SANGEETH PARVATAM is the Program Manager at Forests By Heartfulness. BRENDA NETH interviews him about the development of the programs, and the conservation that is developing at the grassroots level as a result.
Q: What are some of the successes at Kanha Shanti Vanam that led to the creation of the Forests By Heartfulness (FBH) initiative? What are some of the lessons learned?
SP: Kanha Shanti Vanam has been transformed during the last 7 years as a result of several interventions backed by a combination of science and intuition guided by spiritual practice.
For example, one initiative is the ex-situ conservation of critically endangered species, like Syzygiumtravancoricum, with only 15 trees spotted in the wild. Most of the conservation of these rare and endangered species was done without erecting steel or concrete structures, by providing the right natural conditions using shade-giving plants, rain guns, and lots of loving care.
Another successful initiative was the translocation of hundreds of adult trees identified for felling during various road and housing developments in Hyderabad and other parts of the country. The survival rate has been astounding, given that tree translocation is fraught with many challenges.
But these initiatives are resource-intensive activities that can only be accomplished by committed teams, funding, and a lot of care.
I have personally learned the importance of involving the local community. Any project that is designed to benefit the community, can eventually become the community’s, with FBH acting as a conduit or facilitator.
Q: Does FBH use the principles of permaculture, which was one of the key reasons for your involvement in the first place?
SP: Yes, we have applied some of the core values of permaculture, like Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share, but our work also includes other aspects like species conservation, landscaping, creating meditative spaces, etc. I am a lover of permaculture principles for supporting ecosystems, food supply, and soil regeneration, but the main objective of FBH is conservation.
Q: You have shared a list of 231 species, the majority of which are trees that are currently being grown in 18 FBH nurseries across India. How do you determine which trees to grow in which nurseries, and where to plant them?
SP: Thanks to its latitudinal and longitudinal spread, India is one of the 12 mega-biodiversity countries in the world. The Indian subcontinent can be broadly classified into 8 distinct floristic zones: the Western Himalayas, the Eastern Himalayas, Assam, the Indus plain, the Gangetic plain, the Deccan, Malabar, and the Andamans. The species in these zones are not mutually exclusive, there are overlaps. When setting up the nurseries, species are carefully selected with the guidance of conservation experts from forestry, botany, and climate science, to match the zones of the nurseries, and efforts are taken to grow the saplings native to the zone.
Q: How is the land acquired for the plantation efforts? I understand there are three types of plantations. Will you tell us about them?
SP: FBH looks for public spaces for plantation efforts to benefit the local communities. These include educational institutions, village common lands, industrial zones for greening, temple lands, etc. Plantation is only done after written approvals are obtained from the landholding authorities. The land rights, the plantations, and the produce always belong to the communities, not to FBH. We only create spaces of conservation by planting trees and eventually handing them over to the communities.
The type of plantation depends on the end-goal of the project. Is it to provide fruit and medicinal plants for the local community? Is it to enhance biodiversity and wildlife? Is it to create a microclimate and raise the local water table? Is it to sequester carbon from the atmosphere? None of these goals are mutually exclusive, as you can imagine.
We primarily do block plantation, avenue plantation, and Hearty culture Dense Forest (HDF) creation. HDF is our proprietary methodology to create thriving mini forests within a short period of time. HDF is characterized by the choice of species selected, the placement of species based on their eventual canopy and height, and extensive use of activated biochar for soil remediation.
Q: What is biochar?
SP: Biochar is made by burning twigs, branches, leaves, paddy husk, crop residue, etc. in the absence of oxygen. The process is called pyrolysis. It can be done in small-scale boilers or by burning in mud pits. The resultant product is a dark pellet of super light material that can crumble in your hands. Pellets are activated by soaking them in fluids with high microbial content, such as nutrient-rich liquids, and the resultant product is activated biochar. This is then put in the holes before planting saplings. One unique feature of biochar is it surface area. Per unit weight, it has more surface area than any other substance on the planet. It can absorb, retain, and release nutrients to plants for several months.
We have experimented with biocharat Kanha Shanti Vanam and can vouch for its effectiveness. Now we use it in all our plantations.
Q: In 2019, FBH did a mass plantation of 64,000 saplings in 64 cities, each site receiving 1,000 saplings. How are the saplings doing now?
SP: The mass plantation in 2019 was a reality check for whether we could pull off a pan-India plantation drive and sustain it. It was a grand success and gave us the necessary confidence to create FBH as a pan-India initiative. The saplings are doing well, although survival rates vary according to location. Survival depends on several factors, including soil preparation prior to planting, health of the saplings, handling during plantation, administration of nutrients during and after plantation, and most importantly the first year of care and regular watering.
The costs are kept very low – to around $1.92 for a one-year-old sapling– when the sites have a good water source, fencing to keep out intruders, locally-sourced materials, and lots of local community support.
Q: Why are trees so important in halting climate change? Why should farmers be interested in having their “bunds” (dirt borders for farms) planted with trees?
SP: Planting trees is the cheapest and most sustainable way of combating climate change. The World Economic Forum has done a scientific study using satellite imaging, and determined that there is enough place on Earth to plant 1 trillion additional trees. They can sequester enough carbon dioxide to keep climate change under control.
Tree-based agriculture, known as agroforestry, is a potent solution, especially in countries like India with huge tracts of agricultural land. Trees on farm land provide an alternate source of income for the farmers and insure them against crop failures. They also prevent soil erosion, raise the water table, and improve soil quality.
Q: In FBH, you make a sankalpa, a prayerful intention, when planting a sapling. What is that experience like for you, and how do you feel it impacts the trees and the planters?
SP: Trees are vibratory beings with life in them, just like us. They respond to love, care, and benevolence. A prayerful intention at the time of delivering the sapling to Mother Earth goes a long way in its growth. Although I don’t live in Kanha, I visit there often, and I see phenomenal growth, even after a gap of two months. It can only be attributed to the elevated vibratory levels of Kanha, to which trees respond more than humans. This is not a matter of speculation but of observation.
Q: What are some of the challenges facing FBH as you move forward with your goals of 30 million saplings planted by 2025, involving 10,000 farmers and microentrepreneurs, and the preservation of 80 endangered medicinal plants?
SP: The challenges are many, but none that can’t be overcome. What works in one region may not work in others. Ready availability of saplings for plantation, suitable land with clear title, the support of local communities, and providing care during the initial months are just some challenges I can think of. This is where collaboration helps. Tree plantation is not an exact science and there are many things we can learn from others who travel this path. Collaborations allow us to play to our strengths and address the gaps in end-to-end project implementation.
Q: Do you foresee collaborations with other Heartfulness organizations outside of India?
SP: Yes, it’s only a matter of time before this will become a global movement spreading to all corners of the world. The barriers are disappearing, and technology is playing a big role. For example, a simple YouTube video on how to produce and use activated biochar for crop management can go viral, and the principle be applied everywhere.
Sangeeth is a Product Manager in the energy sector, exploring Nature Based Solutions to achieve zero carbon emissions, both for corporates and countries. He leads the Forests By Heartfulness initiative, helping with strategy, industry outreach, and collaboration with other NGOs.