A thick creeper with leaves the size of quarter-plates curls across the thicket, clinging firmly to the stakes meant to support saplings. “This shouldn’t be here,” frowns Meenakshi Ramesh, executive director of the NGO United Way Chennai, which has helped create this Miyawaki forest in Sholinganallur, in partnership with the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) and support from AGS Health, which provides revenue cycle management services to healthcare providers.
About 1,300 saplings of native trees, planted on 395.43 sq. m in April, have grown waist-high in the shade of a few older trees, a pocket of dense green amidst the chrome-and-glass high-rises that line Old Mahabalipuram Road. The creeper Ramesh is busy disentangling is an invasive-species interloper.
The Miyawaki method, which helps create forests in teeming cities relatively quickly and visibly, has gained popularity in Chennai since last year despite concerns that these forests may impact the growth of native trees, many with large canopies that may be stifled by the dense plantation this method involves. “We feel that this is not a suitable way of greening Chennai,” says a representative of Care Earth Trust, a city-based biodiversity research organisation.
The GCC, however, is gung-ho. According to a December 2020 article in The Hindu, the GCC hopes to develop Miyawaki urban forests across 1,000 locations. Residents are joining in. “A lot of industries are coming forward to do this sort of plantation,” says Krishna Kumar Suresh, founder-CEO, Thuvakkam, a city-based NGO that works on environmental, education and humanity issues. “People want green corridors.”
Pioneered by the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki in the 1970s, this method mandates planting saplings of indigenous trees and shrubs close together, ensuring dense, multilayered forests that grow much faster than those produced via traditional afforestation methods. According to Akira Miyawaki’s website, this method of reconstitution of “indigenous forests by indigenous trees” produces a rich, dense and efficient protective pioneer forest in 20-30 years. It adds that natural succession would need 300-500 years in the tropics.
Thuvakkam’s latest project, launched on 7 August, involves planting 6,250 saplings over 25,000 sq. ft on the stretch between the Indira Nagar and Kasturba Nagar MRTS, in association with HCL Foundation, GCC and Chennai Smart City. “These forests get a lot of corporates excited,” says Ramesh, who garners company support to develop them. It helps that the Miyawaki forests grow quickly. The impact is almost immediately visible, desirable for CSR, or corporate social responsibility, goals.
Near the Kotturpuram MRTS station on Canal Bank Road, at the first Miyawaki forest planted by the GCC, the crooning of an elusive koel is rudely interrupted by the honking of a passing autorickshaw. Inside the forest, surrounded by neem, jasmine, banana, guava and mango trees, it’s easy to forget that the city is a hair’s breadth away; the verdancy mitigates the hot, humid stillness of the approaching afternoon.
Alby John Varghese, now the collector of Tiruvallur district, is the man who catalysed Chennai’s Miyawaki adaptation. Varghese, who was the GCC’s regional deputy commissioner (south), says the Chennai corporation planted the first such forest in January 2020 to prevent the dumping of garbage. They hired a consultant and started the process: preparing the soil by adding perforators, water retainers and organic fertilisers, selecting only native species like Ficus or Saraca and planting them closely so that the individual plants would complement each other, ensuring maximum growth. “No one expected it to come up so well,” he says.
Happy with the outcome, the corporation began planting more such forests, working closely with NGOs, companies, volunteers and residents to plant and maintain these spaces.“What we are trying to do is create public spaces with the support of the community,” says Varghese.
Like most big cities, Chennai has been losing green cover steadily, with cyclones in 2016 and 2020 speeding up the pace of loss; nearly 100,000 trees are estimated to have been destroyed by Cyclone Vardah five years ago. Native trees proved more resilient, so the focus shifted to them. “They withstand our weather conditions better,” says Sreekumar Mayandi, founder of the Trust for Restoring Environment and Empowering Society (TREES), another city-based NGO that has been partnering with the GCC.
Proponents say these patches of green can help regulate climate, decrease pollution, increase oxygen content, absorb carbon dioxide and create new habitats for urban fauna. “These forests act as complete ecosystems,” notes Varghese.
Not everyone agrees, however, that this is the best way to go about greening the city. In an article published in The Wire Science, R.J. Ranjit Daniels and Anjana Vencatesan of Care Earth Trust point out that while a rapidly urbanising city has space constraints, this does not mean the only feasible form of afforestation is choking small spaces with a large number of trees and shrubs. They add that a few well-grown trees can also sequester carbon, perhaps more efficiently since they aren’t in a crowded, resource-constrained space.
There’s also a fear that Miyawaki cultivation could be used as an excuse to cut down older, naturally occurring trees for projects. Ramesh agrees that Miyawaki forests cannot be a substitute for fully-grown trees, each of which can sequester two-three tons of CO2 in their lifetime. Given the rapid loss of tree cover, however, she believes the Miyawaki method can complement the afforestation effort. “At least we will have some trees.”