saves energy for the planet. When lots of us take small actions, we can achieve big results for the Earth.

What’s your vision for the future in terms of Australia’s efforts in sustainability and environmental awareness?
There are only 23 million Australians. We’re well educated, our country is relatively well off and many of us want to protect Australia’s environment. Because of that, we have a great opportunity to become an environmental role model for the world.

A good example is the incandescent light globe ban. We were the first developed country in the world to ban them. When we did that, many other countries around the world followed our example and decided to ban them too. That’s been a major win for the environment and it shows how Australia can take a leadership role in helping the planet. I think that we have an obligation to our children to become leaders in creating the change that we all want to see.

“Trees make our town and cities more beautiful,” Estelle says. “They give us oxygen and reduce air pollution. We can eat fruit from them, and they’re good for the soil.”

As the young face of One Tree Per Child, she has travelled to Tasmania, the first state to commit
to making tree planting part of the school curriculum. She also accompanied Jon and Olivia to England and Armenia, where she met with dignitaries who are throwing their weight behind the initiative internationally.

“In Armenia we had dinner with the Prime Minister and planted a tree with the President,” Estelle says with pride. The tree planting took place in the grounds of a new music school in the city of Gyumri, for which Jon had raised money. It replaced a ‘temporary’ school that had been in use since an earthquake destroyed the previous building in 1988. Amongst the crowd overseeing the official opening of the school, and also the first One Tree Per Child planting in Armenia, was Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and Deep Purple’s lead singer Ian Gillan who had also supported fund-raising for the building.

A recent war had seen many trees in Armenia chopped down to burn for warmth after gas supplies were cut off. “They lost so many trees so there’s great potential to plant millions,” Jon states, adding that the Armenian Tree Project organisation is supporting roll-out of One Tree Per Child in Armenia.

Here in Australia, it’s hoped land care organisations and local councils – many of which have their own native nurseries – will support the initiative. The Blue Mountains City Council is preparing a site in a park where Estelle and her schoolmates can get planting. Local scouts may help with the weeding and upkeep afterwards.

“I don’t think I’ve planted a tree that wasn’t native,” Estelle notes, naming wattles, gums, waratahs and banksias amongst them. She’s optimistic about the effect One Tree Per Child will have on Australian school children. “Hopefully the kids’ passion for the environment will grow and they’ll have heaps of fun along the way.”

Estelle’s passion for the environment looks set to only increase as she ponders what direction her life may take in the future. “I’m thinking of following in my Dad’s footsteps, and Olivia’s, and keep on going with One Tree Per Child – and maybe go to university.”

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