The monsoon rains in Bengaluru have been temperamental and rather scarce this year. News of trees being cut, however, is more regular fare. No parts of the city are spared, no trees too ancient, large or valuable in the face of infrastructure development.
But, the 1,500 people who gathered at Kyalasanahalli Lake on the city’s fringes one overcast Saturday morning, were on a mission to take the tree-cutting lobby head on in a peaceful protest of sorts. The group, people of all ages, professions and backgrounds, were united by the tools they carried and the tasks they performed. A few had travelled overnight from neighbouring cities to join the tree-planting drive.
For 2 hours, the group worked - digging pits, planting and staking saplings, shaping bunds. New friendships grew alongside the new lives taking root. As the afternoon heat began to rise, 6000 trees had found a new home.
SayTrees, started in 2007, was the culmination of Kapil Sharma’s lonely and arduous struggle to restore Bengaluru’s dwindling tree cover. For 7 years, Sharma, an IT engineer and his friends, juggled full-time jobs and tree-planting, running between municipalities and corporates to garner support for their afforestation programmes. In 2013, with a growing volunteer base of, the NGO was formally registered. SayTrees is primarily responsible for tree plantation which it does in urban and rural areas using funding received from corporate CSR budgets.
Although it began in Bengaluru, its activities have now spread to Delhi and Hyderabad. SayTrees undertakes reforestation programmes in urban and rural areas. In cities, trees are planted on public lands such as land around lakes, railway or army property, and in government schools, colleges and PHCs. “We work closely with government agencies, municipal corporations, the army and railways, development authorities and various government departments to identify land where trees will be safe from human and cattle intervention, and it is essential that these spaces aren't meant for any further development,” says Durgesh Agrahari, one of the NGO’s earliest members. So far, many mini-forests have been created across Bengaluru, the latest of which was created with 6000 saplings in September 2016.
SayTrees also works in rural India, doing barren hill afforestation in Chintamani and Bagepalli, supported by corporate funding. “Our rural projects are multi-purpose: they are environmentally beneficial while also creating income-generation opportunities for the local community through raising of seedlings, digging pits, planting and maintaining the saplings,” says Durgesh. Rural forestry projects are taken up in consultation with the village Panchayat and the local community to identify land and suitable species.
Another aspect of SayTrees’ rural forestry initiatives is agro-forestry, started to supplement the income of marginal farmers. Agro-forestry couples fruit-bearing trees with the farmer’s regular crops. Fruit-bearing trees are interspersed with crops and planted on the periphery of the lands of between 15 and 30 marginal farmers. “By planting such trees, we increase green cover in the area and also support farmers with a sustainable source of income, since these trees begin bearing fruit within 4 years of planting,” Durgesh explains. The organisation has also been creating fruit forests in Maharashtra on community lands where the harvest is available free-of-cost for public use.
Recently, SayTrees became the first entity in the country to pioneer vertical gardens grown on flyover pillars, a concept that promises to alter a city’s environmental quality and visual landscape. With their third experiment under way, the organisation is getting innovative with eco-friendly materials and doing away with plastic pots.
All its activities are volunteer-driven. We can afford to hire labour and get the work done, Durgesh says, but the aim of using volunteers is to sensitise people by involving them in on-ground action, not just activism.
Fast-growing carbon sinks
To date, SayTrees has planted close to 4.5 lakh trees as part of its urban and rural forestry programmes. In 2016 alone, 90,000 trees were planted of which more than 10,500 were in Bengaluru alone.
The organisation is able to undertake plantations at such scale using the Miyawaki method developed by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki as a means of restoring indigenous forests and sacred groves with trees endemic to the region. He advocated densely planting seedlings of mixed native tree species. While planting, care is taken to ensure layering like it exists in natural, native forests. Tall-growing trees are interspersed with shorter varieties and shrubs, giving each sapling its own vertical space to grow.
The various trees undergo a process of natural selection through competition, resulting in a diversified natural forest. “Miyawaki plantations are known to grow 10 times faster than other forests and 30 time denser because in a given area, we plant 30 times more trees,” says Durgesh.
Planting a tree is the tip of the iceberg
The preparation that precedes planting as well as post-plantation care can often be what determines the survival rate of saplings. All of SayTrees’ activity begins with the onset of the monsoon: Soil testing of the identified land is done to map texture and nutritional content and determine the quantity of supplementary nutrition required. Cow dung, cocopeat and rice husk are used to enrich the soil. “Rather than adding minerals or nutrition directly into the soil, we create conditions wherein microorganisms thrive and in turn produce nutrition for the plants,” Durgesh says. In cities, the survival rate on record is 80 percent, but on ground it is above 95 percent. Around lakes, it is almost 100 percent, he says, because these are safer lands and maintenance pays off better. Rural plantations, being primarily rain-fed, have a survival rate of 75-80 percent.
Trees in a Miyawaki forest require maintenance for the first three years after which they grow naturally. Caring for the saplings with weeding, leaf mulching, tilling and making bunds can be the most challenging part of creating forests since most of these activities are taken up in the summer months when volunteers are hard to find.
The right time to plant a tree is now. We don’t have to wait for a tree to be cut to plant another.
Unlike commercial plantations that propagate a single, commercially valuable species, these forests are naturally biodiverse and perform many functions of natural forest ecosystems including absorption of carbon dioxide and raising the surrounding water table, impacts which become visible once the forests are 4 or 5 years old. However, there is a significant growth of the trees planted, a drop in temperature in the plantation, a noticeable increase in birds and butterflies visiting the sites as well as a rich population of microorganisms in the forest bed, all of which signal a healthy forest ecosystem.
In many Indian cities, like Hyderabad for instance, the green cover is barely 2.5 percent of the built up area, a far cry from the stipulated 15 percent minimum. "We’re losing trees rapidly to development projects, mining and deforestation. Mathematically, it is possible to plant millions of saplings a day; all we have to do is plant one sapling each and care of it until it matures. But awareness about and sensitivity towards trees both require a lot of boosting," Durgesh rues.
SayTrees is promoting tree planting on various occasion like birthdays and weddings. Among corporates, they’re encouraging a culture of gifting trees. The right time to plant a tree is now. We don’t have to wait for a tree to be cut to plant another.
To organise a tree plantation drive, write to info(at)saytrees(dot)org
Images courtesy SayTrees.