Don’t confuse forests for farms: Environmentalist Wanjira Mathai

Updated on Dec 09, 2020 09:17 AM IST

The only models that have worked in the past are where local communities have been engaged and empowered, says WRI’s regional director for Africa and former Chair of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya

Wanjira Mathai, WRI’s regional director for Africa
Wanjira Mathai, WRI’s regional director for Africa
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi

A new study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) to be released on Wednesday on the potential of restoring land in Sidhi, a remote district in eastern Madhya Pradesh, has estimated that as many as 363,000 hectares have potential for restoration.

If restored, it could sequester over 7 million metric tonnes of carbon over 10–20 years and increase forest carbon stock (carbon sequestered from the atmosphere) by 37%. To achieve the full restoration potential, 39.5 million saplings would need to be planted, creating employment opportunities of 3.75 million person days over two years.

One of India’s nationally determined contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement is to achieve a cumulative carbon sink of 2.5–3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030 so the Centre has been mooting an agro-forestry policy that could help achieve the target. Wanjira Mathai, WRI’s regional director for Africa and former Chair of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya said such a goal was achievable by being radially inclusive and by not confusing indigenous forests for farms. Excerpts from an interview:

How do you think such a large goal of creating a massive carbon sink can be achieved, especially when most people in India have small landholdings and common lands are often encroached on?

The business of restoration has to be radically inclusive. The only models that have worked in the past are where local communities have been engaged and empowered. We saw it in Kenya’s Green Belt Movement. The planning and design of restoration initiatives have to be developed as per local land use practices. Both the quality of plantation material including seedlings, and survival of plantations are dependent on people. We have found that the element of nurturing the plantations is critical.

Why do you think local people or villagers will participate in land restoration? Any learnings from Wangari Mathai’s (Wanjira’s mother and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize) Green Belt Movement?

The first thing to know about the Green Belt Movement was that it evolved around a need—the need for fodder, fuel wood and the need for nutritious food and the movement was established to address those issues that are fundamental in sustaining life as we know it. The model of ‘how’ was created directly with women. It involved working with women who in many communities, including in India, are the ones who bear the brunt of fetching firewood, fetching drinking water and ensuring there is a nutritious meal on the table.

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They were feeling the pressure of the lack of those resources. They were very responsive to coming together to plant trees. Planting of fruit and fodder trees, branches that could be cut for firewood, was a real winner for the movement. But I think the genius of the Green Belt Movement was involvement of local grassroots women, the idea that many would understand the patience and commitment to grow and find quality seedlings. Women were like foresters. The Green Belt Movement deliberately organised women because of the scale that was needed. There was clarity that for this movement to be successful, it needed to be at scale.

How did you ensure the movement covered a very large area? Since 1977, the movement has ensured plantation of over 51 million trees in Kenya.

Volume was incentivised. Women farmers were encouraged to form groups of 5 to 20, not all from the same family, and to mushroom those groups. Those groups gave themselves a name, opened a back account and were ready to engage with the movement in a transactional way. They could receive cheques as part of their accountability so the structure of groups was quite important. In the first phase of the movement, they planted in public spaces—in schools, around their homes, in market places etc. They began to make these farms of green around their communities and restored greenery outside gazetted forests. The women were also being compensated for seedlings that survived first for three months, and then for six months, which was also a very important aspect of the campaign. For seedlings that survived, they got a token amount of 2 US cents when the movement started. That was the incentive for volume. It was fun and transformative for women. It later moved to larger scale projects like gazetted forests. And gradually fostered a tripartite partnership between government, people and the Green Belt Movement. Governments usually have a hard time in producing such quality planting material. I think the Green Belt Movement is the most powerful model for inclusive land restoration.

In India, we have a compensatory afforestation policy where, every time that forest land is diverted for non-forest purposes like mining or industry, the user agency is supposed to pay for planting forests over an equal area of non-forest land, or when that is not available, twice the area of degraded forest land. But there is a massive shortage of land for such plantations. Most private lands have been exhausted.

We have to begin to look at the utility of the infrastructure we are building for our people. Going forward and what Covid-19 has taught us is that we have to be urbanising in ways that are a lot greener and inclusive and climate resilient. A lot of traditional infrastructure is not that. There will not be an infinite amount of land to plant trees but on the other side of the equation, we need to study what we are building. Who does it serve and is it actually inclusive? In Kenya, a lot of infrastructure is not serving the majority. It is not moving people, it’s moving vehicles. Pedestrian infrastructure and micro-mobility, for example, is so important for health, pollution and the climate. There should be a valuation of the quality of the tree that is being cut. Sometimes, it could mean cutting a hundred-year-old tree and putting ten small ones instead. There should definitely be a big disincentive to that. The focus should be on how to make sure that we don’t just clear and plant somewhere else because that becomes the easy route.

How can we ensure survival of plantations?

Survival of plantation is mainly dependent on the quality of planting material but it’s also crucial to ensure that we are not planting very young seedlings. In the Green Belt Movement, you could not plant a tree that was less than 2 feet tall. They were still nurtured for a couple of years to take care, to do spot weeding etc. Ensuring survival of trees is all about the quality of planting and nurturing, so it’s an investment. The government will have to invest in it and not consider it a cheap solution. Restoration is a job creator. As far as species are concerned, local wisdom is very important. World Agroforestry Institute has a tool that helps you identify species that are best suited for a particular area.

How do you think India can meet our carbon sequestration NDC effectively?

What is important at the moment is that we don’t confuse forests with farms. Forests have very dense biodiversity, they are teeming with life. Forests are not monocultures of trees. It’s important that we don’t confuse protection of indigenous forests and biodiversity for farms of trees. Covid-19 as a zoonotic disease reminds us how important it is to maintain a barrier between indigenous forests from plantations. It’s also important that we don’t encroach on forests in our thirst for commercial plantations. Commercial plantations have their place. People can plan their life around cash crops or commercial plantations. It’s a matter of getting our priorities right and safeguarding our forests.

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