Urban Drive Environment

Enough with the token tree planting

Almost every national event calendar day — be it Independence Day or Gandhi Jayanti — is marked by a tree plantation drive. Corporate CSR campaigns, school events, and neighbourhood initiatives aren’t far behind. They commonly feature a greening initiative in a bid to ‘give back’ to nature or ‘restore’ it. While the intentions are good, what we need are concrete, well-thought-out rehabilitation plans and not celebrity-endorsed token initiatives to check off the ‘sustainability’ box in the to-do list for the year.

Earlier this month, Isha Foundation launched a week-long sapling plantation drive across Tamil Nadu (as part of its Cauvery Calling initiative launched in 2019) to mark the 151st birth anniversary of Gandhi. The agroforestry initiative by the organisation — that aims to plant 242 crore trees and ‘and revitalize Cauvery’ — has received flak since its launch for reasons aplenty. The Foundation has remained mum about the varieties of trees it aims to plant, the funds the programme requires, and, most importantly, why a large-scale plantation drive is what the river and its dependent farmers need.

If we’re looking at similar initiatives, Fiinovation’s ‘Ecotopia’ also made headlines last month. The research and advisory agency pledges to plant a million trees across the country by the end of 2020. The drive will use the process of phytoremediation to ‘remediate air, soil and water contaminated with toxins’. Internationally, The Trillion Tree Campaign has been in the news since its launch at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos. It aims to plant one trillion trees worldwide by the end of the decade.

Before you attack me for calling out these well-meaning efforts, I’d like you to read what global research says about mindless tree-plantation drives. The most recent findings come from a paper led by Forrest Fleischman, assistant professor in the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota. Co-authored by a group of experts who have been researching land-use management and its politics in India for more than a decade, it addresses the pitfalls of blind tree planting while asking for people-centered natural climate solutions. The paper details how proponents of large-scale tree planting drives ‘equate tree planting with climate justice and prosperity for the global south’. However, the opportunity costs of using land for trees instead of other economically beneficial activities are ignored.

A snapshot from a tree plantation drive by Isha Foundation in 2018

A snapshot from a tree plantation drive by Isha Foundation in 2018   | Photo Credit: Isha foundation on Twitter

The researchers tell us that such campaigns not only divert funding from conservation work, but that fast-growing trees serve an economic purpose, and should not be confused with the aim of forest restoration or a natural climate solution. ‘Planting trees without addressing the social drivers that caused deforestation in the first place will not mitigate climate change because those same drivers will destroy planted forests or shift ecosystem destruction elsewhere’.

Also, establishing tree plantations where forests did not historically occur destroys the natural habitats of plants and of animal species adapted to open ecosystems, and also threatens the livelihoods of people. Take forests, for instance. Since 2015, of the 49 blocks cleared for coal mining in India, nine were in ‘No-Go’ areas.

Another report by U.S. and Chilean academics points to the example of Chile. In the 1850s, the country burnt down and cleared vast areas of native forests for farmland, including oaks and giant redwoods. Much of that farmland has now been replaced by massive plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees with little wildlife, which in turn have helped spread wildfires in the past few years, states a report in Quint. While these plantations had economic benefits, on the environmental front they were disastrous. The authors highlighted that a shocking 79% of so-called forest restoration, committed to by 24 countries in 2019, actually represent forest plantations and agroforestry.

Isha Foundation claims to benefit farmers, to ‘rejuvenate the soil, and improve farmers’ income’. But do we know for a fact that the land they aim to plant trees on are not farmlands in the first place? Or that Fiinovation’s drive will study the land it plans to plant saplings on? As Fleischman et al.’s research states, tree planting programmes often target ecosystems or farmland that rural people depend on for subsistence livelihoods. More often than not, these farmers have insecure land tenure, and the land may be viewed by governments as ‘available’ for tree planting. ‘Replacing croplands with trees can result in unemployment for agricultural workers and elevate food prices’, it states. Additionally, in most places where reforestation is desirable, forests can regenerate naturally from seeds or resprouts, even in landscapes that appear to be highly degraded. Where natural regeneration is insufficient, targeted planting of a few trees from the local landscape must be done.

A common misconception is that planting trees on a massive scale will result in more rainfall, lesser soil erosion, and stabilise groundwater levels in degraded and coastal zones. The solution, however, isn’t this simplistic. It is the rampant misuse of land for activities such as sand mining, dam building and real estate development that results in erosion in the first place. Simply planting trees does nothing.

An article in Mongabay India (January 2020), says that ‘while Isha Foundation says it won’t plant monoculture plantations, the vagueness of the project has left it open for criticism’. It explains how the total number of trees planned for the area covering a third of the Cauvery basin — about 5.9 million acres — gives a planting density of 400 trees per acre. ‘But accounting for agricultural land and forest area, the planting density would be approximately 140 trees per acre. This can only be achieved through tampering with existing landscapes, including grassland ecosystems, experts say’.

What countries worldwide need to focus on are people-friendly initiatives and for forest rights to be taken seriously. Fleischman and his team’s paper gets it right: Solutions that count saplings rather than address the ecological and social drivers of ecosystem destruction are unlikely to succeed.

Response from Isha Foundation:

Since inception, Rally for Rivers and Cauvery Calling have maintained that we will be promoting native and endemic species that are both ecologically and economically beneficial. The list of species has been communicated to our primary stakeholders, the farmers, via social media, telephone calls, brochures, booklets, etc. during our outreach. Across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we are promoting more than 80 tree species.

In 12 years, the Cauvery Calling Project aims to plant 242 crore trees with the support of state governments, the public, individual donations of ₹42 towards sapling and project costs, corporate sponsorship, international programmes and others who may contribute in kind or through monetary support. A ticker on the Cauvery Calling website landing page tracks donations.

Cauvery Calling offers a holistic nature-based solution. It is primarily an economic programme with a significant ecological benefit. The primary focus is to improve farmers’ livelihoods by encouraging the transition of a portion of the farmland to tree-based agriculture and increase the green cover in the Cauvery basin.

Cauvery Calling has never claimed that tree planting is the only solution for all the problems surrounding the Cauvery River. Isha Foundation has taken up one significant front of the problem and is working towards a long-term solution.

Isha has experience with almost 70,000 farmers in Tamil Nadu who have implemented tree-based agriculture and seen a rise of 3-8 times in their incomes. Tree-based agriculture is less labour intensive overall and has a high resistance to changing climate, floods and droughts. Thousands of farmers have been positively impacted by adopting tree-based agriculture.

Trees will be planted on the private land of farmers.  We are happy to report that thousands of farmers have begun the shift to tree-based agriculture in the last six months with 89 lakh saplings taken up this year. The number is expected to reach one crore by the end of the financial year.

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This article was updated with a rejoinder by Isha Foundation post publication.

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2021 2:04:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/how-tree-planting-drives-often-mask-an-economic-aim-as-a-climate-saving-solution/article32869567.ece

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