Foresting our way forward

Here’s how responsible Indian industries are working towards a sustainable future.

Global warming is a big equaliser. Irrespective of whether we watch our carbon footprint or not, whether we recycle, or buy single-use plastic, or adopt a sustainable lifestyle... or not. It affects all of us. India, in particular, is reeling under a particularly vicious summer already.

But these are small, niggling problems compared to what is coming. If Global Warming isn’t checked, the melting ice caps will result in a sea level increase that threatens 77 Indian cities, including Mumbai. India is a country with a huge dependency on forestry, agriculture and fishing for employment. For the 600 million people who draw their livelihoods from these fields, the rising temperatures and erratic weather (mostly rainfall) patterns that are coming, will mean a drastic decline in their standard of living. This will be true for the rest of us too, as food will become more scarce due to increasing crop failures.

It feels unfair, especially when we look at the per capita CO2 emissions in India vs countries in the West. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for improvement. Apart from maintaining our low emissions and doing our best to bring about reductions, it is equally important that we establish carbon sinks: places where carbon can be consumed. Namely, forests.

Not only do forests absorb and store carbon, but they also act as insurance against natural disasters like floods and intense rainfall. They protect the soil and help maintain watersheds by acting as natural filters for harmful chemicals. Forests also work to attract rainfall, and there are several studies underway to understand the complex relationship between the water cycle and forests.

Most importantly though, they reduce the ambient temperature significantly. So clearly, forests as green covers are important.

 Foresting our way forward

The Govt of India also thinks so and is targeting to keep its forest cover over 33% of India’s land. The sad truth is, that we are still only around 22%. In fact, in the last 3 years alone, we’ve lost forest land the size of Kolkata, to development projects. We did have some good news when our green cover increased by 1%, but this was due to plantations, and not forests. While they may look similar in satellite photos, they function completely differently on the ground.

A forest is largely self-sustaining. It needs no help from us to flourish and can bounce back efficiently from natural disasters like floods, fires and earthquakes. It is full of plants, shrubs and vines that work with each other to protect and grow with one another. Insects, animals and birds play their part in helping the forest stay healthy and vibrant, and also in its reproduction and growth. A forest doesn’t need pesticide, fertiliser, or synthetic irrigation. Also, it can’t be wiped out by a single super pest, and that’s where biodiversity wins over monoculture each and every time because there are too many different types of plants for one pest to kill!

This is also why reforestation (regenerating a depleted forest) and afforestation (planting a new forest where one didn’t exist before) is so difficult. Getting the right mix of plants, trees, shrubs, vines and fungi can be hugely complex and challenging, not to mention time-consuming. Most forests take anywhere between 20 to 30 years to resemble a native forest. Which is why many efforts fail because maintaining the vision and enthusiasm for a project where the success is uncertain, and so far in the future, can trip up even the best-intentioned groups.

Enter, the Miyawaki method. Developed by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, this method has been used to restore native forests in over 1300 sites in Japan and other tropical Asian countries. What’s more, the method is surprisingly elegant in its simplicity where you study local forests and map out the relationships between the various flora and fauna, and then collect a large number of native seeds. Then, germinate the seeds in a nursery by planting them very densely, thus allowing for competition and natural selection to play their part. Then move these to individual pots and grow them under monitored conditions for a few months, to set them up for success. Then, begin planting these in the targeted area, preferably with a little extra help to the soil by adding biomass in the form of leaves, straw, etc. Also, don’t forget the mycorrhiza (fungi) as it plays a huge role in this method: helping trees and young plants survive in degraded soil by helping pull in hard to find nutrition.

Plants need to be randomly distributed in the space, sort of the way they would be at the edge of a forest. Introduction of the various species also needs to be timed - for instance, canopy trees come first, and then the shrubbery that survives best under the canopy of trees. In so doing, layer by layer, a biodiverse, vibrant and self-sustaining forest is built… within 3 years of germinating the first plants. We can’t begin to tell you how excited we are about this. Think about it: a team works on setting up a forest, layer by layer. In 3 years, it becomes self-sustaining. The team takes its learning and moves onto the next project. And the next.

So, of course, we were over the moon when we learnt that Tata Steel has implemented the Miyawaki method to reclaim forests around the OMQ, FAMD and Coal mines. In the year 2018 itself, 2,66,127 indigenous plants, trees and shrubs have been planted. Work has also been done to identify and eradicate 14 invasive, exotic and weed species, giving the forest a strong start. As of last year, small animals like hares and foxes have begun to return, and the young forest positively hums with insect life.

Of course, this being Tata Steel, nothing happens halfway. In order to get a true assessment of their progress, the team at Tata Steel partnered with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to independently assess the creation of the forest. The IUCN has certified the project as a “near forest habitat”.

This is a huge win. If this is the success rate in the degraded soil of a mining site, what are the possibilities in other areas? Can we bring back the forests we’ve lost around power plants, heavy industry, manufacturing plants, and even around our cities? The answer is a resounding yes! And while there are a number of citizen-led initiatives and NGOs that are applying the Miyawaki method, the real impetus to the regrowth of forests will come from the companies that adopt it as part of their CSR.

A strong start has been made by Tata Steel at their mines. Now, if other heavy industries, manufacturing concerns and other resource-intensive businesses can aim their CSR efforts at replenishing what they have depleted, we can turn the tide of deforestation and as a country, become a case study for how economic progress and ecological health can go hand in hand.

 This is a partnered post. 

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Updated Date: May 24, 2019 18:08:12 IST