In 2015, India set an ambitious goal of creating a sink of as much as 3 billion tons of carbon by 2030. To do that, the country will need to increase tree cover by 10 million hectares and enhance forest stocks on a further 10 million hectares—about one-quarter the total area of California—which is a huge task.
While it might be all the more challenging to regenerate entire forest ecosystems on any available land by the deadline, there are other ways to increase tree cover. “We need to focus on trees outside forests in a big way,” says Sushil Saigal, Applied Lands Specialist at The Nature Conservancy India. “That’s where agroforestry and other models can play a big role.”
Saigal explains that wholesale deforestation for other uses is not as big of a problem in India as it is in some other countries. Rather, forest degradation is a larger issue, where an area remains as forest, but the health and density of the forest is compromised.
Almost 20 percent of India’s villages are in forests, and those who live there depend on their forest for timber, fuel, cattle grazing, fruits, and other forest products. With hundreds of millions of rural residents, this takes a toll on forests. Still, these natural forest products are better for the environment than many non-forest alternatives, like the use of coal for fuel. “We should actually be encouraging the use of wood, but with the caveat that the wood has to be sustainably grown,” says Saigal.
Local residents understand the value of forests and trees and see the effects of forest degradation. “A group of farmers who were affected by flooding and soil erosion approached us and asked ‘why don’t you plant trees for us?’” says Varghese Paul, Senior Forestry Advisor at USAID/India. “The demand came from the people.” But a program just planting trees and then leaving the area is not sustainable.
USAID’s Forest-PLUS program (2012-2017) instead developed a tree certificate program. Companies operating in India are required to have a corporate social responsibility program, which creates an opportunity for private sector contributions to forestry activities in that country. “Basically, the idea is to link anybody interested in planting trees with someone who can plant trees,” says Saigal. “We found some community groups who were interested in planting trees but they didn’t have the resources.”
The program partnered with a Mumbai-based organization called Grow Trees that used tree certificates to raise funds from the private sector to cover farmers’ costs for planting species of teak and bamboo indigenous to the region. The plantations are geo-tagged and corporate donors can see these on a satellite map through the company’s website, providing assurance against misappropriation and misuse of funds. A year after planting, the plantation sites are audited to verify the planting and then tree certificates are issued to the donors indicating the number of trees planted with their support.
The private sector paid for the seedlings, and the state government of Madhya Pradesh paid for the labor to prepare the soil and plant the trees. The local NGOs provided guidance to determine exactly where seedlings should go, and the farmers who had originally approached USAID provided the land.
These farmers are motivated to care for their new trees. “This plantation should help in restoring my land and would prevent further soil erosion near the banks,” says Sitaram, a smallholder farmer from Harda District, Madhya Pradesh.
Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of trees were planted through this program. Three years after the program ended, “Those trees have grown nicely, and they are still there,” says Saigal.
Christine Chumbler is a communications professional with more than 20 years experience in writing, editing, and publications design. She has expertise in every stage of publication production, from concept and writing to editing, design, and printing. In the mid-1990s, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. This experience led to a career using her writing and editorial skills with international development and foreign policy organizations, many of which worked to directly support USAID’s efforts. She has worked in a freelance capacity full-time since May 2016. Chumbler has a Master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.