Representative image of a ‘Miyawaki forest’. Photo: BemanHerish/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
It was half past midnight as we peeled our eyes off our computer screens. My colleague and I leaned back to discuss whether the jhadber – a wild cousin of the common ber – is a ‘shrub’ or a ‘sub-tree’. “It does grow tree-like in Delhi and westwards,” I said. From the process documents we’d learnt that the ‘shrub layer’ was supposed to grow to a maximum of ‘human height’, no taller. We looked up the global average for human height. Fair enough. Glossing over its ecological complexities, we pronounced the jhadber a ‘shrub’ and moved on. Next step: to calculate how many jhadber saplings we’d need to ensure it constitutes exactly 8-12% of our so-called ‘native forest’. Apparently, the 8-12 range is the prescribed percentage of shrubs in forests across India (perhaps even the world).
This was one of the first times we were creating a ‘native forest’ on our laptop screens. We felt like we’d found our ikigai. This work demanded meticulousness and a calculator. We had been given a process and we were going to follow it to the tee. We ensured that our ‘canopy layer’ – defined as ‘the tallest trees in the local forest’ – stayed firmly between 15-20% of our total plantation. We also went to great lengths to make sure our ‘sub tree layer’ – defined as ‘trees which are taller than human (sic)’ but still small compared to ‘normal trees found in forest (sic)’ – stayed exactly at 27.5%, no more, no less. This was because we wanted to give a little extra weightage to our ‘tree layer,’ which was defined ‘based on the average height of trees in your geography.’
Our spreadsheet planting complete, we moved on to soil. The process doc instructed us that ‘forest creation’ goes hand in hand with ‘soil creation’. A jar test result confirmed that our site’s soil was a sandy loam. Apparently, this was not good enough, so we needed to add 4 kgs per square meter of ‘perforator material’ in the form of wheat crop residue. Nor was our soil ‘water-retentive’ enough, so we’d need to add cocopeat (trucked in from Kerala) as a ‘water retainer’ material. Add to this cow manure and 1 kilolitre of jivamrit (a gobar and gomutra based liquid fertilizer) and voila: these ingredients would be mixed in approximately 200 hours by the long arms of a JCB earthmover to produce an instantly teeming ‘forest soil’ into which we’d plant the carefully chosen ‘layers’ of our ‘native forest’ all at once. It was about 2 am by now. We were done; we’d run the numbers; we were ready. We said arigato to the process files and lay down to sleep, eyes twitching slightly due to the prolonged laptop glare.
We city boys had found our ikigai and we were out to save the world, one tree at a time. Best of all, a certain Mr Miyawaki – a Japanese botanist – seemed to have provided us with a way to do it: a “forest creation process”. This method promised an insta-forest: a rapidly growing plantation that leapt straight towards a climax ecosystem. We’d avoid all the gradual stages of ecological succession. Climax sans foreplay – that’s exactly what we needed. This method also promised speed. Apparently these ‘forests’ grow at a breakneck pace, no less than a bullet train slicing its way into the future. All of this sounded nice and marketable: grow a forest with Japanese speed and Japanese efficiency. This is what we were trying to sell to the CSR wing of one of India’s largest gutka companies. They wanted a ‘green belt’ around the bulging waistline of their massive glass-and-steel head office in a Delhi satellite city. We were out to sell them the silver bullet of the Miyawaki method of forest plantation.
Luckily, that project never came through. Our work at an ‘urban farming’ start-up in Delhi led us to this Miyawaki business. We mostly made kitchen gardens but our clients’ requests to plant native trees in their fortress-like farmhouses foisted us into the heady dealings of the professional tree-planting world. This was 2018 and India’s Miyawaki pioneers had just made their process open source. New non-profits – many with names like iTree, MeTree, and MyTree – were mushrooming all over the city, each trying to net the lakhs of CSR funds floating around. We were also about to enter the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and nothing made us happier than to have a set of Excel sheets that would automate the ‘forest creation’ process. With this file in hand, we could avoid the slow process of engaging deeply with the nuances of our local ecology and landscape. We could become overnight native forest experts! What else could we ask for? With vaulting ambition, we leapt into the fray.
