Afforestation Initiatives

NATIVE PLANTING IN THE WESTERN GHATS

India is the 5th most vulnerable nation in the world to the impacts of the changing climate. Our forests are our carbon sinks and our armour to protect us from the climate crisis looming on our heads. India’s land area under forest cover stands at 21% currently. The government’s declared target is 33%. The State of India’s Forest Report 2019 shows a grim scenario. Since 2011, over the last one decade, the area under ‘Commercial Plantations’ has increased by 5.7%, while the area under ‘Moderately Dense Forests’ has decreased by 3.8%. This means that we are losing our ‘biodiversity rich native forests’.

This blog tells the story of a group of citizens who are trying to preserve the native biodiversity of the Western Ghats, one of India’s largest natural carbon sinks.

The main highlights of the blog are as follows: 

  • Importance of the ecosystem of the Western Ghats for the Indian subcontinent.
  • How invasive species are destroying the native flora of Western Ghats?
  • Native planting efforts in the states of Karnataka and Kerala. 
  • How can forest friends living anywhere in the world contribute towards restoring degraded lands in the Western Ghats?

WESTERN GHATS – A CRITICAL BIODIVERSITY HOTSPOT OF OUR PLANET

Western Ghats are a highly sensitive ecological zone supporting the livelihoods of more than 250 million people. This mountain range traversing through the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu functions as the  water  tower  of  peninsular  India. Several rivers like Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Tungabhadra originate in the Western Ghats. The strategic location of the Ghats also influences the south west monsoons thereby making this mountain range play the critical role of climate regulator for the entire Indian subcontinent.

According to UNESCO, the Western Ghats are considered as one of earth’s 8 “hotspots” in terms of their global importance for biodiversity conservation. Out of the 650 tree species found in the Western Ghats, nearly 352 (more than 50%) are endemic i.e. they are found nowhere else in the world. This region is home to more than 1500 endemic species of flowering plants and 500 species of endemic fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel proposed that the entire Western Ghats be considered as an ‘Ecologically Sensitive Area’ on account of the occurrence of such a high number of endemic and rare species.

WHY ARE THE WESTERN GHATS UNDER THREAT?

A study in South India in the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu showed that between 1920 and 1990 about 40% of the original vegetation cover of the Western Ghats was lost or converted to another form of land use. It is estimated that not more than about 7% of the area of Western Ghats is currently under primary vegetation cover, though a much larger area is under some form of forest and tree cover. Two main reasons threatening the native biodiversity of this region are as follows:

Loss of forests due to a faulty development model

Diversion of forests for agriculture, mining and industrial projects, road construction etc over the past few decades have resulted in the state of Kerala losing 9064 sq kms between 1973 and 2016 and Karnataka losing 200 sq km of forest land in the Western Ghats between 2001 and 2017. See this link for more details and what you can do to help the citizens’ campaign to save the Western Ghats.

https://www.change.org/p/narendramodi-save-western-ghats-cancel-destructive-projects-savewesternghats 

Loss of native biodiversity due to plantation of invasive species

The other culprit for loss of native flora in the Western Ghats is the plantation of alien species such as Eucalyptus, Wattle (Acacia), Pinus by the British which can be seen across the upper slopes of the Nilgiris and Pulney hills interspersed with Lantana Camara. Invasive species like Prosopis Juliflora and Parthenium Hysterophorus are seen on the lower hill slopes. 60% of the Western Ghats are covered by invasive species like Lantana. They create a mat-like structure leading to degradation of the land and destruction of the native biodiversity. As a result, herbivores like Gaur, Sambar and others are deprived of their food. This in turn negatively impacts the survival of carnivores such as tigers and panthers thereby affecting the entire ecosystem. 

Invasive species 1
Invasive flora species release a resin like substance which makes the soil acidic degrading the land and preventing the growth of native plants. 

