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Trees of Life?

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Trees of Life?

Tom Elenbaas

There is a price to good leadership. At least that’s something that I believe. I am convinced that true leaders care deeply about the people they lead and make decisions that are not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all people. Sure... there can be benefits to leadership. There can be perks to leadership. And good decisions for all people include those whoa re leading. There can be some blessings that come with leadership that are meaningful, life-changing, and gratitude inducing. But a good leader must always ask him or herself who is being served by the decisions we make along the way.

I was in Nicaragua this past week, and the purpose of my trip was ultimately to help find ways of impacting and addressing both the spiritual and physical poverty that exists in that country. According to a consultant we worked with, to date, just under 50% of the country would be considered to be living in poverty. In some geographical areas (primarily rural) this can be as high as over 80%. We were able to meet people living in these poverty stricken areas - many of whom are living on less than $1.25/ day, what is considered “extreme poverty.”

In the middle of the week as we drove down the road, I heard that many of the locals were upset about some decisions made by the political leadership (not so abnormal, right?) I then was able to see what was disturbing to the local people, and I could immediately feel their concern.


As you drive down Hugo Chavez Boulevard in downtown Managua, the city’s capital, you will see huge man-made trees - most of them yellow, but now many of varying colors. As you make your way closer to the lake, you see other colors, and as we drove I noticed a large park type area with at least 15 more of these trees lying horizontal and being prepared for installation. Though at first glance, these trees are quite creative and lend color and art to the landscape, when learning more about their cost in a poverty stricken country, the story changes. These trees are giant works of art commissioned by the First Lady of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo to line the streets of the city. She calls them “trees of life,” looming large over this city still in recovery from the destruction of a 1972 earthquake and the wars between the Sandanistas and Somoza’s and the Contras.  Some 200 of these trees have already been erected, and who knows how many are yet to come. These trees - though colorful and interesting - are also very costly. Each tree costs ~$20,000 to build and an addition ~$8,000 per month to illuminate throughout the night. You can do that math, but for just those 200, that’s 2 million in start up costs for erecting the trees, and then an additional 19 million for electrical upkeep every year. So, you can imagine how the locals are feeling - struggling to afford food, clean water, education, and health care - while the government pours millions into a city beautification project that appears to be the pet project of the First Lady - who, by the way, is known for her superstitious quasi-religious mash-up of socialism, Christian ideals, New Age spirituality, and the spirit of Chavez. (For more, see this article from the LA Times.)

So, here’s the question: is it good leadership to spend this kind of money on a personal project like this when your country is living in roughly 50% poverty? Sure, beautification matters. But aren’t there some investments that could be made that would beautify the landscape and more directly benefit the overwhelming number of struggling people within the city and country?

Well, this is easy to see. It’s easy to rail against politicians who waste money on things that don’t truly make a difference while the poor suffer and long for advocacy. But there’s a harder, more personal question that may not be easy to see and may hit home more powerfully. Are there not things that you and I spend our money on every day that do nothing to help the poor who are all around us be released from poverty? Are there not things every day that you and I spend money on that are for our own benefit while there are those all around us who look upon our opulence and wonder why we would do such a thing? Are there not people around us every day that feel dismissed, overlooked, and forgotten while we live our lives as if there are no poor among us?

At first, I was angry at the First Lady. Actually, I still am. Then I was angry at other leaders who use their influence, resources, and opportunities for themselves while forgetting those less fortunate. Then I found that I’m both angry and disappointed with myself for so often being guilty of the same thing. It may not be in millions of dollars, but my heart once again not only breaks for the poor, it aches for an integrity of character in which I can truly say I have joined the poor in their struggle. I have met such people. I have met people whose character, love, and integrity goes so deep that their anger comes justifiable as the flipside of love. When you love deeply, injustice towards the ones you love ignites a loving anger.  Interestingly, though, many of these folks who probably have the right to cry “justice” and the right to be angry, tend to be the most gentle, non-judgmental, and the least “visibly” angry I have also ever met (think of people like Nelson Mandela, Gandi, Mother Teresa, the Dalia Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and of course, Jesus). I supposed that’s a topic for another time.

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