At the time, we were beginners in matters related to ecology. We were bootstrapping at the urban farming start-up, helping grow gajar and mooli on rooftops in Delhi’s dome of smog. We had picked up tree spotting as a hobby and soon realised the paucity of native trees in the city, and even more so of nurseries that focus on native plants. So we were immediately lured towards the Miyawaki method by celebratory articles and videos on a few goody-two-shoes, ‘better’ news websites. Who wouldn’t want to create a ‘forest’ that promised 10x faster growth, 30x more carbon sequestration and 100x more biodiversity than any other method of plantation in the world? It sounded too good to be true (and didn’t seem to require much work either).
No sooner had we started dipping our toes into the Miyawaki method, than a 200-acre ecological restoration project in Rajasthan fell into our laps. Our brief was simple and direct: Jungal bana do (Make me a jungle). We tinkered with our Miyawaki forest-making Excel sheet once again, punched in the numbers, and saw the material quantities and costs for this project shoot through the roof. We would have required tens of thousands of tons of manure and wheat crop residue; an Olympic-size swimming pool full of jivamrit, thousands of earthmover-hours, and over 2.4 million plants! Something didn’t make sense.
We placed our calculators back on the table again. We couldn’t yet put our finger on it, but something felt wrong. When we tried to imagine the visual effect of this planting scheme, our minds got entangled in a dense thicket, unlike anything we had seen on our wanderings in Rajasthan. Perhaps we’d only seen highly degraded landscapes, chewed thin and scanty by endless hordes of goats and sheep. But, if a ‘climax forest’ were truly so cramped and impenetrable, where did any of our grassland and scrub fauna – the gazelle, the blackbuck and the ground-nesting bustard – live? Were they originally monkeying around in a dense woodland? When our calculator coughed up these gargantuan numbers, we felt like we were beating around the wrong bush and unable to look at reality as it were. We needed to seek alternative advice.
We knew of Pradip Krishen from his book Trees of Delhi. We’d also heard that over the previous decade, he had ‘rewilded’ or ecologically restored a large tract of rocky desert in Jodhpur. We timorously contacted him about our site near Jodhpur and he immediately called us over for a chat. He was forthcoming and relaxed and he told us something along the lines of, “All you need to do, boys, is to really get to know your plants, study the soil and moisture regime at your site, find an intact ‘analogue site’ nearby that has the same characteristics as your site, and carefully make a note of all the plant species growing there and how they’re growing in relation to each other spatially. Then, bring back the seeds of these plants to your site and start a nursery, and plant the seedlings in a manner that resembles their natural arrangement on your reference site. Or at least as close as possible to that. And remember: don’t forget your grasses!”
We looked at each other with our mouths agape. This sounded quite the opposite of our one-size-fits-all Miyawaki planning methods. Yes, the Miyawaki system does emphasise native species but it ignores ecological niche: the idea that species are adapted to very specific site conditions. For example, dry rocky slopes support a very different community of plants when compared to low-lying moist valleys. Calcium-rich or saline soils result in their own specialized suite of plants. But the Miyawaki system’s formulaic method ignores these subtleties, making generalised lists of native plants and shoving them all together in heavily manured soil. Add to this the heavy watering they recommend in the first two years and voila: the plants that tend to dominate Miyawaki plantations – at least the ones we’ve seen in North India – tend to be those that like nutrient-rich, moist situations like the desi babool. In fact, this is what the Miyawaki system does: create a specific ecological niche suited to plants that like deep, nutrient-rich soil and lots of moisture; it does not create a biodiverse community of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees, each provided with the kind of open living room they prefer.
And so, after earnestly jumping on, we alighted from the Miyawaki bandwagon. We took a plunge into the local ecology and began doing field trips to learn about all kinds of plants: seasonal wildflowers; annual grasses; shrubs; lots of tiny things like lichens and, of course, trees. We climbed them to look closely at their flowers or to collect seed; knelt down to photograph tiny inflorescences; peered through a hand lens to look at minute grass florets. We troubled botanists to help us identify everything we were seeing. It was a slow and arduous process, but we began to develop a sense of connection to the plants and landscape. And to the local people that lived in them. This was exactly what the Miyawaki system – with its spreadsheets and formulas – ignores. Creating ecologically restored landscapes – let’s call them ‘native forests’ – demands that we slow down and peer closely into a landscape’s past and present conditions; understand its unique ecology and our role in degrading it; and then work with local communities to find ways through which ecological integrity can be restored. Japanese speed and efficiency have no role here.