PLANTING NATIVE FLORA TO RESTORE LANDS DEGRADED BY INVASIVE SPECIES

This short film shows how an inspiring group of citizens by the name of Forest First Samithi are trying to conserve and revive the native flora of the Western Ghats.

Meera Rajesh, Founder Trustee, Forest First Samithi shares, “We are a non-profit working to rewild sacred groves, degraded forest lands, riparian buffer lands and private coffee estates with the help of local communities in Kodagu and Wayanad districts in the states of Karnataka and Kerala respectively. Our vision is to restore degraded lands by removal of the invasive species and preserve the biodiversity of Western Ghats by undertaking planting of native flora. We do this by engaging and empowering the rural communities in the process of sustainable ecological conservation.”  

Nursery

Most of the native tree species planted by Forest First Samithi have nutritional and medicinal value which helps the tribal communities in their traditional health care system. Every project site that the group works on supports local livelihoods for planting. They provide a 3 year maintenance programme for the saplings which involves tribal wisdom for the aftercare.

Forest First Samithi, Forest First Land Restoration and Habitat Conservation

Read more about the work of Forest First Samithi on this link and their website:

https://www.thebetterindia.com/94806/conserving-biodiversity-for-the-future-at-one-of-the-source-of-cauvery/

BE PART OF THIS GRASSROOTS INITIATIVE  

Forest First Samithi would appreciate volunteer support for their activities on the ground as well as help in raising funds. Over the last 10 years, this citizens group has carried out the native planting work with their own personal finances and that of their network of friends. Occasional donations have sometimes come in from small companies and trusts. As a forest friend living anywhere on the planet, you can support this grassroots initiative to preserve one of the most precious biodiversity hotspots of the world by donating your own personal funds, organising crowdfunding campaigns in your circles of influence, getting your friends in the corporate sector to do CSR funding.

Please visit http://forestfirstsamithi.org/contribute/

Below are the ongoing native planting projects of Forest First Samithi: 

  • Forest Land Conservation of 40 acres in Wayanad and Kodagu districts (50 to 100 species depending on the landscape) – Year 2020 to 2023. 
  • Sacred Groves Restoration of 30 acres (minimum 100 species) – Year 2018 to 2023. 
  • Riparian Buffer 12 km in length (minimum 25 riverine species) – Year 2019 to 2025.

For more details, reach out to forestfirstsamithi@gmail.com 

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FEEDBACK

For any comments, feedback or clarifications on this blog, please write to the author – Neelam Ahluwalia at the email healingourcities1@gmail.com

Links to other blogs on this website:

https://healingourcities.org/2020/06/19/native-planting/

https://healingourcities.org/water-management/

https://healingourcities.org/waste-matters/responsible-waste-management/

Afforestation Initiatives

NATIVE PLANTING IN THE ARAVALLIS

Aravallis, the oldest mountain range in the world, running across 4 states in North India – Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat is severely degraded. 31 Aravalli hills have disappeared in Rajasthan due to illegal mining. Real estate is eating up the Aravalli forests in Haryana which incidentally has the lowest forest cover in India (just 3.6%). Illegal felling of trees and encroachments across all states are destroying the Aravalli forests. 

As the oldest mountain range in the world is disappearing, the intensity of dust storms coming in from the Thar desert is increasing and the North Indian states are moving closer to desertification. The degradation of the Aravallis also threatens the water security of North India. The high levels of natural cracks and fissures in the Aravalli hills make this mountain range a superior zone for recharging ground water, which is extremely in the red zone at this point of time as extraction is 3 times more than what is put back into the ground. Native planting needs to be taken up on war footing across all the 4 Aravalli states to save North India’s water recharge zone, green lungs and shield against desertification.

This blog throws light on rewilding initiatives in different Aravalli landscapes. Topics covered are as follows:

  • Why is it critical to plant native?
  • Native planting initiatives in Haryana and Rajasthan.
  • Understanding basics of creating a native city forest.
  • How to create biodiversity rich spaces in residential and institutional areas?

WHY PLANT NATIVE?

