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The man who plants trees: Shubhendu Sharma is reforesting the world, one patch at a time

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A forest planted by humans, then left to nature’s own devices, typically takes at least 100 years to mature. But what if we could make the process happen ten times faster? With his company Afforestt, eco-entrepreneur Shubhendu Sharma is creating mini-forest ecosystems using an accelerated method. It’s based on the practices of Japanese forester Akira Miyawaki, as well as on Sharma’s own experiences gleaned from his former career in car manufacturing. The TED Blog spoke to Sharma to learn how he’s developing ways to grow native, self-sustaining forests anywhere in the world, with the efficiency of industrial processes.

You started out as an industrial engineer at Toyota. How did you go from the car industry to forestry?

Back in 2008, I was at Toyota in India, helping prepare assembly lines and dispatch systems for car manufacture. One day, a scientist named Akira Miyawaki came to the factory to plant a forest on Toyota’s campus. He gave a presentation on his methods, and I became so fascinated that I decided I wanted to learn how to plant a forest myself.

Miyawaki is quite famous, and very old — I think he’s now 86. He has planted around 40 million trees all over the world. In 2006, he won the Blue Planet Prize — the equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the environmental field. His method is based on what’s called “potential natural vegetation” — a theory that if a piece of land is free from human intervention, a forest will naturally self-seed and take over that land within a period of around 600 to 1,000 years, with the species that would be native and robust, and that would require no maintenance. Miyawaki’s methodology amplifies that growth process to establish a mature, native forest in ten years — ten times the normal rate of forests planted by humans.

I volunteered with Miyawaki and studied his methodologies, and then planted a forest of 300 trees of 42 species in a 93-square-meter plot in my back garden. It was such a success that I decided to quit the car industry to start Afforestt — a for-profit company devoted to planting native forests for all kinds of clients, from farmers to corporations to city governments.

Sharma breaking ground in preparation to plant a new forest. Photo: Afforestt

Sharma breaking ground in preparation to plant a new forest. Photo: Afforestt

Mushrooms growing through rice paddy straw, a locally sourced amendment for soil. Photo: Afforestt

Mushrooms growing through rice paddy straw, a locally sourced amendment for soil. Photo: Afforestt

How does the method work, exactly?

It takes six steps. First, you start with soil. We identify what nutrition the soil lacks. Then we identify what species we should be growing in this soil, depending on climate. We then identify locally abundant biomass available in that region to give the soil whatever nourishment it needs. This is typically an agricultural or industrial byproduct — like chicken manure or press mud, a byproduct of sugar production — but it can be almost anything. We’ve made a rule that it must come from within 50 kilometers of the site, which means we have to be flexible. Once we’ve amended the soil to a depth of one meter, we plant saplings that are up to 80 cm high, packing them in very densely — three to five saplings per square meter. The forest itself must cover a 100-square-meter minimum area. This grows into a forest so dense that after eight months, sunlight can’t reach the ground. At this point, every drop of rain that falls is conserved, and every leaf that falls is converted into humus. The more the forest grows, the more it generates nutrients for itself, accelerating growth. This density also means that individual trees begin competing for sunlight — another reason these forests grow so fast.

The forest needs to be watered and weeded for the first two or three years, at which point it becomes self-sustaining. But after that, it’s best to disturb the forest as little as possible to allow its ecosystem — including animals — to become established.

Don’t you have to keep an eye on the forest in case of changing conditions? Rainfall patterns, for example, are different from what they were in the past, and that could affect native species.

That’s right. In Oman, for example, where I am doing a forestation project, the climate is changing rapidly. The country is getting more rainfall year after year, so biodiversity is actually increasing. We have gone from having to plant thorny, bushy species that can grow in any desert to choosing more deciduous species. This is why, for every species chosen, we do a thorough survey first. We go by real-time data, gathering information for our native species databases. So while a book on native trees may say that X, Y, Z species belongs to a particular geographic region, until we see that species grow full bloom and in good health in that region with our own eyes, we won’t select it as a forestation species.

Soil is amended to depths of up to 1 meter before saplings are planted. Photo: Afforestt

The soil is amended before saplings are planted. Photo: Afforestt

A freshly planted sapling. Photo: Afforestt

A freshly planted sapling. Photo: Afforestt

How do you decide what native species to plant?

To be honest, I don’t know much about native species! Based on my knowledge of car manufacturing models, I developed a computer program that registers tree species’ specific parameters — such as how high it grows, in what months it blooms, the kinds of temperatures it can tolerate, and so on. For example, if there is a species that grows up to 50 feet, this one next to it should grow only up to 20 because we don’t want a conflict after five years. In other words, we use car-assembly logic to pick an ideal combination of trees to best utilize vertical space. So it’s not me or any individual expert who decides what species to plant, at what ratios. The software figures it out.

