When the pandemic struck, there was a worry in Meenangadi, in Kerala’s Wayanad district, that their pioneering “tree banking” initiative would hit a roadblock. On the contrary, the project launched by NGO Thanal and the Meenangadi panchayat in 2016 gathered even more momentum.
As a part of its series on ‘The Promise of Commons’, 101Reporters had earlier reported on how Thanal came up with a model to assess Wayanad’s excess 11,412 tonnes of carbon dioxide production. Soon, as an initiative to turn Meenangadi carbon neutral, the panchayat launched a project on planting trees in the region. In return, farmers would be incentivised for not cutting the trees down.
Executive Director of Thanal Jayakumar C told 101Reporters that though there were initial challenges when the lockdown started, local support soon helped put the project back on track. With schools being shut, children were at home — this meant there were more volunteers to lend a hand to their vision. Also, with transport having come to a standstill, it became strenuous for the Forest Department to deliver saplings on time, but they soon found a solution — a record number of saplings were procured through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the country’s rural livelihood scheme that provides 100 days of work to rural households.
“We saw more progress than we expected, with the local community taking up ownership as well as plantation drives, especially through MGNREGA. We planted around 4 lakh saplings, of which around 2.8 lakh were through efforts under MGNREGA; local residents planted a lakh of them on their own,” said Jayakumar.
The vision behind the project is to achieve carbon neutrality. While Thanal had decided to evaluate the emissions in 2020, the deadline was pushed to 2023, with the pandemic slowing down the process. To calculate emissions, Thanal follows the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) model, which means it looks at the cumulative emissions of the panchayat.
“Nearly 60% to 65% of the original agenda has been accomplished. In terms of work progressing, there’s been tremendous progress from when we started,” said Jayakumar.
While the exact figures are not available, travel restrictions significantly lowered emissions in the panchayat in the past two years.
“In Meenangadi, one of the major contributors (of carbon emissions) is transport. So when transport came to a standstill, there was a huge emission reduction… While we may have been carbon neutral had we looked at emissions in the past few years, but with the easing of restrictions, we are not,” he added.
While the Meenangadi model may be deemed successful in its attempt to keep a check on the climate crisis, its scalability remains a challenge, especially when we move away from rural communities. “In a rural area like Meenangadi, there’s the advantage of bringing in a nature-based solution model, but it’s a whole other situation while considering solutions for urban areas with higher carbon emissions. One needs to look for more technical solutions when an urban setting is involved,” Jayakumar emphasised.
“When you move from a rural to an urban area, your demands are higher because urban settings have higher emissions. Say, for example, in Meenangadi, none of the 8,000 families have a car. But in Kochi, almost every household will have one or two cars. Plus, Kochi would not have any area available to plant 4 lakh trees like Meenangadi!”
Moreover, other difficulties lie in getting influential businesspersons engaged in a conversation on the subject.
“There are not many shopping complexes in rural areas, and the energy consumption is much lower. In Meenangadi, most people survive on smaller livelihoods, and conversations are possible. The homestays promoting tourism are willing to set up solar rooftop water heaters, so their guests get hot water from solar energy. However, the situation is complex in Kochi. When we reach out to a big retailer, we can’t even get the owner to meet us because he has already invested in crores,” said Jayakumar.
“But the fact that the Meenangadi panchayat is extremely progressive has helped shape the model, and that the community is a politically conscious one is a big plus,” he added. Another bonus is women’s participation through the Kerala government’s self-help group in the area, Kudumbashree.
A sustainable waste management system in place and sizable coffee plantations and paddy production were other factors that helped boost the project.
“With Meenangadi chosen as a current model, there’s a possibility of one local government collaborating with other local governments. Then the government of India will have major savings,” said Jayakumar.
But this does not mean there are no obstacles in Thanal’s path. Limited resources in the area is a major concern, but the panchayat has been looking for support from various quarters to make up for the gap.
“With limited resources in rural regions, the panchayat has also been looking for support under the Corporate Social Responsibility schemes. There’s also support from Kerala’s National Institute of Rural Development as well as volunteer programmes. Thanal is also working closely with the panchayat and supports it as much as it can. There’s voluntary activism and community acceptance, which helps drive the initiative, including support from Kudumbashree. There’s support from local shopkeepers, as well, who have accepted the idea of carbon neutrality,” said Jayakumar.
There are other bureaucratic and technical challenges when it comes to streamlining the finances for the project.
“Even though the government provided the startup money to plant trees, the panchayat can only use the interest from the deposit the state made. There are bureaucratic processes even though this is an approved project. It’s not that they are purposely delaying it, but there are some genuine problems with the current rules and regulations.”
“There are technical obstacles, as well. The panchayat has not been able to get revolving money. More administrative processes need to be up to date in terms of reforms. Financial flow is crucial,” he stressed.
The other major challenge that Thanal’s initiative ran into initially was fighting unfounded beliefs and negative campaigns.
“How do you educate people on something that they are not familiar with? Look at rural India. They are not familiar with legislation processes. How do we talk to them about the IPCC and disasters affecting humanity? This is a huge challenge.”
“At the same time, there’s also an opportunity because many coffee plantations had low productivity, so they were experiencing a crisis. When they experience such a crisis, it becomes easier to connect the issue with their experience. Like at the beginning of the project, nobody understood they could not grow two crops of paddy in a year due to climate change. Now they understand that there’s a clear climate change impact,” Jayakumar pointed out.
However, one of the big thrusts behind the project is that it was piloted by the state government with a grant for the tree-banking project. This has translated into the state closely tracking Meenangadi’s development and taking lessons from it to replicate the model in other parts of Kerala. When the project started, both the state and panchayat were led by the Left Democratic Front.
“In the last elections, the Congress-led coalition came to power at the panchayat. Fortunately, the Left state government and the Congress-led panchayat have been collaborating quite well,” he remarked.
Jayakumar is confident of the long-term benefits of Thanal’s project. To drive more change at the ground, Thanal has now started a climate literacy programme, where more than 50 social media posters will be shared at the panchayat.
(The author is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)