August 2020 by Suma
Sustainability is one of the most frequently used buzzwords today. Everyone, from heads of state to ecommerce players, seem to want to hop onto the sustainability bandwagon. As it often happens, when the word gets thrown around more frequently, the meaning gets diluted.
What do I mean by sustainability?
How sustainable a business is, quite literally translates to how long it can continue in the current form when you factor in all costs. “All” being the key word. Ideally it should encompass ecological, financial and social costs. In fact, over a long enough horizon they are all interlinked. This is becoming evident today.
The things we assumed to be zero-cost inputs are becoming increasingly scarce, thus, completely compromising the business model and challenging its viability. Once these are factored in, it becomes increasingly clear that sustainability is not a tradeoff or a compromise. In fact, it makes a lot of business sense as it not only has a positive impact on the world, but also on the topline. Here’s how.
How long will the party last?
In October last year, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) cut off power supply for 8,00,000 Californian homes to avoid causing wildfires by overheated transmission lines. Two weeks later it did it again for 1,79,000 homes. Between 2017 and 2019, these overheated lines sparked 17 major wildlife incidents. As their stock price slid into a 52 week low, they went on to announce that they would need ten years until they upgraded their power infrastructure.
Why did they have to wait this long? Because ten years ago, wildfires were not that big a risk.
Keeping shareholders happy meant not investing potential dividend-dollars, into a supposedly unnecessary upgrade. You see, ten years ago, upgrading this infrastructure was regarded as dividend dollars being used up for tree hugging initiatives. When you adopt the perspective of immediate shareholder value, money is rarely invested into long term thinking or in other words sustainable thinking. Dividends are front loaded and investment into business sustainability are put on the back burner until absolutely necessary. When it does become absolutely necessary, money has already been distributed or spent and most firms resort to raising debt. This is so unnecessary! This is not a one off case. This is happening across the world, every day to a varying extent. The situation is so prevalent now, that quite a few institutional investors are urging firms to take a look at long term risks to their businesses and even investing a few years of bottomline towards avoiding it. It makes a lot of sense to avoid a sudden death.
Since 2011, PG&E has given close to 8$ as dividend per share. In april 2019, they announced a $28B plan to invest into their power and gas infrastructure. In the meanwhile, by oct 2019, over 90% of its market capital was eroded due to falling stock price pushing it to the brink of bankruptcy.
Cost of Commons – Nothing is free forever.
In 1833, William LLoyd wrote a pamphlet where he coined the term “commons”. He was referring to an english village grazing their cattle. When there is enough abundance, and the cattle numbers are small, the grassland, or the common, seems to be infinite. So every villager can now assume that the grassland ecosystem will rejuvenate on its own with no extra effort or cost. As a result, every villager is intrinsically ‘incentivised’ to add another cow to his herd simply because he gets the incremental benefit of the cow without really bearing the incremental cost of the grassland. If every villager continues to do this, at some point, the grassland starts degrading or in other words, the cost of the grassland stops being zero. It takes effort to maintain it and as a result, the villagers now need to account for the effort/cost of ‘cultivating’ the grassland – the cost of the commons. However, the rest of the village, which was used to buying the milk, may not be willing to pay for this added cost that seems to have emerged all of a sudden. Thus completely disrupting the viability of cattle rearing.
This is one of the most important aspects of being sustainable – include the cost of the commons. Never assume they are free. This, not only is a better way of pricing something, but also helps us to look at our value addition in a holistic sense. The implications of not doing so are catastrophic and are visible all over the world. The same extends to farming. Excessive use of synthetic fertilisers has rendered farm yields to consistently drop with the US reporting an average farm yield of -9% in 2016. Suddenly one of mankind’s most basic industries has been rendered unviable and steeply dependent on state subsidies. This analogy has repeated itself over and over again across the spectrum. Take fishing, for example, and the depleting offshore fish pools across europe. In fact, now most of the fish in a European plate is caught in Africa, filletted and canned in China and then shipped all the way to Europe. It is cheaper to do that now than to revive the fish populations artificially via breeding locally. Imagine that!!
Today, 20 Indian cities are on the brink of day zero (day when there’s no drinkable groundwater left) and might see it anytime in the coming year. This includes Bangalore, the silicon valley of India. 5 decades of exploitative unsustainable development that assumed that water is always available underground has led to this. Now the Karnataka govt has spent close to 7Billion USD on major and minor irrigation projects since 2016 alone.
William Lloyd’s grassland was never free, we just assumed it was.
When the going gets tough, the sustainable get going
An interesting offshoot of the increasing cost of commons is that companies that had factored this in have actually performed better over the last two decades. In a report on sustainable investing published by Deutsche bank in 2012, some remarkable observations were made that underlined the importance of being sustainable. The report elaborated how companies that ranked high in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics outperformed the market. Infact, they even observed that a value weighted portfolio of 1$ invested in high ESG companies in 1993, would have been 22$ by 2010 compared to 15$ of low ESG companies.
I was extremely surprised by the clarity of the findings in that study. As investment philosophies have evolved over time, more and more institutional players are now giving a lot of weightage to companies that place importance on ESG – factors that were traditionally considered non-financial, qualitative in nature and not readily quantifiable in monetary terms including changing policy and regulatory environments.
