A man digs up the earth for a Miyawaki plantation. Representative image. Photo: Anish nellickal/Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA 4.0
We take our doggie Marshall (aka, Masha) to a Miyawaki forest to play fetch. Masha’s a perennial tail-wagger: there’s rarely a moment she doesn’t whip her ‘backside’ left and right. We get to the Miyawaki ‘forest’ and throw Masha’s ball at it. It hits a spindly tree trunk and bounces right back, hitting Somil’s head. His spectacles fall off. Masha’s tail still wags, though she looks a bit confused. We now lob the ball into the thicket. It falls somewhere in the darkness with a dull thud. Masha darts into the grove but as soon as she enters, she stops and tries to turn. She becomes ensnared in the tangle, like a sausage held between two dandiya batons. She tries to reverse out but only gets further entangled. Her tail stops wagging, not because she wants to, but because there’s no tail-wagging room in there. She looks sad, which is a rare sight. Eventually, she manages to untangle herself and gets back to us. Her sad noises suggest we leave. We do.
We write this article primarily for all our four-legged tail-wagger friends. With so many Miyawaki ‘forests’ being planted everywhere, we’re concerned about diminishing tail-wagging room in the world. Humans – especially in this country, but in others too, now – have completely taken to this Miyawaki business. We were taken – seduced – by it too. We were enchanted by the promise of speed and big numbers: 30 times faster; 100x more; ecologically, it’s hardcore. Eventually, instead of doing plantations, we decided to start a nursery of native plants because we realised that no one in Delhi was growing them. Between 2018 and 2021, we worked closely with Delhi’s Miyawaki practitioners, supplying them with difficult-to-find native species and understanding their work processes. This experience only convinced us further about just how inappropriate Miyawaki plantations are for our context: the north-Indian plains, stretching west, and southwest from Delhi into Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab.
After our previous article about how Mr. Miyawaki broke our hearts, Miyawakians criticised us (no surprise) on Twitter and Facebook, and through WhatsApp voice notes. They railed, trolled and spewed venom from the sidelines, without engaging in longer-form dialogue. In fact, their conduct bore an uncanny resemblance to impassioned supporters of the current political dispensation, and laid bare for us similarities in their modus operandi and thought processes: both parties refuse to engage in public discourse when their methods and philosophies are questioned; both parties subscribe to contextually inappropriate theories for India; and both parties believe in subjecting free, biological entities to singular, conformist ideologies. Basically, when questioned, they behave like Goliath smirking downward at a million puny Davids. We suppose this kind of behaviour is permitted when you’re in power and the zeitgeist upholds your beliefs. (Oh, also, both parties have a deep affinity for bovine excreta and JCBs.)
Some Miyawakians told us off for being noobs and upstarts, recent toppers from the University of Youtubeshire. Let us just clarify that quite the opposite, we’re more like insider whistleblowers (although, we only blow a faint dog-whistle). During our native-plant nursery days, we worked closely with various Miyawaki practitioners, even its pioneers. We saw closely how the pioneers and their kin worked, and we count them as friends and acquaintances. Somil even worked with them briefly and surveyed forests in Punjab for them. What could be a better education in Miyawaki nitty-gritty?
Through the grapevine, we received another complaint: that we were criticising the primary patrons of our native-plant nursery. That we were hypocritical for making lots of moolah selling native plants to the very folks we were now writing against. There’s no doubt that it was mostly the Miyawakians who were interested in our rare, native species but we never made lots of money off them; we just about met costs and paid the part-time salary of one maali. We must confess: as our plants left the nursery, we felt guilty. We felt sad the way a breeder of local chicken varieties must feel when she’s forced to sell all her chooks to KFC – painstakingly grown rare breeds being thrown into the corporate blender to produce an inchoate mush. Later, said mush gets turned into a chicken nugget. In our case, our unique plants were turned into a dense botanical mishmash where none of the plants expressed their individual character. Miyawaki plantations don’t create biodiversity; they create a biodiversity hodgepodge. And just as we’ve done for actual biodiversity hotspots, we’d better map all these hodgepodges – to ensure we don’t, even by mistake, take any of our four-legged tail-wagging friends there.
