An Ecological Movement Sprouts from Literature

A story of reforestation



“I think that I shall never see,” Joyce Kilmer wrote, “a poem lovely as a tree.” But poems (and poets) continue to proliferate while trees the world over are being reduced to stumps at an alarming rate. The Amazon rain forest is being rapidly deforested—you will have heard that many times. In the last 40 years, nearly 20 percent of the forest has been flattened—more than in all the preceding 450 years since Brazil’s colonization by Portugal and other European powers began.


Perhaps to atone for it in a small way, Brazil did something symbolic at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro that was missing from previous Olympics: during its opening ceremony, it focused on replenishing the planet’s greenery. At the opening ceremony, each athlete received the seed of a tree native to Brazil. Alongside the flag bearer of each country, a child walked carrying a potted sapling of the seeds that had been given to that country’s athletes, which were then ‘planted’ into slots in huge black towers, later rearranged in the middle of the stadium in the form of the interlinked Olympic Rings. Other visuals during the opening ceremony highlighted lush vegetation, and emphasized social responsibility in making it happen. The seeds will all be planted in a soon-to-be-created Athletes’ Park in Deodoro, a middle-class neighborhood in Rio’s West Zone. But the message to the world supersedes the creation of the park.


For until around 1947, the earth was lush with around 16 million square kilometers (6 million square miles) of mature tropical forests. An estimated half of this (8 million square km, 3 million square miles) has since been razed. Some regions have lost more; South Asia and Madagascar have lost close to 90 percent of their rainforests. And so it goes, green land turning into brown.



The Man Who Planted Trees

We rarely hear the opposite: that forests that didn’t previously exist are coming up, planted by human hands similar to those hands that axed the old forests. Brown land is turning green. This is happening nowhere near rapidly enough to replace the denuded areas, but that something like it is happening at all gives us that much more heart. 

Should it surprise us that this facet of life, in its own strange way, reflects a tale from a story published in the mid-20th Century? In 1953, French author Jean Giono published a short story called L'homme Qui Plantait Des Arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees). A young man hiking into the Alps through Provence, France, traverses large tracts of land where the only plant that can grow is wild lavender. He is parched by thirst, but the well he finds is dry. A passing shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, takes him to a spring and revives him. Curiosity about Bouffier leads the young man to camp out with the shepherd. He learns that Bouffier, after becoming a widower, decided to devote the rest of his life to reviving the desolate valley’s former verdant glory by planting one tree at a time. Now, he drops acorns he has collected from faraway places into holes he digs in the ground. 


The young man is later drafted to fight in World War I. He returns to the valley as a shell-shocked survivor. Mon dieu! Sacré bleu! Has he lost his way or is this the same place? For here are saplings and young trees, and also running water that Bouffier has diverted into the vale by damming streams in the mountains. In this tranquility, the broken soldier regains his health and peace of mind. The valley eventually becomes a lush paradise and over 10,000 people settle down there, not realizing that the nature around them has been nurtured by one man.



From Fiction to Reality

Giono, lover of the natural world that he was, declined payment or royalties for his story. He granted free use for its distribution and translation. The story is credited with having a profound influence on the ensuing ecological movement; this essay mentions just a few of those who came under its spell. Giono said this story was the work he was the most proud of, although it didn’t earn him one centime. The Canadian filmmaker Frédéric Back adapted the story into a short film, The Man Who Planted Trees. The film went on to win the Academy Award for the Best Short Animated Film. The puppeteer Richard Medrington, in Edinburgh, Scotland, adapted it for a puppet show. The story has the habit of popping up every so often in one form or another.


L'homme Qui Plantait Des Arbres was so well written that many believed it to be true. Giono initially played along, not correcting their impression. However, in a 1957 letter to an official in the city of Digne, France, Giono admitted that Bouffier was fictional, and that the goal “was to make trees likeable, or more specifically, make planting trees likeable.” 


