LUBHU — How do you celebrate your birthday? By throwing a party and cutting a cake? In Nepal some people plant a tree instead.
Making tea at home in her village 11 kilometers outside Kathmandu, Sunita Poudel says, "Forests are everything for us. We are dependent on wood and grass. Some of my neighbors cook with small sticks from the forest — they are very poor and can’t afford gas stoves. I have some cows and goats, so I also need grass from the forest every day."
But due to mismanagement, the forest around the village of Lubhu is in a poor condition. Local farmer Shreeram Poudel describes the area as "like a head without hair. There were very few trees that could easily be counted."
Although Anui Mahat’s day job is running his own banking training company in Kathmandu, his passion is saving the country's forests. With the help of four friends, he came up with the idea of a Birthday Forest — where people can give trees as gifts.
"Each tree has a separate URL in each receiver's name. Whether you're in Nepal, or Indonesia, or any country, you can see your planted trees online," he says. "Every year we will send you an update on the tree so you can see how it is growing. So, in this way, you'll get attached to it — as you grow, the tree does too."
To date, they have planted more than 1,000 trees — mostly Camphor, Alder and Bottle Brush varieties, along with some native trees too.
Ajaya Budhathoki celebrated the anniversary of his college by buying 15 trees. "I heard about the Birthday Forest from Facebook. I found the Birthday Forest page so interesting and convincing. So we collected money from each student and contacted the group through Facebook. We felt so lucky and proud, because we are also protecting the environment," he says.
Each tree costs around $25 and local communities in four rural areas around Nepal's capital are paid by the Birthday Forest group to look after the forest.
"They came to us and wanted to plant some trees in our community forest. We loved the idea," says Poudel, adding that it has been great for the community. "It really should be the government's responsibility to protect forest and promote the plantation campaign. I think the government should support the young people who have come up with this idea."
The Nepalese government says they are putting more money into rehabilitating forests, and deputy spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests Yagyanath Dahal says that this year, a campaign called the "Decade of the Forest" has begun. "We are promoting plantation and allocating more funds towards forests. With the support of local people, NGOs and voluntary groups, we will plant more trees and will increase the areas covered by forests and maintain our environment."
Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.
At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.
The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.
The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.
Praying inside a Dutch mosque.
Broken trust in Islamic community
Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.
All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.
Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.
It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.
"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.
Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.
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