Are Miyawaki plantations appropriate at scale in the Northwestern Indian plains?
Okay, now let’s get serious: what is the appropriate context for a Miyawaki plantation? Let’s begin with the broadscale. Can we ecologically restore large swathes of the dry Northwest Indian plains using the Miyawaki method? Absolutely not. This makes no sense since recent research about our region informs us that these areas constitute grassy biomes or Open Natural Ecosystems (ONEs). What is a grassy biome or grassland? Well, simply put, it’s an ecosystem with a continuous cover of grasses and seasonal wildflowers (herbs), and a discontinuous canopy of trees. Grasslands can range from completely open landscapes of shrubs, grasses and herbs with few trees, like in western Rajasthan, to denser, wooded meadows with lots of closely spaced-out trees in relatively moister regions like the Aravallis. These ‘wooded’ grasslands are called ‘mesic savannas’ and will resemble a ‘forest’ to the layperson. The Miyawaki formula leaves no room for grasses and herbs: neither constitutes a part of their planting ‘layers’. In fact, herbs are ‘weeded out’ as per the Miyawaki system’s maintenance protocol in the first 2-3 years after plantation.
During our native-plant nursery days, the Indian pioneers of Miyawaki forests even asked us to grow grasses for one of their Delhi plantations. They were planting in the Yamuna floodplain, which produces a ‘khadar’ ecology: a riparian ecosystem packed with tall grasses (like from the genus Saccharum) and a few specially adapted trees that like to keep their roots wet (like from the genus Tamarix). This time they even consulted with ecologists familiar with khadar ecology to make lists of appropriate plants. But the Miyawaki system of course has its own formulas and protocols. So they planted (mostly) appropriate species in a highly inappropriate fashion, dictated by the super dense planting formula. There it was, another stunning biodiversity hodgepodge: regionally native species overplanted by far too many plants per square metre. Oh, but this time we’d also supplied them with grasses which they planted as a neat border, a frilly hem for their botanical mishmash. This border was a weak token – lip service – to this great grassy ecosystem.
The Miyawakians claim to be replicating the PNV – Potential Natural Vegetation – of the local region but this is, by definition, not true in northwest India. Akira Miyawaki-san studied Japanese ecosystems – which are temperate, as in cold and moist; not hot and dry, like ours – and he came up with a planting formula that was apparently locally appropriate. He created this formula for Japan’s tree-dominant biomes, hence their plantation layers are: ‘canopy trees’, ‘trees’, ‘sub-trees’, and ‘woody shrubs’. There’s no room here for grasses, herbaceous plants and annual wildflowers. So, by definition, for our grass-dominant ecosystems, Miyawaki forests do not do what they claim: mimic the native vegetation. Further, in our nursery days we saw that due to the sheer paucity in supply of native shrubs, most Miyawakians conveniently shuffle around the smaller trees and shove them into the ‘shrub’ category. If you want to make a Miyawakian a bit nervous, just ask them, “What native shrubs did you plant, huh?” Most likely, they’ll mumble a list of small trees and get wobbly knees.
Miyawakians conveniently blank out on history of open landscapes in India
In north India, promoters of Miyawaki conveniently continue to view our open, grassland ecosystems as ‘degraded forests’ and ‘wastelands’. This view is inherited from the British colonial idea of our open landscapes. The colonial government began to call natural grasslands ‘wastelands’ because they couldn’t extract any revenue from them through agriculture, forestry or industry. Of course, these landscapes were valuable to pastoralists and local people, and to many grassland animals, but our colonisers didn’t benefit from this. Colonial forestry emphasised trees and timber over other uses of natural ecosystems. They began to view open ecosystems as ‘wastelands’ that had been degraded by the human actions of over-extraction and overgrazing. They blamed nomadic pastoralist communities for this – the very people who had maintained and lived with our grasslands for hundreds of years. And then they gave new scornful names to these areas, like ‘scrub’ and ‘thorn’ forests, or simply ‘forest blanks’: empty spaces that needed to be filled in by industry, agriculture and, of course, trees!