This film presents the views of Vijay Dhasmana, an ecologist and rewilder who talks about why planting native species of the right ecology is critical in these water stressed times and how this native plantation helps in saving water and creating biodiversity rich habitats.

DRAFTING A VISION FOR PLANTING

Often planting is not thought through properly. People with good intention just end up planting Neem and Peepal or other easily available trees on a site, irrespective of the soil and climate condition a particular plant needs to thrive. The foremost part of a rewilding exercise is to draft a vision. It is extremely important to know what we need to recreate. 

Vijay Dhasmana, the ecologist shares, “Rewilding is like forest forensic work in which you research the forest composition that once existed on a given site. This can be done on the basis of observing the soil composition and the larger forest type currently existing in the region or what once existed which can be found in historical records. Once you know what kind of a forest or grassland or shrub land existed in the area that you want to plant in, the next step is to recreate that.”

RECREATING THE NATIVE ECOSYSTEM OF THE THAR DESERT

A team led by Pradip Krishen, an ecologist proposed a plan to the Jaipur Development Authority to develop the degraded Kishanbagh sand-dunes near Jaipur, close to Nahargarh sanctuary in Rajasthan. The main aim of this rewilding exercise was to bring back the jungles of the Thar desert called ‘Roee’ which are essentially grasslands and shrublands like you see in the undisturbed sand dune areas in Jaisalmer and Badmer in Rajasthan. “Most of the native grasses and herbaceous plants that we planted in the Kishanbagh sand dunes are ephemeral i.e. they come out in the monsoons and by the end of winter they are gone, following nature’s cycle as it is meant to be in the arid desert landscape. It took 3 years for the rewilding that we carried out to become a self-sustaining ecological system,” shares Vijay Dhasmana who worked as part of the team recreating the native ecosystem of the Thar desert in Kishanbagh.

Kishanbagh sand dunes restoration
Planting done at Kishanbagh sand dunes to recreate native grasslands of the Thar Desert 

CREATING A NATIVE FOREST IN THE MOST POLLUTED CITY ON THE PLANET

The film ‘Gurgaon’s Healing Forest – Aravali Biodiversity Park’ tells the story of a unique rewilding effort in the National Capital Region where citizens, corporates and local administration have created a natural Aravalli forest on 380+ acres of land that was once a mining site.

Understanding Basics of Creating a Forest Ecosystem 

Vijay Dhasmana, the ecologist behind the creation of Gurgaon’s city forest shares, “My special task was to try and understand where each kind of plant species would be most ‘at home’ based on their evolution in the Aravalli hills over millions of years. Some plants are ‘generalists’ but most flora species, more so in arid or water stressed environments have their preferences and specialise in where they are best adapted to live and do well.  During my travels for native seed collection to different Aravalli states, I learnt that the Dhau (Anogeissus pendula) grew on steep rocky slopes that can withstand thin soils and rapid runoff, the Salai (Boswellia serrata) is partial to the shoulders of the Aravalli hills, the Kadam (Mitragyna parvifolia) grows in the valleys that can withstand both waterlogging and to a certain extent drought, the Babool (Acacia nilotica) likes to grow where the soil is deep and of good quality with water close to the surface. I also observed how different flora species support each other in the forest ecosystem growing in various tiers.

This learning from observing natural Aravalli forests like the Mangarbani near Gurgaon, Sariska in Rajasthan and others helped our team to draft the vision for creating the Aravali Biodiversity Park. The idea was to create diverse micro habitats in this city forest, including grasslands that would support varied forms of life, typical of the northern Aravallis.”

BDP - large expanse

Creating a Nursery of Native Plants

Often, forest plants are not found in normal nurseries. So sourcing native seeds and creating a nursery is an essential step in the rewilding journey. Once the nursery was set up in the Aravali Biodiversity Park, 35 flora species were germinated in the first year and then gradually more than 200 species were added. Operations of the nursery along with all the other costs of maintaining the native saplings planted have been funded by donations from Gurgaon city’s corporate sector.

