Celebrating the Forests of India with People who create Forests Every Day!

If like me you have grown up listening to children stories from India, you might remember that forests have always been an essential part of them. May it be the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or the Panchatantra stories, all of them are set extensively in forests. Forests are mysterious, large and formidable; forests are, we are told, where the magic happens.

24% of our country’s terrain is covered with the forests replete with these very stories; we are a country of immense biodiversity and we always have been. We house around 4500 varieties of animal species and 15000 different types of flowering plants. It really is magical, what a forest can do. Forests can create microclimates and stabilize macro-climates. By rooting deep they arrest soil erosion and help streams and rivers to flow. They are wonderful carbon sequesters as well and they create conditions for thousands of species to cohabitate.

The original home of Homo sapiens used to be a forest before our shift towards an agrarian society, and even today we rely heavily on forests to provide for our everyday needs. A lot of the fuelwood for the use of tribal and forest dwelling communities comes from forests, some forest areas are used for grazing and collecting food crops, other everyday products like rubber and wax are also sourced from forests. And these are just a few things that forests provide for us. Yet, with increased urbanisation and industrialization, our forests are disappearing.

The tricky balance of sustaining life on earth relies profoundly on our forest ecosystems. 80% of our terrestrial biodiversity reside forests but our collective actions do not seem to reflect this gravity: every year, mainly due to our actions, we lose 18.7 million acres of forests, which is like losing 27 football fields every minute.

However, in the past there have been people who strived to protect forests; people like the Mauryan king, Ashoka. He put laws in place to safeguard our forests and wildlife. In the preserved edicts that talk about his constitution, burning chaff and hunting certain wildlife are clearly banned. These edicts elaborate his efforts to introduce mangroves and medicinal fauna to the local biodiversity, as well as to construct ponds and sheltering tree species that help to maintain the micro-climate. Back in the 3rd century, even before today’s widespread ecological destruction, Ashoka imbibed a progressive ideology on forest conservation that led him to protect our natural resources.

Fortunately, like Ashoka, even in modern times, we have our own “green guardians” who are working diligently to protect and revive forests. One of them is SayTrees.

SayTrees is an NGO based in Bangalore that has taken upon itself to do extensive restoration of urban and rural forest spaces. In urban localities, they conduct large scale volunteer driven plantations that allow them to plant several trees at one go. In 2016, they planted more than 5000 saplings in a day, around the periphery of Kyalasanahlli Lake in Bangalore, with the help of over 1500 volunteers. In this way the largest stakeholders of the urban ecology are able to take charge of the wellbeing of their own surroundings.

SayTrees is great at making urban citizens voluntarily participate in these efforts in a significant way. Being a small group of conscious urbanites themselves when it started, they really know how to speak the language of city dwellers. What they ultimately want is, “to sensitise and empower people to give back to nature and live in an environment conducive to their health and well-being.”

At the same time, they have worked hard with rural communities and their respective local NGOs to revive the ecology of the commons in village settings. Strictly speaking, one such project of restoring the commons of Sidalghatta in Karnataka is not so much of a forest than 600 acres of hilly grasslands. However, the 62 thousand saplings that they planted in this arid, rain-hungry region will really kick-start the revitalization of biodiversity in the zone. In such areas, they find that planting right before monsoon can help to increase the survival rate of these plants. However when circumstances permit, they prefer to use the very effective Miyawaki method of tree plantation.

Alaap, a social enterprise in Uttarakhand, also swears by the Miyawaki method. In this universally proven technique, one only uses native plant species, and the major hard work goes into increasing soil nutrition. “By having a nutrient rich soil, you cut down on the preliminary stages of that a naturally occurring forest would go through and give it a head start,” says Sheeba Sen, the co-founder of Alaap. Their 100 square meter prototypes of the Miyawaki forests have shown great results, and Alaap too is looking at implementing these results to revive the local commons with the help of resident communities. Their main focus is on working in afforestation through eco leadership.

Youngsters attending a Youth Workshop at Alaap

What Alaap wants is for the local communities to take ownership of their forests. They wish to educate the locals so that there is a fundamental shift in the way they perceive their environment. Then, protecting and reviving local forests becomes an innate part of their behaviour.

Alaap feels that the youth of the country has the capacity to help them bring about this change. With this in mind, they are now designing a fellowship that will bring the urban and rural youth together. Educating and mobilising the local communities and conducting community-afforestation drives through the youngsters will be primary on the agenda of this fellowship. By adopting a “two birds – one stone” strategy, they are looking to not only change existing behaviours but at the same time also equip young individuals to become future guardians of the ecology.

Today, Sheeba says, that while the mountain ranges of Uttarakhand look lush with pine forests, not many people know that these trees are not native to this area. The British Raj saw a lot of tree plantation that stemmed out of the desire to get a piece of the timber market pie, but what it also meant was that our local resilient species were out-competed.

“In the Nilgiri Forests of southern India, exotic tree species have left no space for our native plant ecology to grow,” says our local green guardian, Godwin Vasanth Bosco, of Ooty, Tamil Nadu. Vasanth works on reviving the Shola trees there, which are the native forest species of this locality. Today the landscape is dominated by pine, eucalyptus and wattle trees that are crowding out the Shola.

