In the misty, mountainous terrain of Wayanad in the southern Indian state of Kerala, people with some access to land in the quiet town of Meenangadi have been counting trees.
Sheeja CG, a 46-year-old farmer, has lived among coffee, coconut and pepper plantations all her life, but last month she dramatically increased her income by mortgaging 53 of her trees at the local bank, in exchange for a sum of Rs 2,650. (£ 26.96), or Rs.50 each. She was one of the first beneficiaries of the state sponsored plan.
It’s a simple incentive with big returns: plant a tree, and after three years, residents can mortgage each sapling for an interest-free loan that can be renewed annually for 10 years. The money should be refunded only if the tree is felled.
Kerala, with its sprawling wooded landscape full of spices, has been affected in recent years by a weakened agricultural sector, deforestation that has led to the loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis that has made summers much warmer, especially at Wayanad, which used to be comfortably cool.
Farmer suicides, landslides and floods have made headlines. Farmers have been forced to cut down trees to supplement their income. In this context, the tree banking project, facilitated by a 10 million rupee (£ 1.01 million) grant from the state government, is a great incentive to keep them rooted in the ground.
“With temperatures almost five degrees higher than normal, I have faced a 25% crop loss. The loan of the tree bank scheme will relieve financial pressure. I will buy compost for my farm, ”says Sheeja.
Prolonged periods of drought and erratic rains have made the region increasingly vulnerable, with a reduction in rice farms and a threat to cash crops such as pepper and coffee. According to the Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change, Wayanad is one of the four major climate change hotspots in the state.
But the tree bank plan has the ambition to reverse the damage and turn Meenangadi, a city of about 35,000 people, into a carbon-neutral region. the Meenangadi Carbon Neutral Project It is the first of its kind in India and it has changed the way the community lives and works.
“An energy audit in 2018 found that Meenangadi had 15,000 tons of excess carbon. We are working on ways to reduce it to zero, ”says Meenangadi. panchayat president (of local government), Beena Vijayan. To balance carbon emissions, a meticulous action plan has been put in place.
“We have held more than 500 meetings with farmers in all corners on waste management, plastic recycling, lighting and solar panels, making organic coffee and using high-efficiency stoves,” says Vijayan.
Encouraging tree planting is a first step. “It is a model project for the entire Wayanad district. It took root three years ago, when we prepared a nursery with 33 types of young trees under the national rural employment guarantee scheme. We planted 300,000 saplings in 250 homes in Meenangadi and common areas, ”says Vijayan.
“With the trees now mature, we implemented the tree bank scheme and received around 200 applications that are being processed.”
It was Kerala’s finance minister, TM Thomas Isaac, who first proposed the idea, saying it would ensure a sustainable income for the district’s farmers and greatly improve the socio-economic environment.
“Wayanad has the lowest per capita income in the state of Kerala, so the goal is to double the income of farmers without over-industrializing the region,” says Jayakumar C, founder of Thanal, the environmental agency that is implementing the project. The trees also bring supplemental income to residents, through the sale of fruit and other products, he adds.
Among the bushes around her red-roofed hut is a cluster of jackfruit trees that Sheeja has mortgaged, with white tags dangling from their branches. Trees are controlled through an application.
“We go from farm to farm with a team of volunteers to inspect the trees that have matured, take pictures and map them in our monitoring system,” says Ajith Tomy, the project coordinator. “We will implement the project in another 23 panchayats in Wayanad by 2021. We plan to plant around 10 million trees in the next few years. “
For Sumathy Valiyakolli, the loan came at the right time, as expenses for her brother’s medical treatment are increasing. She says: “It has been very helpful. I will plant more trees and mortgage a greater number next year. “
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