In 1865, grasslands were enclosed and reserved as “forests”, and grazing of livestock was made illegal. In Punjab and Haryana, meadows were replaced by irrigated agriculture and this was considered an ‘improvement’. Slowly, all over India, pastures were converted into timber plantations and industrial areas. Between 1880 and 2010, India lost about 20 million hectares of grassland but, unlike with forest loss, nobody has paid any attention. Post-independence, the situation has only worsened. Most grasslands in north and central India are still considered ‘wastelands’ and the government indiscriminately allocates these lands to industry or, now, green energy like solar- and wind-energy farms. It’s no surprise that three of our iconic grassland birds are on the brink of extinction: the Great Indian Bustard, the Lesser Florican, and the Jerdon’s Courser.
This is the context in which we need to view the Miyawaki system’s recent spread and flourishment. It banks on the erroneous view that all our open landscapes are by definition ‘degraded’ and need trees to ‘rescue’ them. And it’s bolstered by flows of international and domestic capital towards tree planting. After all, this is the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. For our sarkari types and Miyawakians, the actual complexity of ecological restoration can easily be glossed over by a one-size-fits-all formula with an eye-catching Japanese label. In fact, the Miyawaki formula is our pen-pushing, chai-swigging government officer’s dream: without lifting their backsides off their chairs, without really understanding the nuances of ecology, any official can now ‘create’ a ‘forest’, that too a self-proclaimed ‘biodiverse’ one. Desk-hugging NGO-wallahs, no less, have become overnight ‘forest creators’, creating one over-planted biodiversity hodgepodge after another.
This is India, my friends, the land where the British looked at our open grasslands and called them ‘forest blanks’. And then a shrewd Indian businessman brought in the Miyawaki system to fill in those blanks with trees where trees don’t belong, and forests where there should be grassland instead. It’s no surprise that various corporations, donors and government agencies have lapped up the Miyawaki system and made it their own. It fits well into the ‘wasteland view’ of open landscapes. Already, the ‘Miyawaki system’ features on UPSC entrance-exam prep websites. It’s become a part of government discourse because it provides an easy answer to the question of ‘forest blanks’. It removes the need to actually contend with recent research, or to work with grasses and grassland ecology. And it absolves authorities from engaging with pastoralists who use these landscapes productively. It’s no surprise that our prime minister himself recently declared that the Miyawaki system has great potential. This only leaves us with more fear for Masha and her tail-wagging future.
But…is the Miyawaki method appropriate for India’s ‘forest’ biomes?
To answer this question, let’s do some (Miyawaki-style) number crunching. Consider some of the most dense forest biomes in the country: the rainforests of the Western Ghats and the broadleaf forests in the Eastern Himalayas. We don’t have experience working in these biomes, but a little research tells us a story. The maximum recorded tree density in the Western Ghats is 900 individuals per hectare or 1 tree per 11 square metres. In the Eastern Himalayan Broadleaf forests, the maximum recorded tree density is up to 1670 individuals per hectare or 1 tree per 6 square metres. These maximums are not even the typical tree densities in these forests; they are examples of exceptionally high tree densities in a few scattered sites within a larger forest with lower average tree densities.
The Miyawaki system recommends 3-7 plants per square metre. All of these plants are not trees, mind you. This recommended range also includes woody shrubs. But all the Miyawaki plantations we’ve seen so far have at least 1 tree every square metre (or 10,000 individuals per hectare), if not more. This is over 5 times more dense than the most dense natural ecosystem in the country! And the Miyawaki ‘forests’ we have seen aren’t even in these dense forest biomes; they are planted in the ONEs (Open Natural Ecosystems) of Northwestern India, where tree densities are much, much lower.