That takes into account height and area — but what if, say, one kind of tree needs much more water than another. Or what if one kind of tree attracts a particular kind of bird that is too much of a predator for another tree’s insects?

For water, we have a pattern requirement of how much water is required per square meter. For example, in India, that’s five liters per square meter. But as for animals and pests, we cannot predict with 100% accuracy the behavior of forests after five or ten years because you can’t know what kind of bird species, predators or pests are going to attack in time. We want 100% survival, but the survival rate we have is around 92%. That 8% gap is what we work to bridge. We aim to take our methodologies to such perfection that no trees will die. But it’s still a natural process: we have to let the forest grow and see what can or can’t live in complete harmony with surrounding species. Those that die, we do not replace — that’s nature. It evolves by trial and error.

Can your forests be used to grow food and other useful products? 

The forest in my backyard has 42 species of trees, of which 18 are fruits. Our guava trees produce so much fruit that we harvest at least five kilos a day. All my neighbors are getting guava nectar that my mother makes because we have such an abundance,

At Afforestt, we grow four different types of forest. If I’m designing a forest for a corporate setting, the primary agenda will be aesthetics — a higher ratio of species with flowers, for instance. If I make a forest primarily for the sake of water conservation, the tree species should grow huge and have deep roots. In a public park, we’d choose species that grow small fruits to attract birds, appealing to park visitors. A forest on a farm would include more fruit species in the mix — up to half, including nuts, which offer high value as they can be preserved for a long time. Other useful trees for farming communities include those that produce oil seeds, fodder for cattle, firewood for humans. So the combination depends on space and the priorities of the client.

Have you ever planted a forest specifically for a farming community to produce an income? It sounds like an ideal solution for both food security and economic security.

I have planted two forests for organic farmers, but not specifically for the income. I don’t yet have enough data to compare conventional farming yields with that of forest farming. But the bigger problem is that, because a native forest has to be biodiverse to thrive — including a mix of at least 50 to 100 different species — if market demand encourages farmers to nurture only fruit species, they will ignore the non-useful species, and the forest would not survive.

An Afforest project transforms a barren piece of land into a lush, dense forest on a residential estate. Photo: Afforestt

An Afforest project transforms a barren piece of land into a lush, dense forest on a residential estate. Photo: Afforestt

A bird visits Sharma's experimental backyard forest. Photo: Afforestt

A bird visits Sharma’s experimental backyard forest. Photo: Afforestt

What tangible environmental benefits have you seen by using this afforestation method?

We haven’t done formal scientific surveys, but I can tell you that from personal observation in my own garden, I’ve seen an increase from seven bird species to 17 in two years. I think if I were to do the same survey now, I’d find 20 species. Our groundwater used to disappear every summer, but returned after the second year, too. In cities, green areas improve air quality, increase biodiversity and reduce the heat-island effect, which improves the microclimates of residential areas. Natural native forests are beneficial because they require no maintenance, in contrast to most urban landscaping, which is immensely resource-intensive, diminishing its ecological value. We also plant forests specifically to conserve groundwater tables.

I would love to partner with someone to conduct environmental studies and collect official data. It’s really expensive. There’s a specific scientific methodology to measure groundwater levels, for example.

What’s next?

So far, we have planted 43,000 trees for 33 clients. But actually, our plan is to automate the system so that we can give anyone anywhere in the world step-by-step instructions on how to plant a native forest. We plan to crowdsource knowledge of native tree species; I’m working on a website for this part of the project, and plan to launch it within a year. To make soil analysis easy for remote clients, we are also developing a small, GPS-enabled soil probe that will test soil and upload the data onto our server. When the probe is integrated with our database, at the push of a button you’ll know the soil constituents and what nutrients it needs, and we’ll be able to immediately send a complete species list and a detailed procedure. The hardware can be used to monitor the growth of this forest by reading how much sunlight is reaching the ground, changes in soil nutrition and moisture and so on. We hope to launch five forest plantations in different places using this method, to prove that by using our methodology and following it step-by-step, anyone can make their own forest.

What’s your vision for Afforestt? Do you think a single company can make forestation scalable to the point where we can, say, start turning around climate change?

Our vision is to bring back entire lost forests! Once we are able to share our afforestation methodology remotely, I believe we can increase scaling exponentially. That’s why we concentrate on consulting: we share our knowledge with our clients in a way that they can continue to make forests on their own. Afforestt is a vehicle for offering afforestation methodology to people, but it’s the people who implement it who will make forestation scalable.