What’s even more interesting is that quite a few studies have observed that high ESG firms have a significantly lower cost of capital in terms of debt. In other words, the market recognizes them as being lower risk and rewards them accordingly. This may be a conscious reward or just based on the resulting outperformance, but what matters most is that this alone should make sustainability a high priority to any CFO in the world.
Goodness has a value
If a firm is following principles of ESG, then it makes a terrific story. The interesting thing is that it’s not just the markets that recognize this, but consumers too. There are innumerable examples of brands that have weaved their story around the environmental and ethical values behind their products. Take Patagonia for example. In 2013, in the run up to Christmas, when Europe and the US were at their consumerist best, the adventure gear company famously did the “don’t buy this jacket” campaign where they asked people to not buy their gear unless they really needed it. This was the first time a firm was asking folks to think hard if they really need their products. Although it sounded very counter-intuitive at the time, it established the values behind the brand and more importantly a strong community of super loyal customers who really appreciated the anti-consumerism sentiment they portrayed. This cohort of loyalists swear by this brand and this in turn created a lot of value centred around the “goodness” of it.
The concept of conscience buys is becoming increasingly prominent as consumers around the world are getting more educated about sustainability issues that are staring us all in the face. Being sustainable is not just a differentiator anymore but an entire identity by itself. Goodness has a value and most consumers don’t mind paying it.
The difficulty of being good
Having said that goodness has a value, I have to admit, it is not always easy to quantify it. Simply because we honestly do not know the complex systems that go into making an ecosystem in its entirety. Even amongst the factors we understand, we are quite far from actually arriving at a monetary value. For eg, shade grown coffee using fig and other evergreen trees in the western ghats is definitely a lot more sustainable than using silver oak as the shade layer. The figs hold the soil together, prevent erosion thus preventing landslides etc. But can we assign a value to a possible landslide? Maybe not accurately. But today, reasonable assumptions can be made and sensible approximations arrived at. Using this, one can include the cost of the commons in one’s business model itself.
Several frameworks exist today, to value the natural capital as an estimate. inVEST from Stanford university is one of the more popular ones. Infact, this has been used by the Government of India to assign a monetary value to the tiger reserves in the country. However, even these frameworks are estimates at best. It is almost impossible to assign a single value to being good and that’s what makes it difficult. Infact a recent study revealed that from among a 1000 companies that were sampled, 90% wanted to be more sustainable, 60% of them had a strategy for it, and only 25% were able to incorporate it into their business model to a reasonable extent. In my opinion, It is this difficulty that makes it interesting as well. It gives companies a chance to get really innovative both in terms of developing new technologies as well as new methodologies of measuring their impact. This is a great opportunity to create a differentiator for your products and be a pioneer.
I just work better when I am happy
Recruiting and retention of employees is a major focus area in any business. Recent research indicates that sustainable business practices are a major factor for the younger workforce when it comes to deciding their place of work. Beyond the paycheque and the work challenges, everyone likes to believe that they are making the world a better place. A recent global survey by HP showed that 40% of the workforce felt that sustainable practices are mandatory and about 46% admitted that they would look to change jobs if their current workforce moved towards unsustainable practices. For India in particular, the former number was at 73%.
Employee retention is not just an issue for the HR department. Operating units feel the pain in terms of product quality, productivity and customer service. With most big companies, it costs 6 to 9 months of pay to train a new employee. HR costs are only the tip of the iceberg. Bigger problems arise when the new guy is assigned to a team. Until the assignment happens, someone in the existing team would be shouldering those responsibilities. When the new hire comes in, someone has to train him, thus reducing his own productivity. Especially in sales, the effect is very direct on the topline. Nevermind the strain of a new dynamic coming into a closely knit team. These are very qualitative concerns that may not boil down to an exact monetary value, but will definitely have a huge impact on the firm’s topline. If it can be avoided, and being sustainable takes you a fair distance on that front, do we need another reason to adopt sustainability as a core principle?
Swimming downstream is never exhausting
At the end of the day, being sustainable largely implies aligning the firm along the natural order of things. In other words, the firm is choosing to swim along the current. It often boils down to reducing wastages, getting more efficient, eliminating redundancies and avoiding unnecessary vanity pitfalls. In the long term, we need to understand that being sustainable goes way beyond adding a touch of green to our usual practices but rather to think of the system as a finite whole and to understand our impact. In the process, we also acknowledge that this impact will have an effect on the viability of the business itself over a long enough horizon. As studies have repeatedly shown, it is not a question of whether a firm wants to adopt sustainable practices or not, but rather the understanding that, by definition, it’s in the best interest of the firm and all its stakeholders to do so.
A number of people who have interacted with us via different platforms have communicated a sense of disconnect with the natural world. This is a craving of a very deep nature, something that’s a lot more fundamental than wanting to go to that favourite restaurant on a weekend. Typically, the most common way that people choose to address this is by buying a small farm on the outskirts with the dream of making it a sanctuary that fills that gap.
Weekends, however, are not enough to make a farm work. Moreover, it’s a little expensive for a small farm to afford a caretaker, a water source, and the repeated maintenance issues that keep coming up. Some folks have made it work, usually by focussing on the farm more than anything else, but for most, life and work takes over and the farm goes into a limbo. The first few years of enthusiasm gives way to neglect and a pressure to sell the farm and ‘realise’ its valuation. End of the day, for most, the need to connect with nature is not fulfilled. We have seen this happen umpteen times, to us, to friends, colleagues and the like. Collectives are a way to address this problem and here is why.