Are Miyawaki forests appropriate in urban areas?
This is the bigger question that needs to be addressed. The Miyawaki notion of planting three to seven plants per square meter makes anyone with a bit of common sense dismiss it for broadscale restoration. But people ask: isn’t it relevant in cities? Often, people say, “Aren’t they a brilliant solution for urban areas that are cramped for space?”
Alright, let’s address this. Consider a hypothetical situation.
After a long, hard day of work in front of a laptop screen in his aluminium-panelled cubicle, Manoj decides to take a stroll in the new Miyawaki ‘forest’ abutting his burgeoning office complex. Planted a year ago, the ‘forest’ is touted as the biggest achievement of his company’s greening efforts. In good faith, he walks in. It’s dark and dank. A mosquito buzzes around his ears. Bare, scraggy tree trunks surround him. He wishes to get a view of the setting sun and longs for the warm, golden hues of the magic hour. But nowhere in this ‘forest’ can he find an opening. He is confined, strictly, to a narrow linear path, on which he can move only forwards or backwards. (He can’t even wag his tail!) The planting scheme is confusing: he has a canopy over him, yet the design ensures he’s not inside this ‘forest’, for the ‘forest’ is an unbreachable green thicket on both sides of the pathway. He begins to feel claustrophobic again. After a few minutes, with his spirits dampened further, he walks out, feeling even more spent than before.
To better understand the role of a Miyawaki forest in an urban area, we need to understand the functions that forests in urban areas fulfil. Let’s call them ‘city forests’. Do we need our city forests to be dense thickets in which humans and their tail-wagging friends can’t even enter? Surely not. Our city forests need to be recreational, designed in a way that they facilitate human-nature interaction and at the same time preserve local biodiversity (flora, fauna and funga). We need city forests that are open, welcoming, and aesthetically pleasing; where plants get to express their real character; where one can peer through a pair of binoculars and get clear views – unobstructed by masses of lanky trunks; where office-goers like Manoj have open vistas that allow for spectacular views of the setting sun; where the experience of being in a forest is not predetermined by the regimentation of fixed linear paths. Our city forests, dear friends, need not be biodiversity hodgepodges at all.
Further, Miyawaki promoters tout Miyawaki plantations as the answer to rising air pollution in cities. It is true that trees act as biological filters and remove particulate matter from the atmosphere significantly, but Miyawaki plantations have no additional advantage – no extra contribution – in reducing air pollution than what is achieved simply by planting trees in a well spaced-out manner in the same plot of land. In fact, planting trees along avenues, or in green belts, if done thoughtfully, can even produce gorgeous effects in a cityscape. For instance, every summer, Amrita Shergill Marg and Hailey Road in New Delhi turn a striking yellow when the amaltas trees burst into bloom. Avenues lined with pilkhan trees dazzle in gorgeous tints of reds, purples, and bronze in Spring, when pilkhan comes into new leaf. The biodiversity hodgepodges of the Miyawaki system do not create any such effects.
A few more questions to consider in the urban scenario: Why have we begun calling an over-planted thicket a ‘forest’? Why have we accepted the dictum ‘more is better’ in relation to biodiversity? Miyawaki forests claim to be biodiverse but this is like saying a zoo is biodiverse. If you take a shipping container and stuff it full of animals you are not creating biodiversity. Biodiversity results when each species has room to grow and develop relationships with other species. Miyawaki forests are botanical zoos: plants stuffed into small spaces to speed up their growth as they lunge upwards for sunlight due to the high density and over-fertilizing. These city, or rather these ‘khichdi’ forests, produce a formless green blob that’s been historically called a ‘hedgerow’ or ‘thicket’ in gardening. The funny thing is, these aren’t even good hedgerows or thickets, because in over-planting for biodiversity, Miyawaki plantations use species inappropriate for hedgerows as well.
