You Don’t Have to Be a Tree Genius to Bring Back Our Forests

by M-R Abraham | Ashoka India
Thursday, 17 November 2016 06:53 GMT

Planting saplings at an eco-project outside Hyderabad, India. (Credit: Ashoka India)

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When India committed to reforestation at the Paris Climate Talks, one northern state took it quite literally. In just a 24-hour period in July, volunteers planted 50 million trees in Uttar Pradesh.


Mobilising 800,000 volunteers is an impressive, but likely one-time, feat. Achieving the government’s mandate of increasing forest cover to one-third of India’s total land will require the sustained efforts of many millions of individuals.


“Most of the world we live in today was forest,” explained Shubhendu Sharma, the founder/director of Afforestt. “Then we developed our cities on those forests. Every patch of land has some potential natural vegetation.”


Sharma is a social entrepreneur who is on a mission to bring back forests. He plants ultra-dense forests with all-native trees in spaces as small as that needed to park six cars. The trees are packed tightly so that no sunshine reaches the forest floor and every inch of vertical space is filled with greenery. Sharma said this type of forest creates 30 times more green surface area compared with a garden, lawn or monoculture.


Tree planting is not just good for aesthetics or the environment, it could be critical to public health. New research from The Nature Conservancy found that planting trees in cities can save human lives by reducing air pollution and cooling temperatures. The study said the biggest effect would be seen in densely populated and highly polluted cities, which describe many of the developing world’s urban areas.


“Everyone can be a changemaker, if everyone is willing to be a part of a bigger mission,” said Sharma. “Social forestry, especially in urban spaces, has to become really big. So when you see a public park full of lawns, when you see sprinklers just working in your office building, those are the places where we have to get those lands converted into forest.”


Sharma and his team have planted forests on small parcels of privately owned land to large-scale public works projects, from India to Iran to the United States. The trees grow quickly, on average 10 times faster than a natural forest. On 500 square meters in Hosur, Tamil Nadu, 42 different species obscure the adjacent home. It only took 20 months for these towering trees to form a dense forest.


To ensure optimum growth, Sharma carefully follows a process that includes studying the soil composition, identifying only native species and planting according to a multilayer system (shrub, subtree, tree and canopy).


It doesn’t take a specialist or tree genius to plant a forest. Sharma is an automotive engineer with no prior knowledge of botany. A Japanese scientist, Dr. Akira Miyawaki, visited the Toyota factory where he worked and sparked his interest in forests. Sharma joined the volunteer team to plant 30,000 trees on the premises.


“I saw this forest growing for the next one and a half years,” recalled Sharma. “When it became large enough, I pretty much decided I have to take this methodology out of our factory premises because it has the potential to be replicated anywhere and everywhere. But nobody was doing it.”


Sharma successfully tested the “Miyawaki Method” in his own backyard in Uttarakhand. Since then he has shared the findings – soil analysis, tree species, etc. – for every project, so that anyone in the same area can plant a forest. Sharma believes that open-source methodology kickstarts a much larger afforestation movement.


“Earth doesn't look at the land in a way where it categorizes, it's India, it's Pakistan, it's urban, it's rural,” said Sharma. “So any land with a possibility of bringing back a natural forest on it, is our area of focus. In the long-term, nobody owns any parcel of land at all. It was already there before we came and it will be still there after we are gone.”


M-R Abraham is Storyteller-in-Residence at Ashoka India.