Initially, collectives were just a way for us to be able to afford a larger piece of a farm. This was important to make sustainable farming stand a chance. Moreover simple maths suggested that the risk was split between many individuals and hence lesser chance of the economics being a burden over time. As we started working on our first collective, what became clear is the exponential benefits that started to pile up and we soon began to appreciate what a powerful idea this was.
One of the big reasons for a single farm owner to abandon the farm is the hole it blows in the pocket. A caretaker, a water source, fencing, irrigation, accommodation for the staff, transportation of small amounts of produce, it easily adds up to a few lakhs a year for a 3-5 acre farm. At that scale, there’s really no hope of breaking even whatsoever. With a larger farm, of say 100 acres, you are good with 3 to 4 sources of water, a single caretaker and you begin to see how economies of scale begin to take shape. More importantly, each 5 acre piece is not competing for resources, for eg, come monsoon, all 5 acre pieces are not focussed on growing rice. You grow a bit of rice and many other things on your 100 acres instead. This collective planning allows you to diversify the farm, and most importantly, have buffers of undisturbed forest systems that replenish the soil while the rest of the farm is at work. A sense of continuity and holistic outlook begins to emerge over the farm at that scale as you now have the land bandwidth to really experiment. Having said this, to really take advantage of the collective system, the landscape has to behave as if it is a single farm and not a collection of small farms. For eg, when you are deciding on where to create veggie beds or where to put the houses, we are not looking at it as setting of the veggie bed on every farm of the individual stakeholders but looking at it at a landscape level. So if it happens that only 3 of the individual pieces have veggie beds, so be it. The entire collective virtually owns those beds and not just the 3 specific stakeholders. This approach really helps us achieve the full benefits of a collective system.
Plenty of water management features like swales, check dams, lakes, bunds, etc are possible at that scale whereas the best you can do on a 5 acre piece is really a small pond and a well. Scales allow you to plan better. For eg, you might choose to grow paddy and other grains on only those parts of the farm that allow for irrigation from the lake. While in the rest of the farm, you might choose to really focus on perennials. The thought process itself is vastly different. We get the scale, but why collective? Simply because, it’s expensive to build all these features as a single farmer. For eg, at our collectives, the earthworks alone would cost around 2-4L per acre. On a 100 acre scale, this is easily 2-4 crores being spent on just earth works. Would a single farmer ever have this kind of an infrastructure budget? When you split this between say 50 members of a collective, we are really talking about 4 lakhs per member. This is suddenly a far more affordable number when you think of long term infrastructure.
As we have seen in our earlier articles “why take soil seriously” about how soil and forest systems are game changers when it comes to sustainable farming. Riparian zones are key to ensuring great soil. These are zones that lie along natural drainage systems on the land – the streams, the ponds, the nullahs etc. Water is life and hence life tends to thrive in an around these water bodies even in seasons when they seem to have none of it. This is our repository of thriving ecosystems. A large scale allows us to dedicate the riparian zones as undisturbed ecosystems, where life can thrive and incubate the soil regeneration process. On a small farm, even if it is sitting next to a nullah, giving up a 20m distance from the nullah as a riparian zone would mean half the farm being left undisturbed. A lone farmer may not be able to do that.
We are frequently amazed at the suggestions that come from the member community on all aspects of the farm – product ideas, cultivation ideas, marketing ideas, etc. Honestly, quite a few of the initiatives we have taken are things we did not even conceptualise, like the idea of a restaurant at coorg that serves only once a week, dishes that are made completely from foraged produce, or making limited edition wines from grapes and other fruits that grow wild in the collective. With these many minds, genuinely interested in seeing the farm sustain itself, it is easy to see how more doors open up. Now, this was not something we had imagined when we started but now are fairly convinced that this is the biggest value add of a collective, something that cannot be replaced.
Some folks who call us, extremely enthusiastic about the collective concept, express disappointment that they dont get their own individual piece with a house in it. However we look at it in a different view. You are getting a 100 acre farm and all its benefits at a fraction of the price. What’s more you have beforest helping you in the process!
All life depends on the rivers. They are our single largest source of fresh water here in India and no wonder we worship them. However the fate of the rivers is quite appalling when we really look into it. The number of dams that have been constructed on each major river system is astounding. Take the Godavari for example – 350 major and minor dams constructed in a basin that spans 1450km. Thats a dam every 5 km!! How is this sustainable? What happens to all the life when a river changes from flowing water to a standing reservoir? Can we look at the river and think beyond just water? Can we look at it as a functioning system with many many parts – one of which is the flowing water?
On a recent trip to warangal, I remember being surprised at the number of lakes that i came across. Along the road i was on, there was a lake in almost every village i passed. I remember thinking about the old design of the Kakatiyas – the chain of lakes flowing into a river. The idea of distributed storage was pretty powerful. The needs of a place would differ every 10-15 km. One village might need water for the rice fields, while another might need a lot lesser for their orchards. Another village closer to the city might need water for commercial reasons – say a factory or a rice mill. The beauty of this design was that a village could choose what to do with the water it was receiving without having to negotiate water utilisation with another village. It was up to the village, to administer, maintain and distribute the tank and its resources amongst themselves as they saw fit. It is not something unique to the erstwhile Kakatiya kingdom, although the design is named after them. Even Bangalore has a series of linked tanks that were once water sources for the city. What has changed now? How did something that had worked for a thousand years before become obsolete and irrelevant?