Life Sustaining Inputs for the Saplings 

No chemical fertilizers have been used for the 1,20,000+ native saplings planted in the Aravali Biodiversity Park. Natural leaf compost made at the site has been the only nutrient along with water given to the saplings. Water for irrigation has been sourced from the sewage treatment plants of nearby hotels. A drip irrigation network ensures watering in the areas where the gardeners cannot reach easily.  Vijay Dhasmana shares, “It took us 8 years from 2011 to 2019 to complete the rewilding exercise on 380 acres of wasteland and implement our vision to create this native city forest. We monitored the plants regularly and only provided irrigation when there was water stress noticed. The saplings were not given water more than 8 times in a year and only up to a period of 3 years after which the plants become strong enough to bear the brunt of the climatic conditions on their own.”

Drip irrigation at BDP
Drip irrigation system created at the Aravali Biodiversity Park

As Planters Be Enablers, Not Mothers Force Feeding Her Children

Vijay Dhasmana, the rewilder expresses, “I am not a champion of feeding plants with excessive nutrition or manure or  irrigating them often to make the canopy grow tall. In the semi-arid landscape where the Aravali Biodiversity park is located, plants take time to develop a robust root system and addition of excessive nutrition and irrigation will hamper this natural process. Ecological wisdom is to let the plant become resilient on its own by letting it grow how it would in nature. If you over irrigate or give extra nutrition to the saplings, they will tend to grow faster. Fast growing tall plants in a semi arid or arid landscape will become more of a liability as they tend to break more easily when the winds are strong or during storms. I am of the strong view that as planters, we should just be enablers and not like mothers force feeding their children.”

BDP

If you are interested in creating a native forest and have more questions, you can reach out to vijay.dhasmana@gmail.com

CREATING CORRIDORS OF WILDERNESS IN CITIES

The film ‘The Upcycled Walkway’ captures the transformation of a neglected Bundh (traditional groundwater recharging structure) area filled with waste into a thriving corridor of native Aravalli flora in the heart of Gurgaon city in the National Capital Region of India. The local administration, forest department, corporate sector and citizens are all stakeholders in the creation, restoration and preservation of this biodiversity rich wilderness space.

CREATING BIODIVERSITY RICH SPACES IN RESIDENTIAL AND INSTITUTIONAL AREAS 

Human connect with the wild is very important. Native trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses of the right ecology should be planted in gardens in individual homes and open spaces in residential, office and institutional complexes to create more biodiversity rich areas in cities. This will not only help in expanding the green lungs and water recharge capacity of our urban areas but also create habitats for native birds, bees, butterflies and other life forms thereby increasing our nature connect. 

Vijay Dhasmana, the ecologist advises, “If an institution or a housing complex in the cities of the National Capital Region and the states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat is large enough, I would recommend that they create small forest patches of the Aravallis with native trees, shrubs and grasses.

  • Main canopy Aravalli tree species can be that of Dhau, Salai, Amaltash, Dhak, Kullu, Ronjh, Kumath, Doodhi, Barna, Sargooro, Gurjan, Roheda, Gamhar, Harsingar, Krishan Kadam (depending on the local ecology). 
  • Understorey trees like Bistendu, Chamrod, Harsingar, Kuda that are of lesser height as compared to the main canopy trees can be planted as the 2nd tier.
  • Shrub species such as Goyakhair, Gangeti, Kair, Adusa, Marodphali and others can be planted as the 3rd tier. 
  • There are some gorgeous climbers that should be added such as Vallaris spp, Ichnocarpus spp, Telosma phallida, Watakaka volubilis and many others.”

 NOTE

Visit https://aravallibachao.wordpress.com/ for more information on the citizen’s campaign to protect the Aravallis.

Links to other blogs on this website:https://healingourcities.org/2020/06/21/native-planting-in-the-western-ghats/https://healingourcities.org/water-management/https://healingourcities.org/waste-matters/responsible-waste-management/