The town of Meenangadi in Kerala’s Wayanad district is going back to nature in a big way. In the last seven months, this highly bio-diverse region in the Western Ghats has been witness to a plant population census, soil audit, energy audit, organic vegetable cultivation and awareness campaigns against plastic bags.
These are all part of efforts to make Meenangadi India’s first carbon-neutral panchayat – an ambitious project that was launched on June 5, World Environment Day, with the involvement of people’s representatives, scientists, students and farmers. The project has a target deadline of 2020.
Carbon neutrality refers to achieving net zero carbon emission by balancing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity with an equal amount of carbon sequestration or removal from the atmosphere.
The plan is to achieve this goal by expanding forest cover and reducing carbon emissions in Meenangadi. It is being implemented with the support of environment advocacy group Thanal, the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation’s Community Agrobiodiversity Centre, and Kannur University’s zoology department.
The activities kicked off in June with an assessment of carbon emission arising out of domestic consumption of electricity and fuels from all 9,000 houses in the panchayat and from vehicles. This was followed by a measurement of the carbon content of the soil and carbon emission from trees. The results will be utilised to decide which areas need more trees to be planted to offset the carbon emission.
As the project enters its seventh month, the panchayat has decided to tap solar power to reduce dependency on conventional energy sources, and to set up an LED lamp manufacturing unit to supply energy-efficient lights to all homes.
Vegetable farming has also received a big push with around 70 acres of land now being used for cultivation. “Meenangadi has become vegetable self-sufficient,” said Beena Vijayan, president of the panchayat.
Awareness campaigns against the use of plastic have encouraged people to carry eco-friendly bags for their vegetables, fish and other purchases. “A stroll into the panchayat fish market will reveal the impact of our campaign,” said Vijayan. “Vendors use eco-friendly carry bags and educate customers about the ill-effects of plastic bags.”
The participation of people on such a large scale has made the panchayat official confident about the success of the project. “We are moving in the right direction,” she said, adding that the panchayat plans to ban plastic across Meenangadi soon. “Merchants are the biggest users of plastic carry bags, so we will conduct a meeting with them on January 30, 2017 to decide on alternative measures,” she said. “I hope our panchayat can ban plastic bags by February.”
Wayanad is one of four climate change hotspot districts in Kerala, according to a report published by the State Action Plan on Climate Change. This report warns that the minimum surface temperature in the Western Ghats region may rise by 2 degrees Celsius to 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, which would retard paddy production and Wayanad’s staple thermo-sensitive crops such as cardamom, coffee, tea and black pepper.
In the aftermath of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Kerala witnessed many deliberations towards tiding over the crisis arising from climate change. And Meenangadi panchayat officials, alarmed by the already massive reduction in the area under paddy cultivation in their town, came forward with the carbon neutrality proposal.
According to the concept note for the project, prepared by Thanal, the panchayat plans to manage anthropogenic (man-made) carbon emissions through a series of environment-friendly methods and techniques for sustainable development. “The scheme in Meenangadi panchayat will be a model project in India, which is inclusive of interventions in every aspect of human life, guaranteeing income security and ensuring better living conditions for all,” the note stated.
“The ‘Carbon Neutral Meenangadi Grama Panchayat’ project envisions the reduction of human-induced carbon emission through people’s lifestyle and sustainable development in this region,” it added.
Explaining why Meenangadi panchayat and Wayanad district have the potential to become carbon neutral by 2020, Girigan Gopi, principal scientist at the Community Biodiversity Centre, said, “Wayanad has 33% forest cover and no major industries that cause pollution; if there is a district that can become carbon neutral in India, it is Wayanad.”
Talking about the benefits of going carbon neutral, he added, “The carbon neutrality project would promote agro forestry, it would give farmers a source of income while nature would get a green cover.”
Wayanad is a major exporter of pepper and coffee. And there is a huge demand for products that come from carbon neutrality zones. “Post-2020, Meenangadi farmers can market their products with a carbon-neutral tag,” Gopi said. “It will fetch farmers high price for their produce.”
He also pointed to the growing demand for shade coffee – coffee plants grown under a canopy of trees – in the international market. “Encouraging coffee farmers to grow shade-tolerant Arabica variety will help them get good price,” he added.
That said, farmers in Wayanad still have doubts about carbon neutrality, said panchayat official Beena Vijayan. “It should be answered if we want to make it a success,” she added.
Gopi also said the project should be done carefully as farmers view most changes with suspicion. “Wayanad has seen many protests against the recommendations of the Gadgil Commission,” he cautioned. “Farmers do not support projects that affect them badly.”
In 2011, the Gadgil ecology expert panel had recommended strict measures to protect the Western Ghats – a world heritage site – from human interference, leading to protests by farmers, who accused it of ignoring their livelihood concerns.
State Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac, who is a staunch supporter of the carbon neutrality project, suggested an interactive conference with farmers in which they could discuss practical difficulties with experts. “We will organise an interactive conference soon where the experts can answer all the doubts of farmers,” he said.