I don’t think there is a simplistic single answer for that but what really happened with the British starting major irrigation projects is that it began to sound easier and most importantly placed the power of the decision in a central body. This appealed to the powers that be and slowly over the years the focus of water supply shifted to major projects. The most recent one on the Godavari – the Kaleshwaram Project has been in the news. It is an engineering marvel expected to irrigate an astounding 18L acres across 13 districts in the Telangana state, built at a cost of Rs.80,000 crores. Indeed it is the largest lift irrigation project in the world and surely a feather in the state government’s cap. A first look deeper into the project and its evolution over the past years presents a different picture though. Not because it is not as great it is made to sound but it definitely forces me to think if this was the only way to cater to the drought hit areas of Telangana?
The story started ages ago in 1975, with the Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal awarding what was then Andhra Pradesh, a share of 160TMC of the water from the Godavari Basin. For this originally a barrage was proposed at Tummidihatti village to divert this share for A.P. Ideally, its great if all the intended water supply can be gravity fed. It is the easiest way of distributing water. So the location was chosen and a Full Reservoir Level (FRL) of 152m was arrived at for the required 160TMC. Since this was significantly upstream, a 152m tall dam at Tummidihatti meant thousands of acres of submerged land on Maharashtra to irrigate A.P. This was the fly in the ointment. To avoid this submergence, a lower height of 148m was proposed. However at that height, the divertable water available was only 44TMC as opposed to the 160 TMC awarded! Remember that this water availability study happened in 2015 (almost 40 years after the award). The state of Telangana had just been created. Naturally the euphoria ran high and there was a need for the ruling government, the first government of the state, to prove its mettle that it could deliver the water that was ‘due’ to the state, a right that was long denied and almost single handedly led to the creation of a separate state. So an ingenious plan was devised to move the barrage/dam almost 150km downstream to Kaleshwaram on the main stream of the Godavari river system. The problem was not the move, but the districts that would be upstream to this dam. Hence was conceived the largest LIFT IRRIGATION project in the world!
Through a series of Seven Link Systems and Three dams, the plan is to not only irrigate, 18L acres of unirrigated land, but also pump water back up into existing tributaries of the Godavari to stabilise upstream reservoirs with water from downstream!!! Beat that. So on one hand, the water is pumped up in the reverse direction along tunnels to fill up water tanks and distribution reservoirs in several districts (remember that this is the exact reversal of the Kakatiya system) and on the other hand, through another link, pump water back up and drop it into two tributaries of the Godavari – the Haldi and the Manjeera. Essentially, this translates to taking lots of water lifting it all the way back into the upstream tributaries so that the tributaries now have increased flow thus irrigating the upstream districts as well. Crudely put, this is equivalent to reversing the flow of a portion of the river using a giant pump. No wonder it costed Rs.80K crores.
Let me pull back to our original question. Is there another way? Why not revert or fall back to the good old Kakatiya mechanism? Well, for one, that would not have worked straight away. Remember in our other posts, we have discussed how the carbon content across the deccan plateau has degraded from 3% to 0.3%. This means, soil in general is just not capable of holding water anymore. So these tanks and lakes are not depressions on a giant sponge that holds water and oozes it out into the lakes and streams but more like a bowl of steel that fills up when it rains and just evaporates or floods over and the water eventually just runs off. So can we not then revive the quality of the soil? The defence that the project irrigates drought prone districts in the state ignores the fact that most districts become drought prone from a rice perspective. They are just not able to grow three seasons of rice. The 30 year average precipitations have been roughly the same in India. There is no mandal in Telangana with less than 600 mm of annual rainfall. So can we then improve the soil quality, so that the soil stores water and the lakes fill up and then we use the water in the lake? When the lake overflows, it flows into the stream which drains into the river. What would it cost? Well in our collective in Hyderabad we are working on landscapes that see a little over 600mm of rain and we can safely say that in about 5 years, the soil carbon content can be raised following some natural principles by a few percentage points. So in a decade, we can revive the magic number of 3%. In four decades (the time it took for the tribunal award to translate to water availability), these 18L acres would have been dense forests. It costs us roughly around 2.5-3L per acre in our collectives to do this. Even if we ignore the economies of scale, when you extend that as a few thousand distributed village level projects of state-mandated eco system rejuvenation, we are looking at around 45k crores to rejuvenate the said 18L acres – saplings, checkdams, lake maintenance, swales etc etc included. That is almost half the cost and whats more? We would have kickstarted a permanent loop of restoration. So the system gets better and better and better with each year.
The idea here is to not belittle this giant feat of engineering or to play a left liberal critic of everything the government does but to show that simple distributed measures done at scale, and governments have the power to do them at scale, can be as powerful as these marvellous dams. Infact, for a long time it seemed that the state government of Telangana was following this as well with the harita haram project, a sapling planting drive that fizzled out. So this is not new, in fact it can even go hand in hand with the big dams and take the heat off the major irrigation projects by a distributed capture of water.
Long long ago, the Qutub Shahi kings set up the city of hyderabad on the banks of a stream (then a perennial river), the Musi. In 1920, the city had grown to an extent where the water had to be dammed and thus was born Gandipet Lake – the Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar. They fed the city for a very long time. Soon, the city outgrew these reservoirs and we looked further away to a bigger river, a tributary of the Godavari, the Manjeera. By 1998, most of the city was being fed from a new dam on this river. By 2005, the city had outgrown the Manjeera and we looked further away towards bigger rivers – the Krishna and the Godavari. A decade later, we are lifting water from downstream Godavari as the supplies upstream are not enough. I wonder what we are planning to do once we outgrow the Godavari? Would we venture further north into the central highlands or would we atleast then look back towards another marvellous feat of engineering – the chain of lakes.!!