As if to give fiction a bout of solid competition, some real life Bouffiers have sprung up, three in India alone. 



Payeng’s Sandbar

Jadav “Molai” Payeng was 16-years-old when he saw a large number of snakes that had been washed up by floods onto a giant sandbar in the middle of the vast Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra flowed down the Himalayan snows and past his home village in Assam. The snakes died in the searing heat without any tree cover. In seeing this, something stirred deep inside him, making this moment the watershed point of his life. Most children would flee when they saw snakes, or rejoice on seeing they were dead. Not Payeng.


“I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms," Payeng said, the serpentine corpses turning into symbols of the imminent destruction of the human race and indeed, life on earth. The Forestry Department brusquely told him nothing would grow on the parched sandbar except perhaps bamboo. Intuiting that arguments would be futile, Payeng just rolled up his sleeves and went to work, starting with bamboo. He had help, though not from members of his own species. He released ants, earthworms, termites (yes, termites) and other assorted insects into the soil. According to him, termites and ants are good at improving the soil fertility because they burrow into the hard rocky surface making even rocky terrain porous and easy to plough.



Today, the once-bare sandbar bubbles with biodiversity. There are thousands of varieties of shrubs and trees, including Arjun (Terminalia arjuna), Ejar (Lagerstroemia speciosa), Gulmohar (Delonix regia), Koroi (Albizia procera), Moj (Archidendron bigeminum) and Himolu (Bombax ceiba). And of course, an abundance of bamboo. An amazing spectrum of wildlife abounds there, including several species of birds (including flocks of vultures), deer, apes, and elephants. Tigers and rhinos fleeing from the guns of poachers have found sanctuary there. For years, the Forestry Department’s local office remained ignorant that a vibrant new forest had sprouted within its jurisdiction, so unthinkable was the idea. They were enlightened in 2008.  


"We're amazed at Payeng," said Gunin Saikia, Assistant Conservator of Forests. "He has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero." Indeed, Payeng’s handiwork is of elephantine proportions: this is possibly the world’s largest forest that is situated in the middle of a river. 


What Giono imagined through fiction, Jadav Payeng converted into reality. Payeng, now 53, continues to live in the forest with his family, and hopes to plant more on other islands in the Brahmaputra. He is planting a new forest on Mekahi, another island in the river. He advocates making all school students plant two trees as a mandatory part of their education. So that children know about Payeng, author Vinayak Varma wrote an illustrated children’s book, Jadav and the Tree-Place. It is far from attaining the iconic status of The Man Who Planted Trees, but it is like one of the seeds Payeng started with three decades ago. Would that it produce the same result.



An Improbable Vision 

A similar feat was achieved in the southern state of Kerala by Abdul Kareem who grew up gobbling folk tales involving sacred groves of trees (kaavu) that stood outside each village, keeping watch over the land and its inhabitants. So when he visited his wife’s home village Neeleeswaram, the mere sight of a bare, rusty-red rocky hill on the outskirts depressed him. Determined to change the situation, Kareem, a former travel agent seeking a new occupation, bought the five acres of barren land and became the laughingstock of the community. 


Neither literate nor well-connected, Kareem had no source of information on how to inch his way towards his goal except his gut feeling. He planted saplings in the laterite soil amid the rocks, bringing water in large cans strapped to his two-wheeler from distances over a kilometer away. All the saplings he planted died, but he persisted, planting yet more. Seeing this, other people who had infertile land sold it to “the dummy,” and all of Kareem’s savings went into the purchase of over 30 acres of uncultivable land, plunging his family into panic. Was it possible that a fool could be parted, not with some, but with all of his money? 


