N. Krishna Kumar, director of Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding, and his team of scientists work to ensure a healthy tree cover outside the forests. K. Jeshi reports

A drive through the sprawling campus of the Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding (IFGTB) is an outing with Nature. You can take in the view of the towering trees, watch birds and butterflies and listen to the call of the peacocks. It is at this campus that Dr. N. Krishna Kumar, director, and his core team of 33 scientists work towards achieving the Government target of covering 33 per cent of the land area (outside forests) with trees.

“Trees are a part of our everyday life,” says Krishna Kumar. The institute, set up in 1988, works under the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE). The Gass Forest Museum at the campus is a slice of history. It has thousands of collections representing wildlife, entomology, timber and weapons. There are nurseries, glass houses and mist chambers, laboratories, and a seed bank, besides the Fischer Herbarium that has over 15,000 plant specimens.

At IFGTB, tree improvement is a key area. “We discuss silviculture or the art of growing trees with the farmers. We want to promote tree cultivation as an alternative income for them. Especially, short-return trees that can be harvested in 24 to 36 months, and help farmers earn money. Forests are essential for food, wood and livelihood security. To maintain ecological balance and bio-diversity, they cannot be disturbed. We work with tribals, who live on the fringes of forests, and farmers and encourage them to take up tree cultivation to meet the demand of wood-based industries such as paper, pulp and matchstick,” Krishna Kumar explains.

The director says the biggest problem farmers face is the lack of quality seeds. “Sub-standard seeds that are not from good parent material are prone to diseases. Our seed technology team collects the germplasm from the parent, removes the defect, and ensures healthy seeds. Farmers from as far away as Orissa, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Haryana buy from us. We tailor-make quality trees,” he adds.

The team has scientifically enhanced wood traits and medicinal traits of over 25 species, benefitting farmers. They have worked on kumizh (furniture making), kadamba (pencil-making), vembu (medicinal oil), pungan (bio-fuel), punnai (soap manufacturing), bamboo and casuarina. Scientist R. Anandalakshmi makes particular mention of red sanders or ratha sandhanam, endemic to Cuddapah, which is used to make furniture and musical instruments.

Every year, at the annual farmer’s mela, thousands of farmers congregate at the campus, and discuss their cultivation-related problems. “We provide solutions by developing products such as bio-pesticide or bio-booster or initiate a new project. This way, we focus on demand-driven projects.” Publications, journals, and field guides published in English, Tamil and Malayalam also reach the doorstep of farmers.

As part of fast-track forestry, they make clones of genetically superior tree breeds too. “Clonal forestry is the need of the hour. We choose 10,000 trees, collect the vegetable matter from the best parent tree and then make ‘babies’ at the laboratory. This way, we have developed eight clones of commercially important trees. Another 17 clones are under review,” the director says.

Scientist A. Nicodemus says India is among the largest casuarina-growing countries. “Farmers on the East Coast raise about half a million hectares of casuarina. There is constant demand; paper mills in South India face an acute shortage of raw material.”

The bio-prospecting department explores commercial usages for plant-based materials. For example, aloe vera in cosmetics and perfume industries. Scientists have also formulated bio-pesticides — Tree pal and Hi-Act — that work on a spectrum of insects and pests. “Our bio-fertilizers such as potassium mobiliser (for tree and soil improvement of a variety of trees) and nitrogen fixer for casuarina works as an alternative to chemical fertilizers,” says scientist Dr. A. Karthikeyan.

Dr. S. Murugesan displays coir pith cakes, a replacement for sand, and says: “Fifteen ingredients such as green manure, cow dung, compost and poultry waste go into it. Each cake weighs 50 gm and is sufficient for one seedling. It consumes very little water. Farmers in rain-starved areas raise healthy seedlings of casuarina, eucalyptus, and teak on these cakes.”

Krishna Kumar says agro forestry is important in Tamil Nadu as it support farmers economically. “Good trees provide good livelihood. It is estimated that there are 80,000 economically important trees in the world. In India, we have 2,800 species of trees, of which 250 are economically viable. Our ambition is to enhance at least 30 to 50 such species and empower farmers.”

Focus on research

Research is a constant at IFGTB. Among the projects are conservation of threatened medicinal plants, population studies of rosewood in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, documentation of traditional knowledge of tribals in the Nilgiris and recording of endemic plant species of Kalakkad-Mundanthurai.

The research team is also working on a clone of casuarina that can be interspersed in banana plantations and studying the genetic and cultural mapping of eucalyptus to breed hybrids.

If you have a query on trees, call the tree helpline at 0422-2446633 (from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. on working days). Visit: www.ifgtb.icfre.gov.in