The thinking cap is on.
How many of you spent the last few months missing holidays?
Why do think you miss holidays when you are at home, when school is off and you have your Mummas and Papas around all the time too.
I know why – because holidays are more fun when you get to go out! Go to the zoo, to a mountain, to a camp, for a hike or to a resort – just anywhere outdoor!
Well, till you can head out again, why don’t we do something fun at home! Our activity last week was to make a journal or drawing of what you know about the forest. Did you get around to it? Tell me about it – did you write about seeing birds, fishes, trees, grass or many stars at night? Or have you written down a fairy tale that has a gigantic tree, little nests and secret pathways of the forest?
I really want to know your stories and ideas, so write to me soon! Anyway, Let’s get our club going!
Last week, we learnt about roots. This week, let’s move up the tree and take a look at the trunk of a tree. If you could look inside, here’s what you would see:
Just like your skin, a tree trunk has many layers. The layers are called Pith, Heartwood, Sap wood, Inner bark and Outer bark.
Are you wondering who drew these beautiful rings inside the tree trunk? – Nature did!! And these rings tell the story of the life of the tree, just like a book. The rings can tell you where the tree was born, how old it is, how well it grew and lots of other things!
Do you want to know how?
Take a closer look at the picture. Do you see the rings are not all the same size? They are dark and light and thin and wide. Why aren’t they all the same size? Why are there rings at all, why isn’t it all plain??
When a plant grows to a tree, its trunk also grows in age. As it grows up, the bark becomes harder and tree becomes stronger. Every year, when the tree grows, the trunk keeps on adding layers, as if it were wearing one shirt on top of another. This layer that forms during growth is light in colour. Then, the season changes and the tree stops growing for a few months. A darker layer forms around the tree now. When the season changes again, a light layered bark again grows around the tree. This way, each year a ring is formed. So each rings equals one year of the tree’s age!
Here’s what it looks like:
Tree growth rings can tell us more. When you look at a tree trunk, you would see rings of different shapes and some different colors.
In fact as a little beforestor, if you were called to investigate a tree, here are some things, you can tell right away!
If you see light coloured rings that are as wide as each other – it means the tree got a lot of sunshine, water and nutrition to grow for those years.
If you see light coloured rings that are narrow or thin – this would mean, the tree had a tough time. It didn’t get all that it needed – maybe, it got less sunshine, or there was a drought, less rains, or maybe insects ate too many of the leaves and there wasn’t enough food made for the tree!
If you see light coloured rings that seem wide or thick on side but narrow on the other – this could mean that in that year, something was pushing the tree to one side. The tree must have been slightly to that side. This could be because other tree were covering the sunshine, or something was pushing the tree as it grew bigger.
If you see a dark mark – This is very interesting – as soon as you see it, you know the tree got wounded by a fire. The tree must have seen a fire, got burnt a little, but then it got better and grew new layers over the scar. After that it stayed strong and continued to grow.
There are so many things you can tell about the tree with just a glance! Wasn’t that amazing!!
Even Scientists use tree rings to understand past of a place. Don’t worry, they don’t have to cut the tree for this. Without hurting the tree much, they can pull out a sample as thin as a straw.
Now, that we have spent so much time learning about tree trunks, do you want to have a little fun? look at these pictures – see if you can recognise the tree by looking at its trunk. These are all common trees of India
How many did you get right!
Here are the answers…
Wasn’t that fun!
Well, that’s it for this time..I will be waiting to hear from you, do write in..
Trees are majestic beings. You have to look at them closely, spend time with your fingers touching the rough bark, looking up at the leaves high in the sky to really understand what a fantastic creature you are looking at. You read about giants and warriors and protectors in fairy tales. Well, trees are the giant-warrior-protectors of our world.
They stand quietly watching over the earth, making sure you have air to breathe, water to drink and a soft spot under their shade to lie down on, when you really need the rest. Forests give a safe home to animals as big as lions and as small as furry rabbits. They are home to plants, little creepy crawly insects, giant birds and their little babies.
If you could take one day off and spend it on something – make it a day you spend in the middle of a forest. What you would learn sitting down on the ground looking up – looking around, would fill you with wonder, it would teach you about the world, nature and life – much more than you can ever learn watching shows on tv sitting comfortably on a sofa.
Only when you feel clear cool water running over your fingers and toes, the gust of wind ruffling your little pony tail, the smell of nothing but fresh air and tree leaves – only then, will you understand why grown ups keep fussing over camping and treks and trips to a forest.
Getting to know a forest is like getting to know a great great old grandma…she is filled with stories of ancient earth. There is a story unravelling every minute around you – under a rock there would be a family of insects and worms hurrying home with a little food they found. High on the tree branches, there is a papa building a cozy nest because the mumma is to have babies soon. He has to make sure the nest is safe from bigger birds and snakes. The babies will stay here untill they can learn to fly.
When it starts to rain, little animals scurry under bushes and into burrows to keep themselves warm. Who knows, maybe this is when they sit around it is story-time for little ones..
