“How a “tree mortgage” program could build a carbon-neutral Indian city

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Kerala villagers profit from a program that pays them to keep their trees in place, reducing the risk of deforestation.

People with access to land have been counting their trees in the quiet town of Meenangadi in the misty, hilly landscape of Wayanad, in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Sheeja CG, a 46-year-old farmer, spent her entire life surrounded by plantations of coffee, coconut and pepper, but last month she significantly increased her income by pledging to the local bank 53 of her trees in return for a total of 2,650 rupees (£26.96), or 50 rupees per crop.

She was one of the government-sponsored program’s first recipients.

It’s an easy incentive with a major payoff: plant a tree, and residents can pledge each sapling after three years for an interest-free loan that can be extended for 10 years annually. The money has to be returned only if the tree has been cut down.

In recent years, Kerala has struggled with ailing agriculture, deforestation that has led to the loss of biodiversity, and the climate crisis that makes summers much warmer, especially in the Wayanad region, which used to be pleasantly cool, with its sprawling, spicy forest landscape.

The suicides of farmers, landslides and floods have made headlines. To supplement their incomes, farmers are forced to cut down trees.

Against this backdrop, the tree-banking initiative, made possible by the state government’s 10 crore rupee (£1.01 million) grant, is a major incentive to keep them on the field.

I have seen a 25 percent crop loss with temperatures almost five degrees higher than average. The loan from the tree bank program would relieve the financial burden.

I’m going to buy fertilizer for my farm,” Sheeja says.

The area has been rendered increasingly vulnerable by prolonged dry spells and erratic rainfall, with paddy fields shrinking and cash crops such as pepper and coffee under pressure.

Wayanad is one of the top four climate change hotspots in the world, according to the Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change.

But the goal of the Tree Banking Program is to reverse the damage and make Meenangadi, a city of about 35,000 people, a carbon neutral zone. In India, the Carbon Neutral Meenangadi Project is the first of its kind and has changed the way the society lives and operates.

“An energy audit in 2018 revealed that Meenangadi has 15,000 tons of excess carbon. We are working to reduce this to zero,” says Beena Vijayan, chairman of the panchayatati of Meenangadi (local government). A meticulous action plan was set in motion to offset carbon emissions.

“We held more than 500 meetings with farmers in every corner on waste management, recycling plastics, solar lighting and panels, making eco-friendly coffee and using high-efficiency stoves,” Vijayan says.

A first step is promoting tree planting. “It’s a model project for the entire district of Wayanad.

It began three years ago when, under the National Rural Jobs Guarantee Scheme, we prepared a tree nursery with 33 types of seedlings. We planted 300,000 seedlings in 250 houses in Meenangadi and community areas, says Vijayan.

“Now that the trees have matured, we have introduced the tree-banking program and received about 200 applications, which are being processed.”
The idea was first put forward by Kerala Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac, who said it would ensure sustainable income for farmers in the district and greatly improve the socioeconomic climate.

“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,” said Jayakumar C., founder of Thanal, the project’s implementing environmental agency. The trees also offer the inhabitants extra money, he adds, through the selling of fruits and other items.

A group of jackfruit trees Sheeja has promised is in the thicket around their red cottage, with white signs hanging from their branches. Via an app, the trees are monitored.

“We go from farm to farm with a team of volunteers to assess the mature trees, photograph them and enter them into our monitoring system,” says project coordinator Ajith Tomy. “By 2021, we will implement the project in 23 more panchayats in Wayanad. We plan to plant about 10 million trees in the next few years.”
The credit comes at just the right time for Sumathy Valiyakolli, de de,

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