As we went on, it didn’t take long for us to realise that in all our project sites, which lie in the semi-arid and arid parts of northwestern India, the natural forest (for the most part) is an ‘open’ forest with trees spaced apart, much like in a Savannah. Areas between trees are dominated by shrubs, grasses, and annual wildflowers that only live for a few months every year. We started understanding plants’ ecological niches: the very specific intersection of soil type, moisture regime and aspect in which those species really thrive. We learnt which plants are picky: they demand a specific soil mineral – like lime kankar or salt – to grow happily. Indrokh (Anogeissus sericea var. nummularia), for example, grows primarily in calcium-rich, nodular soils along seasonal streams. Some others are pioneers, like Daimal (Tephrosia falciformis). Daimal is among the first shrubs to germinate on a newly settled sand dune, and the moment other plants find a footing on the dune, it disappears. The Miyawaki system leaves absolutely no room for such nuances.
Earlier this year, we visited a three-year-old Miyawaki ‘native forest’ close to Jaipur. It was a long, thin strip of impenetrable green mass about as wide as a tennis court, abutting a bustling industrial area. A linear path cut through. As we entered, we were in the shade and the temperature fell. Not really what we wanted on a cold winter morning. Plants comfortable in deep, moist situations like the desi babool, moringa, siris and lasora dominated the canopy. The rest, at least the ones we managed to identify through the thicket, were hunkering below, assuming lanky forms, unlike anything we’d seen in natural open situations.
Some looked so different we struggled to identify them but this ‘forest’ was just too thick to get any closer to them. We felt dispirited, our curiosity subdued. This was straitjacketed wilderness at its worst: a veritable botanical zoo, but a badly designed one that created neither beauty nor allowed plants to express their real character. Here they were, the caged plants, packed like sardines by the human need for abstract formulas and processes. We were done; we’d seen the process and its results; we walked out feeling meh.
Just as we were exiting, we saw it. A few silvery, pale green stems, looking much thinner than usual, scrounging for sunlight. It looked as though this prostrate plant was attempting to drag itself out of this so-called forest. Surely this couldn’t be kheer kheemp (Sarcostemma acidum)? We leaned in a little closer and broke a stem. Milky latex oozed out. It was. Kheer kheemp is one of the few large succulents found in rocky habitats in western India. It looks like a starburst of pencil-thin pale green stems. The first time we saw a kheer kheemp in the wild was after a strenuous four-hour hike up a steep hill in the Aravallis near Sikar. As we reached the peak, we spotted it, right at the top. It resembled a massive terrestrial sea anemone with its long pale tentacles waving in the wind. It looked like the mountain had dreadlocks and this was its song of freedom. We stood there a moment in awe of this being that was showing us a glimpse of the sublime in one of the most inhospitable places you can imagine. But Kheer kheemp thrives in such conditions. Its roots are able to exploit thin, deep cracks in rock, and it photosynthesizes with its green stems. But in the Miyawaki forest, it was planted in a deep, loamy, heavily-irrigated soil under thick shade. A mighty shrub that clothes steep, rocky cliffs reduced to a puny, inconspicuous, sorry little plant. A friend once counted over 30 butterflies foraging on a single kheer kheemp in flower. Here it would probably never flower; it likely would not even survive.
The ironic thing about the Miyawaki system is that it’s wildly unreasonable, illogical and inappropriate. But it seems like we live in wildly absurd times where common sense is no longer common. Let’s do a little thought experiment: a Yemeni ecologist named Mr Mian Wali studies his local ecology over decades and arrives at a ‘system’ – a formula – that enables him and his team to easily restore their degraded ecosystems. Could you imagine an Indian businessman bringing Mr Mian Wali’s ‘system’ to India to help us restore our degraded landscapes with Yemeni effectiveness? We don’t mean any offence to Yemen, but this just sounds ridiculous. Then why have we let another Indian businessman convince us that we need a Japanese system to grow our native forests? Perhaps because we’re historically amenable towards Japanese speed and efficiency. (Not sure why either of these has any bearing on ecology.) Perhaps it’s an indicator of how deeply divorced contemporary Indian culture is from nature. Perhaps, the modern Indian mind is denser than Miyawaki plantations themselves? What’s clear is that many government agencies, NGOs and hubris-filled youth (like our earlier selves) have latched onto it as an easy way to make money and plant trees without needing to understand the nuances of ecology and biodiversity at all – and cause lots of damage in the process! How are we going to stop this Miyawaki mania? By slowing down and actually forming a connection with plants, landscape and local communities, but nobody seems to have the time for this, for such are the times we live in.