Fundamental forestry

Industrial engineer turned eco-entrepreneur Shubhendu Sharma tells TUNZA about growing thriving native forests anywhere in the world  – efficiently, rapidly and successfully.

Back in 2008, Akira Miyawaki came to the Toyota campus where I was working. A Blue Planet Prize winner – the environmental equivalent to a Nobel Prize – he’d developed a way of bringing a natural, native forest to maturity in just 10 years – a process that would normally take at least 100. I was so intrigued that I volunteered with Miyawaki and planted a forest of 300 trees using 42 species in a 93-square-metre plot, my own back yard, and then quit the car industry to start Afforestt – a company devoted to creating native forests.

I’ve been able to apply car-assembly logic and skills learned while working as an engineer to forestry. They have been essential, allowing us to develop a database of tree species with details, for example, of how high each species grows, in what months it blooms, the kinds of temperatures it can tolerate, and more. Using this, we can plan what trees should be planted in any particular plot, and in what ratios.

Here’s how it works: first we analyse the soil, then we identify what tree species will grow in that soil, depending on climate. After that, we identify locally available and abundant biomass to give the soil whatever nourishment it needs. It’s usually an agricultural or industrial byproduct – such as paddy straw or chicken manure – and we’ve made a rule that it must come from within 50 kilometres of the site.

Once we’ve nourished the soil to a depth of a metre with biomass, we plant saplings that are up to 80 centimetres high, packing them in very densely – three to five per square meter. The area covered can be anything larger than 100 square metres.

Within eight months, the trees will grow to be so dense that sunlight doesn’t reach the ground, every drop of water is conserved, and every leaf that falls is converted into humus – food for the forest. The more the forest grows, the more humus is generated, so growth is amplified. Density also means that trees compete to get sunlight and grow tall. That’s the main reason these forests grow so fast.

For the first two or three years, the forest needs watering and weeding. Thereafter it becomes self-sustaining and it’s best to disturb it as little as possible to allow its ecosystem to fully establish itself.

At Afforestt, we grow four different types of forest. In a corporate setting, the primary agenda will be aesthetic, with, for example, lots of flowering species. If a forest is wanted to primarily conserve water, we choose tree species that grow huge and have deep roots. In a public park, we’d choose species with small fruits to attract birds, appealing to visitors. On a farm we’d have a higher proportion of fruit species, say 50 per cent – including nuts, which can be preserved and offer high value. We’d also include species that provide oil seeds, fodder for cattle and firewood for people.

So far, we’ve planted 43,000 trees for 33 clients, mostly in India but also in Oman and France. For the future, we plan to automate our system so that we can give anyone, anywhere, step-by-step instructions on planting a native forest. We’re crowd-sourcing knowledge on native tree species using an online platform, and will add this information to our database.

To make soil analysis easy for remote clients, we are also developing a small, GPS-enabled soil probe to test soil and upload data to our server. With this, you’ll learn about your soil and what nutrients it needs at the press of a button, and we’ll be able to send you a complete species list and detailed instructions.

Tree-planting is never taken as seriously as, for example, a metro-train project – if a tree doesn’t survive, who cares. I want to change that: yes, tree planting should be fun, but at the same time, its success must be taken seriously. Afforestt offers a guarantee of success – a minimum of a metre of growth a year.

And be assured, the damage done to Earth is reparable: our forests can be brought back.

Learn more at www.afforestt.com

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