After three years of despair, Kareem’s efforts paid off. He dug rainwater catch pits and also erected walls with rocks across the slopes to retain soil carried by run-off water. To Kareem’s (and everybody’s) amazement, over the next two years the vegetation spurted in a way nobody in their right mind would have foreseen. Today the terrain is lush and verdant. The woods have a variety of herbs with medicinal properties. None of them, however, were planted by Kareem. After his initial planting, he surrendered to nature and let it take control. He never weeded the growth nor swept the fallen leaves, and allowed whichever bird or animal that wanted a home to find it. The ecosystem developed naturally. And Kareem learnt a thing or three, such as dead, fallen leaves left alone decompose into humus, which in turn stimulates the rocky soil to disintegrate into gravel and eventually into fine soil. And that the droppings of birds containing seeds will introduce new plant species in the forest. 



The Dandakaranya Movement

Bhausaheb Santuji Thorat of Maharashtra was bowled over by The Man Who Planted Trees in 2005, refusing to concede that Elzéard Bouffier was fictional. He also invoked an episode in The Ramayana where the sage Agastya converts a large tract of wasteland into a verdant forest, Dandakaranya, through a massive tree-planting movement. Thorat, a lover of trees (he often would talk and even sing about them), decided that while the tale of Bouffier toiling all by himself to plant a forest in Provence made for a heroic saga, if several hands did the job, oh, how many more trees could be planted! Thorat was a politician and had been actively involved for decades in public life in his hometown of Sangamner, some 200 kilometers from Mumbai, so he knew the ropes. He enlisted the townsfolk as volunteers; the community support would also make global warming an acceptable item on the local political agenda. 


A scene from The Ramayana.

His ploy: sing folk songs about nature at rallies and make the audience join in. It worked. Each volunteer was then requested to donate 5 kilograms of seeds in addition to participation in planting them, as Thorat did not want to ask the government for assistance and get bogged down with the inevitable red tape. They didn’t necessarily have to buy the seeds; they could save the seeds of every vegetable or fruit they ate, be it a papaya, a gourd, or a bunch of grapes. 


Thorat called his movement the Dandakaranya Movement, not only because of the tale of Agastya, but because a key episode, a turning point in the Indian epic The Ramayana (King Ravana’s sister Surpanakha meeting and getting infatuated with the Hindu deity Rama) occurred in the Dandakaranya Forest. The name suggested that this movement would be pivotal in the greening of India. In June 2006, 50,000 men, women and children worked on slopes and flatland and planted 45 million seeds across 28,000 acres. The infirm planted seeds in their backyards; that you planted mattered more than where you planted.  Participation was voluntary; no payment was offered or expected. The movement was recognized by the United Nations Environmental Programme, but the catch was that the arid land was plagued by drought and the viability of many of the seeds were suspect. Only 10-15 percent of the seeds actually sprouted, so the exercise was repeated in succeeding years.  



A Global Endeavor

Such endeavors also occur in other countries and on other continents. The Green Belt Movement, founded by Wangari Muta Maathai, has planted some 51 million trees, adding considerable greenery to the panorama of Kenya. Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental achievements, becoming the first African woman to be so honored. Maathai passed on in 2011, but the Green Belt Movement marches on. One of its activities is engaging Kenyan farmers to stop draining all the wetlands to get more agricultural land, educating them on how both wetland and farmland are intermeshed in the environment, and how upsetting this balance without thinking it through would only cause damage in the long term. Marthinus Daneel, a professor at Boston University, collaborates with churches in Zimbabwe to plant trees there. 


British anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall founded the Roots and Shoots Program in over 120 countries, bringing youth from preschool to university to work on environmental, conservation, and humanitarian issues at the level of their understanding and ability through both classroom work and field projects. For example, the Shanghai Roots and Shoots branch aims to eventually plant a million trees in Kulun Qi, the poorest region of Inner Mongolia, to combat the relentless encroachment of the desert. 


