Tree bank project in Kerala’s Wayanad First example of community effort reaping results

When the pandemic hit, there were fears in Meenangadi, in the Wayanad district of Kerala, that their pioneering ‘tree bank’ initiative would hit a roadblock. On the contrary, the project launched by the NGO Thanal and the Meenangadi panchayat in 2016 has gained even more momentum.

As part of its series on “The Promise of the Commons”, 101Reporters previously reported how Thanal came up with a model to assess Wayanad’s excess carbon dioxide production of 11,412 tonnes. Soon, as part of an initiative to make Meenangadi carbon neutral, the panchayat started a tree planting project in the area. In return, farmers would be encouraged not to cut down the trees.

Thanal executive director Jayakumar C told 101Reporters that although there were initial challenges when the lockdown started, local support quickly helped get the project back on track. With schools closed, children were at home – that meant there were more volunteers to help with their vision. Also, with transportation at a standstill, it became difficult for the Forest Department to deliver the saplings on time, but they quickly found a solution – a record number of saplings were purchased under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the country’s rural livelihood program that provides 100 days of work to rural households.

To calculate emissions, Thanal Executive Director Jayakumar C follows the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) model, which means he looks at cumulative emissions from the panchayat.

“We have seen more progress than expected, with local community ownership as well as planting campaigns, particularly through MGNREGA. We have planted about 4 lakh saplings, of which about 2.8 lakh is due to the efforts of MGNREGA; local residents have planted a lakh by themselves,” Jayakumar said.

The vision behind the project is to achieve carbon neutrality. While Thanal had decided to assess emissions in 2020, the deadline was pushed back to 2023 as the pandemic slowed the process. To calculate emissions, Thanal follows the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) model, which means it looks at cumulative emissions from the panchayat.

A sustainable waste management system in place and extensive coffee and paddy production plantations are other factors that have helped boost the project.
A sustainable waste management system in place and extensive coffee and paddy production plantations are other factors that have helped boost the project.

“Nearly 60 to 65% of the initial program has been completed. In terms of work progress, there has been tremendous progress since the beginning,” Jayakumar said.

Although exact figures are not available, travel restrictions have significantly reduced emissions in the panchayat over the past two years.

“In Meenangadi, one of the main contributors (of carbon emissions) is transport. So when transport stopped there was a huge reduction in emissions…Although we might have been carbon neutral if we had looked at emissions over the past few years, but with the easing of restrictions, we are not,” he added.

While the Meenangadi model can be considered a success in its attempt to control the climate crisis, its scalability remains a challenge, especially as we move away from rural communities. “In a rural area like Meenangadi, there is the advantage of introducing a nature-based solution model, but it is a whole different situation when considering solutions for urban areas with carbon emissions. higher. We have to look for more technical solutions when it comes to an urban environment,” stressed Jayakumar.

The vision behind the project is to achieve carbon neutrality.
The vision behind the project is to achieve carbon neutrality.

“When you go from a rural area to an urban area, your requirements are higher because urban settings have higher emissions. Say, for example, that in Meenangadi none of the 8,000 families has a car. But in Kochi, almost every household owns one or two cars. Also, Kochi would have no area available to plant 4 lakh of trees like Meenangadi!

Moreover, other difficulties lie in engaging influential businessmen in a conversation on the subject.

“There are not many shopping complexes in rural areas and the energy consumption is much lower. In Meenangadi, most people survive on more modest livelihoods and conversations are possible. Host families promoting tourism are ready to install solar water heaters on the roof, so that their guests get hot water from solar energy. However, the situation is complex in Kochi. When we contact a big retailer, we can’t even get the owner to meet us because he has already invested millions,” Jayakumar said.

“But the fact that the Meenangadi panchayat is extremely progressive has helped shape the model, and the community is politically aware is a big plus,” he added. Another benefit is the participation of women through the Kerala government self-help group in the region, Kudumbashree.

Meenangadi, in the Wayanad district of Kerala, is a pioneering 'tree bank' initiative.
Meenangadi in the Wayanad district of Kerala is a pioneering tree banking initiative.

A sustainable waste management system in place and extensive coffee and paddy production plantations are other factors that have helped boost the project.

“With Meenangadi chosen as the current model, it is possible for a local government to collaborate with other local governments. Then the Indian government will realize significant savings,” Jayakumar said.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles in Thanal’s way. Limited resources in the region are a major concern, but the panchayat has sought support from various quarters to fill the void.

“With limited resources in rural areas, the panchayat has also sought support through corporate social responsibility programs. There is also support from the National Institute of Rural Development of Kerala as well as volunteer programs. Thanal also works closely with the panchayat and supports it as much as he can. There is voluntary activism and community acceptance, which helps drive the initiative, including support from Kudumbashree. There is also the support of local traders, who have embraced the idea of ​​carbon neutrality,” Jayakumar said.

There are other bureaucratic and technical challenges when it comes to streamlining project finances.

“Even though the government has provided seed money to plant trees, the panchayat can only use the interest from the deposit made by the state. There are bureaucratic processes even though it is an approved project. It’s not that they’re deliberately delaying it, but there are real issues with the current rules and regulations. »

“There are also technical obstacles. The panchayat could not get revolving money. More administrative processes need to be up to date in terms of reforms. Financial flow is crucial,” he stressed.

The other major challenge that Thanal’s initiative initially faced was countering unfounded beliefs and negative campaigning.

“How do you educate people about something they don’t know? Look at rural India. They don’t know the legislative processes. How to tell them about the IPCC and the disasters that affect humanity? It’s a huge challenge.

“At the same time, there is also an opportunity because many coffee plantations had low productivity, so they were going through a crisis. When they experience such a crisis, it becomes easier to relate the problem to their experience. As at the beginning of the project, no one understood that they could not harvest two paddy crops a year due to climate change. Now they understand that there is a clear impact on climate change,” Jayakumar stressed.

However, one of the main thrusts of the project is that it was piloted by the state government with a grant for the tree bank project. This has resulted in the state closely monitoring the development of Meenangadi and learning from it to replicate the model in other parts of Kerala. When the project started, the state and the panchayat were led by the Left Democratic Front.

“In the last elections, the Congress-led coalition came to power in the panchayat. Fortunately, the state’s left-leaning government and the Congress-led panchayat have worked together quite well,” he noted.

Jayakumar is convinced of the long-term benefits of the Thanal project. To spark more change on the ground, Thanal has now launched a climate literacy program, where more than 50 social media posters will be shared at the panchayat.

(The author is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of local reporters.)

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