The rain drops fall hard, but the trees of a forest protect everything like a big huge umbrella. They allow drops to only softly trickle down over the ground. The soil soaks the water up like a thirsty sponge and lets it come up through a spring. Small springs let out water slowly now, but the flow is naughty. It rushes out, looking for others. Somehow they all catch up and become a mighty river and waterfall over the big boulders.
There is so much magic and action happening in a forest – even in one single tree that it could fill you with stories for a lifetime.
I hope you take up the very next chance you get to visit a forest. Don’t fuss about the little ants that went up your feet, or the mosquitoes that keep buzzing in your ear. Get past all these and soak in the forest’s beauty. Take in every sound, every buzz, every little touch and look around – really look at everything around you. A forest is a giant straight from your fairy tales. Who knows, if you slowed down and looked – maybe you will actually see the magic happening..
I know you are locked up at home for days now. But this is not going to last very long. Soon you will be able to start going out to play. Maybe soon after that, you will get to take small holidays just outside the city. Make sure you plan at least one holiday to a forest.
Now, just because we are in lockdown, doesn’t mean you can’t plan for that. How about we start a club – call it little beforestor. You can be part of the club if you promise, you will learn wherever there is, to learn about trees, plants and the entire forest. You don’t have to learn it all in a day. You can learn a little each day as you grow up. One of you might even become a forest explorers and teach others about the great giants of the earth!
Here we go..make sure you let us know your thoughts – what you would like to learn too
Trees and forests fascinate me. I feel safe and loved among them. I and my friends at Beforest will do our best to share all the knowledge we have about trees, forests, soil, water and the earth.
I am starting off with the basics. Let’s get to know a single tree.
Just like you and me, trees have different parts and there is a lot happening inside and around them. Here are the parts of a tree.
I will start with the roots, they are very interesting and very important to the tree too!
The roots of a tree grow a little on the surface and a lot under the soil, sometimes they go down deep as 20 feet into the earth! A tree doesn’t have just one root. Each tree has its own family of roots – the Main root, lateral roots and root hair or tertiary roots.
Here are the top 3 things root do for the tree:
Roots are the feet of the tree
Roots growing on the ground and under, are like feet for the tree. While your feet help you walk, jump or run, the roots of a tree help it stay in one place. Roots can be so strong that Roots help the tree stand up even when they are fully grown big and tall. They go deep into the soil and make sure the tree doesn’t go flying even when there is a strong breeze! Isn’t that great!
Roots are like straws for the tree
Just like you, trees need food and water to grow big and strong. While you drink water from a glass or a bottle, what do you think trees do when they get thirsty?
They use their roots!
Roots and its root family act like big giant straws for trees. They go deep and wide into the soil looking for water and nutrition (minerals). The root hair absorbs water and minerals through a process called osmosis. Once water is absorbed, it moves up towards the leaves, through the trunk of the tree. This water is used by trees to cook their food. We will get to that in just a bit.
Roots help the tree talk to its family, friends and neighbors
Trees are living beings. Just like you, they like to stay in touch with their surroundings. Like grown ups use messages, calls and chats to know what’s going on around them, trees constantly talk to their family, friends and neighbors too.
But when trees can’t move or talk, how do they communicate with each other? They use their roots!
In a forest, trees share all their wisdom, food and supplies to the younger ones around them. They do this, through a vast network that runs under the soil and across the forest with help from their friends – fungi. There is a special name given to this friendship – mycorrhizae. The pronunciation is a bit tricky – Mykoraizaee.
How does this work?
Fungus friends of a tree start growing and living on the roots. They grow their own branches called hyphae. This hyphae grows and reaches out to hyphae coming from fungus friends of other trees and plants. All this takes many years. It happens quietly under the soil. You won’t even know and it’s happening right now! There is a special name for the network of fungi roots too. It is called mycelium.
Eventually, all the trees,plants and fungi are connected to each other. It’s like a big huge family of grown ups and kids holding each other’s hands. Signals, food, water, nutrients and carbon are quietly sent from one member of the family to the others..all under the ground.
The oldest trees in a forest are generally the tallest or the widest ones. They are called hub trees. You can think of them as mumma trees. They are connected to most numbers of plants and trees around.
Tree roots not only take care of the tree, they also take care of the soil they grow in. Do you know how?
Roots grow deep and wide into the soil. As they grow, they break up hard soil and make way for air and water to get into the soil. Well aerated soil is great for trees and plants and little creatures of the forest. They hold the soil under them so that when there is heavy rain or wind, the top layer is not washed away or blown away. The top layer of soil is the most fertile. It has a lot of nutrients that are great plant food. In return, some tree roots add nitrogen to the soil, making it richer. This is a process called Nitrogen fixation.
When roots go down deep, they make way for water to seep into the soil deeper too.
I hope you are as fascinated as me and look closer at plants and trees around you
I am leaving you now with an activity.
1) I want you to think about any movie, any story, any trip that you made to a forest. Remember the little details that you can.
2) Make a new journal.
3) Right down or draw what you remember of the forest. There may have been some seeds the trees dropped, a secret path that went winding down to the river side, or maybe you saw leaves of the color or shape that you would not see in the city around you.
4) Share it with me
Let’s learn what we can – from each other and plan the next thing we want to do in our club!
Please ask any grown ups in your family to send us a picture of your drawings or journals. We would LOVE to hear from you. I would love to read your stories or see your pictures. We can share each other’s experiences till we can get out and make more wonderful discoveries!