It’s about time that we begin to re-imagine the greenscapes in our cities. But first, we need to rescue these spaces from the firm grip of chai-swigging horticulture officers who look after municipal parks on the one hand, and from green-washing NGOs that do incessant tree planting on the other. Second, we need to slow down and embrace the idea that ecology is deeply nuanced. Consider, for example, the city of Delhi. There are four ‘microhabitats’ within Delhi itself – four different landforms (khadar, bangar, kohi and dabar) that each bear different soil types and moisture regimes, and support different types of natural habitats that have their own different communities of plants. To create self-sustaining green scapes of excellent character and beauty that mimic these natural micro-habitats of Delhi, we need to study the city’s ecology, start nurseries of plants that grow in each of these different microhabitats and learn to garden with these native plants (including grasses!). Making generalized lists of all plants native to Delhi and shoving them together in heavily irrigated soils simply doesn’t make any sense, and doesn’t create either beauty or biodiversity.
So, if the Miyawaki ‘system’ isn’t appropriate on a large scale or in urban spaces, just where is it ‘appropriate’?
Surely, there must be some situations where the Miyawaki system fits the bill? After all, it’s a system pioneered by a botanist after many years of careful observation in a forested biome. Yes, worry not, in India, there do exist ‘appropriate’ contexts for Miyawaki, all listed together in no particular order, after some careful thought. Here they are:
- If you are an industrialist with bulging coffers of money, sitting upon acres of vacant land and wish to surround your factories with a ‘green facade’ to deflect attention from the pollutants your factory currently spews into the surrounding water systems – the Miyawaki system is the perfect ‘solution’ for you.
- If you’re Bharat Sarkar and looking for an easy – but erroneous – way to meet your Bonn Challenge pledges without actually doing any proper long-term ecological restoration.
- If you’re a green-washy NGO that’s received truckloads of CSR funding and needs to plant thousands of trees to meet your funders’ desired ‘impact’ targets, worry not, the Miyawaki ‘system’ will enable you to plant 12,000 woody species per acre.
- If you’re a landscape architect who wishes to plant native species but can’t bear to leave his air-conditioned office to do some real field excursions to understand local ecology.
- If you’re a municipal corporation and wish to be extremely lazy about doing proper and innovative planting designs for your parks and gardens.
- If you’re a forest department officer who wishes to show the sheer number of trees he planted in the local ‘wasteland’.
- If, out of your youthful hubris and desire to create superficial climate ‘impact’, you just love to create ‘pocket’, ‘city’ or ‘tiny’ forests — aka, ‘khichdi forests’.
- If you’re a self-styled tree guru, the kind who names himself after certain trees with religious connections, and recommends planting some trees over others because they supposedly provide more ‘oxygen’, or because they are mentioned in ‘sacred texts’.
- Suppose you’re in Punjab and want to circumvent the wholly difficult process of understanding the original ecology of a landscape that’s been completely utilised for industrial agriculture. To avoid this painstaking process, Miyawaki forests are your answer.
That’s enough. You get the picture. Most Miyawaki plantations in India fall into one of these ‘appropriate’ categories.
“This is a man–made forest.“ that’s how the pioneer of the Miyawaki system in India begins his now world-famous TED talk. Unwittingly, this comment divulges what the Miyawaki approach is at heart: an arrogant, heavy-handed – hyper-masculine – approach to bringing life back to a piece of land. It’s what happens when you try to restore nature with an engineer’s formula, a 56-inch chest and a JCB. It’s the easy-peasy, one-size-fits-all, scalable, productise-able “forest” that business folk and government officials have been waiting for. This is exactly why we need to be wary of it: because its practitioners – guided by big numbers and high speed – are so cocksure about something so cockeyed. Anyway, clearly Miyawaki is completely inappropriate in the grassy biomes of northwest India — Rajasthan; Delhi; Haryana; Punjab. But we also write this article as a clarion call to other ecologists from other biomes to write out and write back. Make clear to the public exactly why Miyawaki plantations make no sense in your ecologies, whether that’s in the Himalayas or the southern states. If nothing else, at least we’ll create a little more tail-wagging room for the future.