“When people heard that we were converting part of our newly acquired, productive, eight-acre property into forest, they called us crazy because, really, what economic sense did it make?” said Rajesh PC.

The plot is in Wayanad where coffee and tea plantations jostle for space with resorts and home stays – both responsible for heavy logging in the region. At first glance, Wayanad appears to be a place where time stands still. Far from the mindless deforestation plaguing the rest of the country, it seems a peaceful green refuge for weary city-dwellers to escape to.

For the first time ever, in November 2016, the state government declared all of Kerala drought-hit. A shortage of rainfall in Wayanad was once hard to imagine, but the region that once received 3,000 mm of rain prior to 2000 witnessed average rainfall of 1,503 mm in 2015.

“The constant hum of sawmills at work have replaced nature’s sounds in summer,” Meera Rajesh said, pointing out two striking signs of Wayanad’s changing landscape: the Kabini, a once mighty tributary of the Kaveri, that roared through the district, sustaining agriculture and people, flows today, but in a highly diminished state as the forests that feed her fall. Another is the spread of coconut plantations – emblematic of India’s coasts – into the high altitudes of Wayanad where forest loss is driving temperatures up, making them ideal conditions for growing palms.

Landscape destruction in Wayanad.

Kerala is among the country’s most richly forested states, with green cover above national average. Forest Department data also reveals an increase in forest cover in Kerala. But all this can be misleading: it’s a veneer of commercial plantations – monocultures of rubber, arecanut and teak – grown without care either for sustainable cropping patterns or suitability to the agro-ecological situation. Kerala’s story is only indicative of larger damage to the Western Ghats ecosystem where just 7% of the forest cover remains today.

Monocultures are a drain on soil fertility, and require augmentation with chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are known to be the prime threats to pollinators. Not only do they reduce floral diversity and eliminate the means of sustenance for several wild species, they almost never make up as sources of food.

In 2008, the plot the couple acquired had just 10 trees, largely silver oak, leaving most of it bare and exposed to the elements. “It was not uncommon to see rivers run red every monsoon as the persistent rain washed away all the topsoil,” reminisced Rajesh. In summer, the unrelenting sun cracked the earth, creating ripe conditions for invasive weeds like lantana to choke and further degrade the land. “To us, bringing biomass back to the soil by replenishing the tree cover was the first step in reviving the land,” he said.

Look beneath the green veneer of monoculture plantations.

To support the recovery of natural forests in the Western Ghats, Forest First Samithi was formed – a team of six individuals knowledgeable about the ecology of the Ghats and passionate about conservation. Under the leadership of Sheshadri Ramaswamy, a field biologist with several years of conservation experience in Peninsular India, the team set about combing the Ghats, scouting for seeds and saplings from nurseries and research institutes. The saplings were raised ex-situ in carefully controlled nursery settings until they were ready to be transplanted into the land using a mix of scientific methods and indigenous farming practices such as the ancient njattuvela.

The goal, Sheshadri explains, was not just to plant any trees but to turn the plot into a conservation site for native plants of the particular mountain ecosystem of Wayanad that are quickly disappearing from their natural habitats, many of them rare, endangered species, riverine and biologically important trees that support a wide variety of organisms.

Turning a plot of land into an ecosystem

Between 2009 and 2014, Forest First Samithi planted thousands of saplings spanning 100 indigenous species. They worked painstakingly, partnering with the local community to plant in the monsoon, water and sustain in the dry months. “To transform the terrain,” Rajesh said, “we first removed the lantana using natural methods such as planting leguminous species to provide soil biomass, banana as an intercrop, and vetiver for its soil holding capacity.” This provided the shade that kept the lantana in check and financially sustained the workers caring for the trees. To increase soil moisture, trenches were dug to slow down flowing rainwater and to allow it to percolate into the land instead. Economic viability was ensured by integrating farming – growing cash crops such as coffee on a part of the land.

Their efforts paid off. “Eight years after we started, the plot has so many trees that there’s no space for any more,” said Rajesh. As in a self-reliant natural forest where species differ in characteristics and behaviour, tall trees stand alongside shorter, slow growing individuals, creating layers of vegetation with varied climates from the canopy to the forest floor.

With the forest returned its creatures in all their diversity: huge frogs, birds, bees and snakes. But what excited the team most was an unlikely candidate whose presence they could scarcely imagine a few years ago. Leeches. “We screamed at the top of our lungs when we first saw them on the land because they’re an indicator of good, moisture-rich, forest soil,” he recalled. Upturn the leaf litter and you’ll find a network of roots branching wide. Though the impact of afforestation on groundwater cannot be gauged tangibly, an indication of improvement is the fact that they have not watered their banana plants once; not even in summer. Bringing 100 genetically diverse species together in one place can play a keystone ecological role in regenerating plant and animal communities, Sheshadri said. Birds and other pollinators feed on the fruits of the forest, and then disperse seeds, propagating the genetic material far and wide.

Sapling care in summer.

Over the hills and far away

After creating a few such biodiversity conservation plots in Wayanad under the scientific guidance of Dr Anil PC, FFS developed a framework that can be replicated in similar topologies across the Western Ghats such as Kodagu where native species are steadily losing out to encroachment, large scale development projects, and estates. In coffee country, native forests are important if you want a thriving bee population year round to pollinate your field, one of the critical roles the district’s once flourishing devarakaadu or sacred groves performed. In the Kaveri catchment, old growth forests have ensured a healthy river basin, fed the river’s headwaters by retaining water on the slopes and releasing them into the streams in the dry season, and provided effective flood control during the monsoons.

In Kodagu, FFS’ farm-grove model is implemented in partnership with local organisations such as the Kodagu Model Forest Trust and financed with the help of a crowdfunding campaign. The funds go towards creating biodiversity plots on degraded common lands belonging to schools, the Forest Department and places of worship - spaces that will neither disrupt current agricultural and land-management practices nor be ‘diverted’ for development in the future. Their work here goes beyond tree-planting; in this new socio-political context, the translation of their objectives is closely tied to the acceptance of their conservation philosophy and of the introduced species by the local community. Resistance and suspicion towards FFS’ interventions are not uncommon among locals. The key, therefore, is to put the sustenance of the new forests in their hands. Besides engaging with ecological service provision, the team also harnesses traditional knowledge and creates rural livelihoods in nursery care, planting, preparation of organic inputs, forest management and supervision.

Deforestation, eroded soils, the ubiquity of plantation agriculture, and development projects that threaten the ecology of the Western Ghats make the prospect of reviving native forests all but impossible. But, indigenous reforestation through biodiversity conservation plots offers a framework for community-led initiatives to address declining biodiversity. However, at a time when tree-planting as a means of natural resource revival is being put under the scanner, Sheshadri signals the importance of choosing the right species for the right ecosystem, making sure they are ecologically and culturally viable, “not planting trees to enter record books or planting any variety that catches your fancy. This could have the opposite effect than what you’re looking for,” he cautioned.

Images: Courtesy Forest First Samithi.

This article first appeared on Eartha.