Indian village banks on tree mortgages in bid to go carbon neutral

  • Kerala farmers face struggling business, droughts and floods
  • Village launches campaign to be carbon neutral by 2025
  • Local farmers paid to plant and maintain 350,000 trees

WAYANAD DISTRICT, India, February 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – PK Madhavan stood proudly next to a sturdy young mahogany tree, one of 100 he planted three years ago on his farm in Wayanad district , in the state of Kerala, in southern India.

Madhavan’s two acres (0.8 hectares) of land in the village of Meenangadi was once rich in cash crops – coffee, black pepper and betel nut – but two decades of drought and unusually heavy rains have decimated its yields.

Now planting mahogany is one of his only reliable sources of income, earning him up to 5,000 rupees ($67) a year – and all he has to do is keep the trees standing.

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The 84-year-old farmer is being paid to plant and protect trees through a ‘tree bank’ scheme, the project at the heart of Meenangadi’s campaign to become India’s first carbon-neutral village by 2025.

Madhavan got his saplings for free from the Meenangadi panchayat, or village council, which will lend him 50 rupees per tree for each year he doesn’t cut it down until 2031.

At that point, the loan is canceled and he can do whatever he wants with the trees, including cutting them down to sell them for wood.

“Every morning I spend some time tending to these trees. I’m really happy to say that except for three (who died naturally), all of them are growing steadily,” Madhavan told the Foundation. Thomson Reuters.

“Sooner or later, my land will become a small forest filled with endless greenery.”

Over the past decade, farmers in Kerala have faced a struggling business struggling with rising temperatures and erratic rains, while deforestation has caused land degradation, making their land more vulnerable to flooding. and landslides.

Wayanad district is suffering more than most, with Kerala’s state action plan on climate change naming it as one of four hotspots in the state.

Tree planting initiatives are taking root around the world as governments and corporations look for ways to cut global warming emissions and tackle pollution and land degradation – or just earn credits to offset their carbon emissions.

But many projects fail when they rely on locals with little time or money to care for newly planted trees.

The Meenangadi Tree Bank Project avoids this pitfall by giving farmers an ongoing incentive to protect trees, said C. Jayakumar, executive director of Thanal, a local environmental group that helps implement the carbon-neutral program. from the village.

“The message here is that climate change is about climate justice,” he said.

“Usually it takes a farmer one or two decades to get the financial benefits of planting a sapling for timber. With this project, the farmer gets money up front.”

MONEY GROWS ON TREES

When Meenangadi began its carbon reduction journey in 2016, an energy audit indicated that the village population of 33,450 was generating 15,000 tonnes of excess carbon every day.

To help bring that number down to zero within the next four years, the aim is to plant at least 350,000 trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, said KE Vinayan, chairman of the village council.

A farmer who joins receives saplings grown in the council nursery or donated by the Kerala Forest Department.

Ranging from trees for timber and fruit to bamboo, most are native species chosen for their ability to absorb large amounts of carbon and withstand wild climatic variations, as well as generating income for farmers once in maturity, Vinayan said.

Three years after planting, the farmer can mortgage the trees for a 10-year interest-free loan from the council which only has to be repaid if any of the trees are cut down.

If a tree dies due to disease, heavy rain or drought, the farmer continues to receive money, Vinayan added.

So far, 780 farmers have signed up for the program and the village has planted 172,000 saplings, including on vacant land and those distributed to farmers who support the net zero push but do not want to join the d bank project. trees.

It has already handed out Rs 350,000 in the first tranche of loans, with the second tranche coming soon, bolstered by a grant of Rs 100 million from the state of Kerala.

While an initial investigation is still ongoing, Vinayan said that to his knowledge, none of the trees have been felled.

But it is vital that farmers are allowed to use their trees as they wish at the end of their loan period, as “they are the true owners and custodians of the trees”, he noted.

“We don’t want to permanently infringe on their rights,” he said.

The council will regularly review the scheme with a view to extending the mortgage period or launching a new scheme to incentivize farmers to preserve their plantations, he added.

VILLAGE INSPIRATION

Even though most farmers joining the Meenangadi project decide to leave their trees standing, many conservationists warn that tree-planting campaigns are not enough to slow global warming.

G. Balagopal, an ecologist and committee member of the scientific organization Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, said he supported the tree-banking scheme, but had limits.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon – it cannot be mitigated by the massive planting of trees in a particular region,” he said.

The benefits of planting trees are negated if the carbon they extract from the air is replaced by greenhouse gases from cars, home heating and energy sources, he said. .

“The need of the hour is new (green) technology like solar power,” he added.

Meenangadi council members said they were looking for other ways to reduce carbon emissions, including switching to solar lighting and electric vehicles and using high-efficiency stoves.

And the climate ambitions of the village are spreading. The board of Sulthan Batheri Block, the subdivision of the district where Meenangadi is located, launched its own net zero program in January.

“Meenangadi’s carbon-neutral mission really inspired us,” said C. Assainar, chairman of the Sulthan Batheri Block Panchayat.

For Madhavan in Meenangadi, the village plan offers hope that he and his fellow farmers could help calm the wayward weather that has transformed Wayanad district from an agricultural champion into a crisis region.

“I hope the ongoing carbon neutral campaign will help us regain our past glory,” he said.

($1 = 75.1920 Indian rupees)

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Reporting by K. Rajendran, editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which spans the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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Christina A. Kroll