Native species are important to reforestation and afforestation efforts because, not only do they create a better habitation for the native wildlife, but protect the freshwater of that area and reduce forest fragmentation.

When we think of a forest, we imagine a stratification of towering trees and green lushness. But not all regions are tropical. The vegetation that is native to a region is also what is the best suited to it. In the case of the Nilgiris, this is the Shola-grassland mosaic.

Vasanth has worked hard to jumpstart the revival of grasslands that are under tea estates and other exotic plant occupations around Ooty. With trial and error he has engineered his own process of plantation to ensure a high survival rate of saplings. He now manages a nursery where he germinates the seeds of native plants that he finds whenever is out on the forest trail. While the grassland plants will need protection and aid for a year, they will eventually become self-reliant and bring back native biodiversity.

Vasanth is about to publish a book called Metaphor Island, which is about the Nilgiris and the importance of looking at patterns in its ecology. The book will be a guide for what our next steps should be in a rapidly changing environment. In the future, he plans to engage in a coordinated effort to drive more attention towards his cause. He wants to eventually work with the indigenous people of the Nilgiris and get them more involved in the revival of their homeland.

The local community in the periphery of a forest is one of the biggest stakeholders in its survival. They rely on it for livelihood, for fuel and for food. But it is not only the people that benefit from the forest, the forest can benefit from the people too. People can protect their forests from being exploited by third parties. They can even aid the biodiversity of a forest by arresting the advent of monoculture and by only taking from the forest what it can naturally regenerate.

“Afforestation should address the triple bottom line,” says Sheeba. When an activity improves not only the environment, but also the lives of the people and the economy that it is tied to, it is then a holistic solution to a complexity of issues. And finally, it may become an irreplaceable part of their lives.

This is why so many people working in reforestation choose to engage with local communities. The Timbaktu Collective of Andhra Pradesh has restored 9,000 acres of revenue wastelands into thriving savannah grassland and tropical thorn forest ecosystems. The Kalpavalli Community Conservation Area initiated in the early 1990’s is now protected by 10 villages, each one of them having their own Forest Protection Committee or Vana Samarakshana Committee. These Committees are federated into a Cooperative called Kalpavalli. The members of Kalpavalli alongside the staff of the Timbaktu Collective protect, regenerate and restore these lands. The conservation activities undertaken at Kalpavalli include patrolling by community forest watchers who stop poaching and logging.

Indian Grey Wolf at Kalpavalli

They also practice rotation grazing, sustainable harvest of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and control fire. To top it all off, the Timbaktu Collective works with over 2,500 children and youth through their conservation education programme to influence the next generation of local conservationists.

Today the Kalpavalli Community Conservation Area is one of the largest restored landscapes in the country supporting threatened species of wildlife like the Indian Grey Wolf while also providing local communities with essential ecosystem services.

Fruit Tree Plantation with Farmer

Similarly, SayTrees of Bangalore is also trying to engage villages by creating a solution that addresses the triple bottom line. In their initiatives related to agroforestry, they offer fruit trees to select farmers who plant them around their farmland. On the one hand, this helps in increasing the green cover of the area, and on the other it can become a source of secondary income for a farmer that struggles to make ends meet.

In a future project, SayTrees would like to take up bigger projects by aiding village level development in the form of infrastructures such as roads, electricity, hospitals and schools, and to assist them in meeting their basic needs.

SAI Sanctuary, South Kodagu

While some organisations focus on mobilising villages, Save Animals Initiative or SAI Sanctuary Trust of the South Kodagu District in Karnataka looks into adopting forest lands in order to protect and revive them. They have a process which they call their “three-pronged approach”. First they reclaim forest lands that have important water source origins and wildlife, then they rehabilitate it with the use of native species, and finally they then work hard on spreading awareness about the necessity of preserving our environment. Their 300 acre area is located in the in the Western Ghats, in one of the biodiversity “Hotspots” of the world. This means that it hosts plant and animal species that cannot be found anywhere else, and they are in a dire need of protection.

Anyone working for environmental protection knows that it is an upward slope. Climate change is raining down hard on us (literally in some cases), and with each passing day it becomes even more difficult to save what is left. But even when it seems like all might be lost, there are a few stubborn folk amongst us who will keep sowing the seeds of biodiversity, within us and in nature.

You too can help those seeds to take root in small and big ways:

  • Use recycled paper, reduce your use of regular paper, and reuse whatever you can.
  • Ban products that use palm-oil as an ingredient. Palm-oil production causes loss of forest land in large numbers around the globe.
  • Support the work of organisations such as the ones mentioned in this article by donating your time or money.
  • Create a small group of “green vigilantes” in your locality to help protect the trees that exist and to plant more trees where ever you can.

These are our forests and this planet is our home. We as humans can only inhabit this world as long as it remains habitable by all of its members, forests included. “We need to become more kind to everything on this planet: the trees, the rivers, the animals and even each other,” says Durgesh. He strongly believes that any big change is only possible if we all decide to make a small change in the choices that we make. So why not choose to celebrate our green covers by protecting and expanding them?

Mahi Baid


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