“Now have i praised the forest queen, aranyani,
Sweet scented, redolent of balm,
The mother of all sylvian things,
Who tills not, but has stores of food”
RigVeda, Book 10, Hymn 146
We have a long shared history with forests and the riches they hold. Well before our first written texts, forests were such an essential part of our folklore that there was a goddess of forests as well created by shiva and parvati themselves. Forests in our country have long been places of spiritual quests, mythical creatures and magical beings. They have inspired our traditions, our folklore, our mythology. But far beyond the stories and spirituality, forests influence our daily well being and our very lives depend on their health.
We have always appreciated the commodities that a forest provides – firewood, timber, minerals, medicines, etc but as our understanding of forests and tree systems deepens, we are beginning to realise the underlying and invisible services they provide. Forests for eg, are the best known carbon sequestering mechanism we know, far more effective and scalable than any machine known to man. Forest soils are also excellent large scale wastewater management systems, continuously filtering runoff and replenishing the underground water systems. The vast interconnected root networks (we had spoken about them previously HERE ) hold the soil together and prevent landslides and soil erosion. Take the landslides across the western ghats during the cloudburst of 2019. They were primarily caused by loose soil that resulted from years and years unregulated deforestation and construction in the hills. Forest systems lower temperatures as much as 5 degrees celsius and also regulate the weather patterns. Not just that, remember that monsoons actually last only 2-3 months in India. It is the forest soils that hold the water and release it gradually through millions of springs and many little creeks to form giant perennial river systems. We wrote more about this HERE.
As millennia passed, our appetite for the assets and commodities that a forest produces increased consistently. Along with our need for more cultivable land, and larger cities, world over, we are today left with just under 46% of forests that we had at the start of the millennium. 65% of perennial streams in the country are not perennial anymore. Huge river systems like the Krishna and Cauvery have not touched the sea in over a decade. In spite of all these visible signs, we are continuously losing 7.6 million hectares of forest every year. It is clearer now than ever that our very survival depends on the river systems, and their survival in turn depends on the forests that feed them. Let us take note of this interdependence and give Aranyaani, the forest goddess, the place she deserves.
I think I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree
Forests have nurtured and nourished mankind for billions of years. It is always a good idea to introduce young minds to the wonders of this quiet force of nature. We are starting the series with the very basics. Who knows, maybe while teaching the kids, we will pick up a thing or two!
LITTLE BEFORESTOR – Starting with the basics
When you think of a forest, what comes to mind? Lots of trees growing together in one place.
But, the fact is – a forest is made of a million different things. It’s made of trees and plants of different size and shapes. It could have rocks, hills, grasslands, rivers, waterfalls and caves. Forests are home to many different kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and insects.
But by far – Trees are the real heroes of every forest
Forests are magical
There are millions of living beings in a single forest. Some are huge animals like gorillas, giraffes and Elephants. Some smaller creatures like spiders, insects and birds. Some are tiny microorganisms that you won’t even notice. And they are all very important.There is as much activity above the soil in a forest as there is under the soil. Forests also have hundreds and thousands of plants – some small, some medium sized and some large, like trees. They all live in harmony together – like a big family.
Trees protect the forest from harsh sun, their leaves fall and cover the ground, making it all soft and cool. These leaves and old plants also turn into manure or food for other plants. Big animals eat smaller ones, small ones eat insects or plants. Other animals and birds eat fruits and drop their seeds. Little insects like bees gather nectar from flowers and carry their little seeds (pollen) around. New plants then grow from these seeds and pollen; roots protect the soil and keep it moist with water; roots also protect the forest land from flooding by soaking up excess water;earthworms and little animals burrow around in the ground and keep the soil healthy and airy. While little insects are busy foraging for food, birds are busy feeding their babies and at the same time giant lions may be lazying around in the sun.
The forest is as active during the day as it is in the night. You will hear insects, owls and other creatures talking to each other all night!
The next time you camp in a forest, be sure to look around you and watch closely in the day and at night.
India’s deep connection with forests
India has a rich forest cover. In fact we are among the top 10 forest-rich countries in the world. Our forests are home to Bengal tigers and single horned Rhinoceros. Sundarban forest of West Bengal forms part of the largest mangroves in the world.
Even ancient Indian scriptures describe three kinds of forests – Shrivan, Tapovan and Mahavan.
Many Indian mythological stories were set in forests. King Rama is said to have spent 14 years of his exiled life in a forest called Dandaka forest, close to the modern day Madhya Pradesh; Krishna is said to have lived and played near Vrindavan forest of Northern India; Gautham Buddha is said to have chosen forests of Bodh Gaya in Bihar to live and pursue his goals.
With all this, we find forests fascinating! What about you?
Have you spent time in a forest? Where was it, what was your experience? What would you like to know about forests of India and the world?
