As the population grows and urbanization increases, more forested areas, especially those lying in close proximity to human habitation and private forests, are prone to reclamation and land development. As civilization encroaches more into natural forests and communities gain more access towards exploration and exploitation of natural resources, the incidences of forest fire, garbage dumping and human-animal conflict will only increase. Hopefully, parallel to these developments, there is an emerging trend of environment-consciousness that has been gaining momentum all-over the world initiated by responsible people to mitigate the negative impacts of development. There is a demand for eco-friendly alternatives like never before. Many non-profit organizations and eco-entrepreneurs are working to bring eco-friendly solutions in communities, to popularize sustainable innovations and to address regional environmental issues. In the wake of climate change and biodiversity loss, governments all over the world have started to integrate sustainability and conservation into their major policies and decisions.
India is signatory to many global treaties (mainly through the UN) regarding the carbon credits (climate change mitigation), wildlife traffic and international migratory routes, sustainable development, fair treatment of ethnic knowledge and protection of genetic diversity. The Indian Environment Ministry (MoEFCC) mandates environment impact assessment for major projects, compensatory afforestation and Corporate Social Responsibility(CSR) for industries and corporates. There are also many genuine private initiatives also for ecosystem restoration and increasing the tree cover. CSR is now a household term and CSR-driven plantation activities are very common in any region. However, the choice of the tree species selected for planting still remain the conventional fast-growing ornamental, fruit and timber trees, some of them even exotic, which don’t have any conservation value or even potentially invasive, like many Acacia sp., Cassia javanica, Cassiva siamea etc. There has been growing awareness about planting wild trees suitable for the region for forest conservation, but often there is unavailability of wild tree saplings, nor proper scientific information on the forest ecology of a region. Compensatory afforestation using exotic and horticultural species fails to support wild food chains, to restore wild tree populations as well as to perform similar ecosystem functions.
Present popular choices of trees for plantation projects
Some popular fast-growing native trees chosen for shade plantation are Neem, Mango, Tamarind, Jamun, Ficus religiosa, Mimusops elangi, Pongamia pinnata, Terminalia catapa, Alstonia scholaris, Polyalthia longifolia, Dalbergia sissoo, Myrobalans etc. Trees like cannon-ball tree (Couropita guianensis), Millingtonia hortensis, Neolamarckia cadamba, Clitoria fairchildiana, Cassia fistula, Silk cotton(Bombax ceiba), Spathodea campanulata, Thespesia populnea, Copper pod (Peltophorum pterocarpum), Albizzia lebbeck, Rain Tree (Samanea saman), Gulmohar (Delonix regia), Sterculia foetida, Michelia champaca etc., many of them exotic, are planted for their ornamental value. These are available in the majorityof nurseries for plantation purposes. But most of these are not forest trees. The true forest trees representing a region belong to a totally different league.
The fundamental problem
Different elevation and climatic zones support different forest types with typical tree assemblages. To put things into perspective, say, we cannot use the same wild tree species present at Kodaikanal for planting at Thandikudi or at Ottanchathiram or the coastal Tamil Nadu. If using randomly purchased trees from outstation nurseries, we still are upsetting the natural balance and are introducing trees non-native to that ecosystem, some of which could even become invasive! Many of these trees require more water and aftercare in drier areas than their wild counterparts, and offer less support to the birds and lepidoptera. The solution seems to be to eastablish native forest nurseries at different elevation, tailor-made to suit the afforestation needs of a region, based on scientific information and ethnic knowledge. In this manner, we could make sure that all the CSR-related mass plantation and similar restoration activities can avail the right kind of saplings suitable for the project location.
So, where shall we get genuine forest tree saplings for restoration?
MoEFCC has a social forestry scheme under which individuals can get free saplings for community afforestation projects through respective Forest Departments. Hoping to get some wild tree saplings, SEECO visited in 2018 the Puducherry Forest Nursery (run by Forest Department) for a school-based plantation project. The idea was to distribute among students the Tropical Dry Evergreen forest (TDEF) tree species endemic to the East Coast. The forest nursery had a good stock of those native trees of horticultural and medicinal value; but no ‘wild’ trees proper!! Then we came to know about the Auroville forest nurseries, and to our relief, they had what we wanted; we purchased a few trees from them according to our budget. The same issue happened in the Palani foothills. I required some wild trees for a personal project and couldn’t find the saplings in any nursery. I visited the nearby government and a private forest nursery, but could find only native horticultural tree species. If this is the state of things in a natural forest neighbourhood, what chances have other places got? That is when I started to think about this project. In 2020, a potential forest nursery in Kodaikanal came to halt when the owner died. At present there are no active private nurseries in Kodaikanal propagating wide variety of shola trees.
I’m very impressed by the history, landscape and the vision of the Skambha community, I find these elements perfectly converging to establish a forest nursery of conservation value. The way in which the Skambha community cares for the Earth and the living beings, the animals and trees, have been very moving. I have been touched by the extreme care and compassion showed by the Skambha community towards the recovery and return to home of the Brown Wood Owl, Woody. Also, the tolerance towards the wild animals straying into the property is impressive, which most other people perceive as a nuisance or threat.
Elevation and landscape
I find Skambha elevation and landscape ideal to grow a variety of trees belonging to forests found in different elevation of the western Ghats, whether of high elevation or the plains. Skambha has a variety of natural habitats that can accommodate species belonging to opposite type of habitats, like the shola forest or scrubland species of plants.
I find the resources and strengths of both parties mutually complementary for carrying out this project. I find that I have the vision and knowledge on local vegetation and trees; Skambha has the land, location and manpower, to start and sustain this project.
Beginning the Project – 20 March 2021
In collaboration with Aeon Trust, SEECO celebrated the auspicious day of Mahavishuva, 20 March 2021, by inaugurating at Skambha, a forest nursery. Skambha staff had already established the ideal protected place, safe from forestry animals and with gradations of the proper amount of light, and access to water. Plastic bags containing a mixture of compost and soil were prepared and a group of seeds from my collection were selected for the first trial.
- Alstonia Venenata
- Elaeocarpus Variabilis
- Elaeocarupus recurvatus
- Daphniphyllum neilghirrense
- Michelia nilagirica
- Schefflera racemosa
- Turpinia Cochonchinensis
- Viburnum cylindricum
- Toddalia asiatica
- Terminalia chebula
- Pterocarpus marsupium
Prepared by Lekshmi Raveendran
8 May, 2021
Lekshmi Raveendran is Founder and current President of SEECO – Society for Ecology, Environment and Community Outreach. She describes herself as an environmental science post-graduate, and a birder. She is an ecologist with working experience on butterflies of South India and forest vegetation and is employed by the Centre for Environment and Humanity at Kodaikanal International School.