Is new-age environmentalism narrowing down to planting saplings?

Planting saplings is undoubtedly a good idea, but considering it as the panacea to all our environmental woes is dangerous

By Ranjan Panda
Published: Thursday 08 June 2023
Representative photo: iStock.

This World Environment Day, I was invited to speak at a meeting organised by civil society organisations at Joda-Badbil, a mining hub of Odisha, where iron ore mining has turned every inch of the landscape red.

The lush green forests, once that were the identity of this area — before the TATAs started digging up the land in the early 20th century — are almost lost, so much so that everyone is busy planting saplings to recover the loss.

Ironically, the forests — once claimed exclusively as their own by local indigenous communities — are now plagued by government and private mining giants. Once known as a cool place, as elders still recall, the area is a boiling pot. 

Also read: Halt deforestation by 2030: Are we on track to meet global pledge?

If any place on earth needed to celebrate Environment Day without fail, this was it. And the people are doing exactly that. The question is how? Mostly by planting saplings out of guilt or because government rules mandate it.  

With every passing year, as the summer gets harsher, people engage more in planting saplings. The number of environment day functions has grown manifold over the years.

Everyone has been living under the false belief that plantation activities will save them from growing environmental disasters such as water scarcity, heatwaves, dust pollution and many more.

So, when I arrived at this function in a town auditorium and listened to the debate by school children — most of whom had prepared well to speak before an external chief guest — I realised each one of these boys and girls emphasised ‘planting at least one tree’ if we seriously wished to save ourselves from environmental degradation and climate change related menaces. None said we needed to arrest deforestation of the local natural forests, which are being butchered daily. The guilt stops at plantation!

The plantation is undoubtedly a good idea, but starting to think that planting saplings is the panacea to all our environmental woes is dangerous. That’s narrowing down our perception of the environment.

A grown-up tree, and most importantly a tree in a forest, has already helped us create an ecosystem that not only enriches the soil quality but also retains water for us, purifies the air, absorbs the carbon and provides many other ecosystem services such as giving homes to the birds, shelter to the needy, fruits to the humans and other species, invites the rain for us and a lot more. 

Also read: Warming beyond borders: Amazon deforestation heats up Tibet, says new study

Replacing this idea of a tree with the one of planting any sapling anywhere and anytime, as that’s being done to increase green cover, is not helping us much. The sapling takes a lot of time to turn into a tree and to enrich the local ecosystems.

In Joda-Badbil, they said, massive plantation drives have been organised yearly for compensatory afforestation. Still, the locals don’t see the result. Had they succeeded, the debaters would have narrated some benefits of the plantation without limiting their speeches to giving a clarion call to plant saplings to rescue their families and localities from the smearing heat growing by the year.  

After understanding the urban youths’ perception of the environment, I was curious to see the rural youths’ opinions in the nearby forest areas. So, when I met the tribal youth from the nearby villages, I wanted to know their opinion about the forests they are living with.

Unlike their elders, most youths are either not worried about the woods as they are busy fetching daily wage jobs in the nearby mines or are not attached to them as their forefathers did. 

As part of a World Environment Day programme organised by the “Youth4WaterIndia” campaign, we gathered in a picnic spot on a local river polluted with plastic and other waste discarded by the picnic parties. The campaign runs an initiative aimed at freeing picnic spots from plastics.

We wanted to understand why the local youths, who regularly bathed at this spot and came here to do their local feasts, were not bothered about the litter. A question to the participants brought up a fascinating fact.

On being asked how many of them used to consume gutka/pan masala, almost 90 per cent raised their hands. But only 20 per cent of them said they consumed kendu, the local forest fruit from which the district derives its name. That’s such a horrifying degradation of local natural culture.

This is also an indicator of a narrowed-down vision of the current generation on trees. Ideally, kendu consumption would enrich the forests and gutka consumption would litter the picnic spots!

These youths won’t question if someone plants an invasive species in the name of compensatory afforestation. But that’s not the same for another community in the same district.

About a hundred kilometres away from Joda-Badbil, on the top of the Kanjipani hills, the tribal families had a different worldview of forests altogether.

They eked from selling forest produce, several varieties of them. These families wanted the trees to stay as family members and ancestors. They said they had once opposed the plantation drive by the forest department as it tried to clear natural forests — rich in local species diversity — to plant some alien saplings.  

There is an observation and a lesson from the three situations I experienced above. 

The observation: Planting trees is definitely the easiest and the most popular form of environmentalism these days, and the lesson is: Saving existing natural forests is much more needed. The first one is easy and hardly has any accountability, but the second one is difficult and shows the resolve of a conservation community. To me, the second holds a major key to sustainability.

Ranjan Panda of Water Initiative Odisha, is a researcher, environmentalist and activist. He describes the threats to rivers and water bodies of Odisha.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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