Getting fresh fruit has never been easy for the Havasupai tribe. With no roads leading into their village in Supai, Arizona, near the base of the Grand Canyon, much of the food has to be airlifted in. The village market’s sparse supply consists of canned goods, nonperishable items and a few staples grown on the reservation.

The tribe’s plight caught the attention of the San Diego-based Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (FTPF), an international nonprofit that aims “to encourage individuals to grow their own food (preferably organically) and eat more nutritiously by delivering edible fruit and nut trees to underserved communities,” says the group’s founder, Cem Akin. The organization also hopes that tree planting will help reduce global warming’s impact. As part of its two-year-old Reservation Preservation program, FTPF delivered a few hundred fruit trees and edible plants to the Havasupai in April 2007. 

The plants were used to create two community orchards filled with apples, pears, nectarines, peaches, plums and more. “The idea is to custom-make an orchard so that there are fruits and nuts harvested year-round, resulting in a perennial source of nutrition,” says Akin. As part of the program, FTPF also installs protective fencing and irrigation systems when needed to ensure the orchards provide decades of harvest with little maintenance. In the first year, only a handful of cherry trees fell ill in the Supai orchards. To build on that success, FTPF plans to provide up to 1,000 additional trees to the Havasupai in May so that each family on the reservation will have at least five trees of their own.

FTPF first started the Reservation Preservation program in 2006. To qualify for aid, tribes must exhibit a real nutritional need; fruit and nut trees must be able to thrive in the reservation’s climate; and orchards must be used for the community good — not for individual profit. During the project’s first year, FTPF donated orchards to the Mesa Grande and Manzanita reservations in California. Word of their efforts has spread quickly — thanks, in part, to a documentary they made about the Havasupai project. This year, FTPF “plans to be very active with our program,” says Aiken. The organization is currently working with the Hopi Tribe in Arizona to build four orchards on the reservation by fall: a community orchard for all to enjoy, an orchard at the Bacavi Youth Center, and orchards at both the Moencopi Day School and First Mesa Elementary School. Upon completion, FTPF will update the documentary with footage from this project, as well.

Since it started in 2002, FTPF has contributed thousands of trees and fresh produce to animal sanctuaries, drug rehab centers, and homeless shelters across America, as well as to individuals and families affected by emergency situations like Hurricane Katrina.

Reservation Preservation is just one of the organization’s many programs. Recently, FTPF expanded its efforts abroad, as well. At the FTPF nursery in Kenya, fruit tree saplings are grown organically from seeds before being transplanted within the community. Harvests from other crops grown at the nursery — such as vegetables, papayas, and bananas — will be donated to local schools, orphanages and health clinics. In 2007, the organization created backyard orchards for more than 700 needy families in 27 villages in Northern India. For all of FTPF’s myriad efforts, however, Akin insists that the core mission has never changed: provide underserved groups with the resources they need to alleviate hunger, improve their health and nutrition, and protect the environment for future generations. "What's most important is that we're helping communities to help themselves," says Akin. "That's our number one priority."

Story by Jessica Tzerman. This story originally appeared in Plenty in March 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Tree planting group helps tribe sustain itself
International nonprofit organization provides fruit and nut trees to Havasupai tribe to create orchards for perennial source of nutrition.