September 28, 2017 10:00 am JST

Engineering forests in the heart of cities

Japanese botanist's techniques applied to restore lost tree cover

ANURADHA SHARMA, Contributing writer

Shubhendu Sharma founded Afforestt after being inspired by a speech by botanist Akira Miyawaki in Bangalore. (Photo by Anuradha Sharma)

BANGALORE Close by a diesel locomotive shed at Krishnarajapura in eastern Bangalore grows a dense forest of 2,000 trees.

Huddled together in just 600 sq. meters, the 10-month-old trees have an average height of 1.8 meters. This is no ordinary forest. The man-made urban jungle is the creation of Afforestt, a Bangalore-based startup social enterprise that uses techniques pioneered by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki to restore lost forest cover.

"Another year or so and the forest can be left to fend for itself," said Shubhendu Sharma, Afforestt's founder and director. "Once it is dense enough to prevent sunlight from reaching the ground, it will not even need watering. It is a self-sustaining, zero-maintenance, fully native forest."

Despite its image as India's garden city, Bangalore's green cover declined from 68% of its total urban area in 1973 to 23% in 2012, according to a study by the Indian Institute of Science and the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board.

"There should have been eight trees per person, and what we have now is one tree per seven persons," said Srinivasan P, a senior section engineer at the South Western Railway locomotive shed who looks after the greening.

"Unlike our other afforestation projects, which are spread over a big area, Afforestt's forest, being concentrated in a smaller area, is easier to maintain," Srinivasan said. "Given the progress it has already made in terms of growth, it does not seem we will have to wait very long to get a full-grown forest."

In collaboration with SayTrees, a local tree-planting group, the project is funded by Germany's Mercedes-Benz as part of its corporate social responsibility program.

Afforestt has created 98 Miyawaki-style forests in 34 cities in India, Pakistan, Kenya, the Netherlands, Iran, Singapore and the U.S., planting 357,690 trees. It is close to inking a deal for its 100th project. Like the Bangalore one, many were commissioned as part of corporate social responsibility programs. Clients have included Cisco, Polaris Industries, Samsonite International, Tata Chemicals and Larsen & Toubro.

ASSEMBLY LINE ECOLOGY Sharma, 32, was an industrial engineer at Toyota Kirloskar, Toyota Motor's local subsidiary, when he attended a lecture by Miyawaki in Bangalore. "Once I heard him, I was completely fascinated by his work," said Sharma. "In that half an hour, I made up my mind."

A 2006 recipient of the Blue Planet Prize, an award created by the Asahi Glass Foundation which recognizes environmental achievements, Miyawaki has restored indigenous forests in more than 600 locations in Japan and several hundred abroad. He has created native forests at many of Toyota's 26 factories worldwide and came to Bangalore to start a forest to mark the factory's 10th anniversary.

Sharma volunteered to join Miyawaki's team to learn techniques and gain experience. In June 2009, he helped Miyawaki set up a forest at Toyota's plant in Bidadi, about 30km southwest of Bangalore. He also created his own forest at his family home in the Himalayan resort town of Nainital with 224 trees of 42 species in a 75-sq.-meter plot.

Buoyed by his successes, Sharma launched Afforestt in early 2011, seeking to use the principles of assembly line organization to improve the environment.

"I applied these manufacturing principles to forests, replacing cars with trees, to develop an algorithm that registers specific parameters of trees -- their height, flowering times, kind of temperatures they can tolerate, etc.," he said. "The car-assembly logic helps us pick an ideal combination of trees to best utilize vertical space."

His methods are centered around two main rules: Plants must be indigenous and soil management must never be compromised. Only "climax species," or plants that have remained unchanged for 1,000 years, are planted.

"These forests can even grow in rocks," said Sharma. "We have created a verdant forest even in the barren soil of Rajasthan. All the soil needs is the right kind of treatment, and we have a detailed soil management plan in place for that."

The RIGHT MIX To plant in barren soil, Afforestt adds manure to enhance nutrition, fruit and seed shells to enable roots to penetrate more deeply, crushed sugarcane fiber to help roots to retain water, a slurry of cow dung and urine, cane sugar and the flour of pulses to enhance microbial activity and a thin mulch of grass and rice straw.

With the idea of 100% utilization of vertical space, the forests are multi-layered, with plants ranging from herbs to canopy trees planted according to the maximum height they can reach in their lifetimes.

Sharma said that Miyawaki forests are 30 times denser and grow to maturity 10 times faster than ordinary plantations because the close planting allows several stages of forest development to be skipped.

Once the trees have grown sufficiently to prevent sunlight from breaking through the crowns, the forest becomes self-sustaining because rainwater does not evaporate and is retained in the ground. The moist forest floor helps leaves to decay faster.

"Thirty times more photosynthesis means 30 times more oxygen," said Sharma. "The roots, too, run much deeper than they would in ordinary plantations, and form a complex network which holds the soil firmly together. So these forests work wonderfully as natural barriers against natural calamities like flooding and storms."

Afforestt says the forests can also play an important role in disaster prevention, citing a report by the Morino Project, a Japanese foundation headed by former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa. It concluded that the Amaterasu Mioya Shrine in the town of Otsuchi withstood Japan's March 2011 tsunami because of its thick surrounding woods.

Afforestt is now setting its goals higher with "forestscaping," a new end-to-end service aimed at making urban forests into recreation centers. This involves combining afforestation with landscaping and art, usually in the form of permanent outdoor installations. The company's pilot project in Lahore, Pakistan, was a 3,000-sq.-meter "wellness" park inside a residential area, with running tracks and seats in the forest.

Run by a 12-member team from offices in Bangalore and New Delhi, Afforestt is already casting its net wide through partnerships in Pakistan, Iran, Chile and the U.S.

The company also offers online training and conducts onsite workshops on growing backyard forests. Next year, it plans to set up a permanent forestation workshop at a 4.8-hectare site in Jaipur, Rajasthan State. Sharma said the company was financially sustainable, but declined to give details.

Professional forest management, said Sharma, is needed to restore and protect natural resources. "We cannot rely solely on volunteers to match the devastation caused on an industrial scale."

But Sharma's main motivation comes from being able to give people the experience of a dense forest without having to leave the city. "I believe people should love forests in order to protect them, not be driven by fear or greed," he said.

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