We hope you will join us in this journey to discover the incredible wonders of forests
My terrace overlooks a small pocket of a once large forest. This is the best part of my day, sitting on the terrace, with the early sun breaking the cool of the night and staring at the green. With the COVID-19 lockdown in full force, what used to be a 15 minute ritual has now extended itself into an hour long introspection. As I stare at the forest, I begin to acknowledge and appreciate the drama unfolding ever so slowly. The trees become alive and vibrant. They are communicating with each other. They are involved in a struggle for survival and a death defying drama begins to unfold. I notice the Anjan Tree, standing tall above the canopy. To reach that size, he must have paid his dues, his share of hard decisions and sacrifices. Over time, a strange web of kinships and alliances have been established in this forest to maintain the peace. Mother trees feeding the young ones with sugars and other nutrients in times of need, the scouts on the periphery warning of danger when the grazers come, youngsters being youngsters, always reckless and unpredictable, quite often leading to a fatal end – it’s all happening out there. Some of them are taking extreme risks, over-shedding leaves and doing a greedy light seek leading to strange shapes. Most interesting is the next layer of the canopy, the ones just below the anjans and the teaks – they are the crown princes, waiting for the monarch to fall for them to take their rightful place under the sun. There are predators too in this drama. Strangler figs, starting as a seed on a branch, slowly engulfing the host tree and taking its place. All this, however, is unfolding in tree-time, over decades. I was witnessing it in freeze-frame, while sipping chai!
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, has long professed that the individual trees would try to outgun each other in seeking resources like the sun, water, nutrients, etc and for a long time it seemed that way too. But recent studies are unravelling a much more fascinating and complex story. The plant kingdom is as social as the animal kingdom. Just like the animal kingdom, there are families, alliances and understandings. There are also those who are loners – the cats of the tree world! We are only beginning to understand this web, and the tip of the iceberg itself is mindblowing. As a group, the trees in an area are using game theory – everyone does what is best for the group. In the long term, in general, that turns out to be best for the self as well. It is not just the relationships formed that are fascinating but also the fact that the trees are actually communicating with one another in a measurable way!
Did you ever wonder why animals always graze into the wind? We have always thought this was because the scent is carried by the wind and hence they are drawn into the wind. But recent studies show there is far more to the story. Take the acacia trees in the african savannah for eg. when a giraffe starts pulling at one tree, it immediately emits ethylene gas into the wind, signalling to the neighbours of an attack. The neighbours start pumping tanins into the leaves rapidly making them unsavoury to the giraffe. This signal and the response, has been observed upto a distance of 100 yards. This explains an old question that has perplexed the wildlife researchers. Why do these giraffes skip the trees in between. Why do they pluck at one and then walk a fair distance before plucking another? Though we cannot say for sure this is the reason, and in nature, it’s never really a single thing that explains everything but it all adds up. The giraffe also adapted to this by walking against the direction of the wind, so the neighbours in that direction are not yet aware of the attack. Even so, they still skip a few before they chose their next victim. Why would that be? Because, ethylene gas is just one signal. Most of the action is happening a few inches below the ground.
All trees in undisturbed forests are connected to each other via an underground fungal and bacterial network. Some call it the wood wide web! The trees share water, nutrients and even communicate through this network. The beech tree experiment in Germany was a pathbreaking find in this direction. It involved a beech tree stump that had been logged down and was just a stump for over a 100 years. Yet, below the bark, the stump was still green. The neighbours were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it helping it generate the required chlorophyl needed for survival. This is very similar to how an elephant herd never leaves a sick or injured behind. A 100 years!!! Can you believe that? I remember being completely awestruck when a friend, who is a restoration expert mentioned to me that these fungal networks might even extend a few 100 metres. A tree on this end of the farm, might be receiving assistance from the mother tree at the other end. For young ones, below the canopy, this is a lifeline. Especially in the tropics where the canopy is very thick and the ground is almost always in the dark, it is this network that nurtures the saplings. With the strongest or the fittest supporting the young ones, the natural selection theory gives way for a more evolved society or family in the forest. These old, tall giants are often referred to as the mother trees and the name is quite apt as well. They are the source trees adjusting and buffering the shortfalls, providing for the weak ones and basically playing the matriarchs. Some research has also indicated that there is an affinity to provide for the offspring. For eg, a mother tree may provide more for its own offspring than it would for others in its system. How this affinity is created or how the relationship is recognised remains a mystery today. But like they say, DNA is thicker than water!.
At our collective in Coorg, we have noticed something similar as well. In the recent coffee picking season, the pickers noticed a lot of wasp nests and expressed concerns. Our wildlife team figured out that these wasp nests were the forest’s response to a certain pest attack. Wasps are essentially predators. At the onset of an attack, the trees send out pheromones that attract the predators. This is their defense mechanism. The wasps are the army of the forest, quickly eating up the caterpillars and restoring the balance. Once we knew this, all thoughts of intervention were trashed. Wasps were suddenly our friends. Education is an eye opener!
Personally, I think the modern scientific approach has always tried to understand things in silos, picking one observation at a time and trying to find an explanation for that observation. It also believes a lot in predictability of the outcome. There is very little room for fuzzy logic. Nature unfortunately is built on fuzzy logic. Given the same situation, the forest might respond in a different way. It may emit pheromones suitable for a particular bird this time. Why? Maybe there is a hidden order here. Maybe the trees decide that if it is always the wasps, what would the birds eat? We don’t know. At beforest, we don’t think it is possible to knit-pick and understand nature in its entirety. We believe our role is to observe and adapt and at best, acknowledge.
As the mother Anjan grows older by the tree-day, It is not so hard to imagine the smaller lot, currently subservient under its canopy, waiting with bated tree-breath for the dethroning. A tree-day will come when its trunk will snap, unable to hold on to its weight, and the mighty queen will fall to the ground, and the crown princes will heave a sigh of relief. “At last!”, they would say as another power struggle began.