Donald Leigh Chapple spent the last 12 years of his life reforesting the hillside of Matiatia Bay on Waiheke Island, off New Zealand, inspired by Elzéard Bouffier in The Man Who Planted Trees. Willie Smits, Holland-born forester and microbiologist and now an Indonesian citizen, has devoted his life to reviving forests and helping to protect and preserve orangutans, a threatened ape species. His brainchild is Samboja Lestari (literally, Everlasting Samboja), the reforestation of land in East Kalimantan, Borneo, that had previously been deforested. Here, indigenous species of plants that perished or came close to doing so are revived, and a haven is provided for orangutans and other threatened animal and bird species. 


Smits is also a founder and chairman of the Masarang Foundation, aimed at restoring habitat forests around the world along with empowering the local people in those regions. Canadians Merve Wilkinson, Leonard Otis, and Jim and Margaret Drescher have been working for years in various parts of Canada, toiling to make forests grow again the proper way. As Wilkinson said, “Rows of trees are not forests…” It is easy to deforest, but a stupendous task to reconstruct, restoring the proper balance of roots, trunks, leafy terraces, soil, and not only wildlife but also the myriads of microorganisms which together an ecosystem make. 


Deforestation in southern Mexico.   Credit: Jamidwyer



Devastation from Deforestation

Deforestation occurs naturally—wildfires are a good example—but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the deforestation caused by the human species. Humans, who are multiplying with an explosive ferocity, chop trees for such reasons as acquiring wood for fuel or for construction, to clear up land for planting crops, for raising livestock, or to build new settlements ranging from hamlets to sprawling cities. The main methods are “slash and burn,” (the trees are cut and burned to increase nutrients in the soil to help farming) or “clear cutting” (removing all vegetation and leaving the land completely nude, usually done for commercial logging and commercial building). 


Deforesting is also done for other for-profit ventures, such as producing paper, furniture, and other wood or tree-origin products, such as oil from palm trees. In the process, other species (flora and fauna) are propelled closer to extinction through reduction in numbers and loss of habitat. Indigenous forest people like the Waswanipi Cree of Quebec, the Veddas of Sri Lanka, and Munduruku of the Amazon have been driven out of their traditional homelands.  Deforestation hastens soil erosion, and cleared land that is arable to begin with eventually turns into wasteland. Soil erosion also releases silt into streams and lakes and damages the health of the people who consume such water.


Climatic conditions are also altered. Moreover, trees are nature’s counterbalance to most of the rest of us; we use oxygen and generate carbon dioxide while they do the opposite. Trees not only absorb carbon dioxide but they store carbon. When trees are killed, the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Trees absorb rainwater and released water vapor into the atmosphere. Trees also reduce water pollution. We think of lakes and ponds as water reservoirs but half the water in the ecosystem is held in trees. To tip the scales in one direction, as deforestation does, bodes ill for the clean air we so desperately need in an increasingly polluted world.


As the human population increases and local resources are used up, people seek the same resources from afar. If Robin Hood sought refuge in today’s Sherwood Forest, the Sheriff of Nottingham would have no trouble whatsoever capturing him. There is no place to hide there now. Several large industries (for instance, ship building—whether the ships were for military use or for the slave trade) used wood and there was significant deforestation in Europe from 1100 to 1500 CE, making its countries rely ever more heavily on imported timber.

U.S. Army armored personnel carrier (APC) spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Deforestation is also often a deliberate strategy during wartime. A classic example is Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. military’s sustained use of a potent herbicide and defoliant, Agent Orange, in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. U.S. military helicopters sprayed 76,000,000 liters (almost 20,000,000 U.S. gallons) of Agent Orange and other defoliants over the forests of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, at an average concentration 13 times higher than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standard for domestic use. The stated intention was to flush out the Viet Cong guerillas from their jungle hideouts. Prime agricultural land and rivers adjoining the forests were also sprayed to deprive the guerillas of their local supply of food and water, never mind if local civilians and even future generations perished in the bargain. 


But the soil in those regions has been so heavily and so thoroughly contaminated by Agent Orange’s by-product TCDD (a dioxin), that even decades later, local people continue to succumb to a variety of illnesses, including peripheral neuropathy and a variety of cancers including multiple myeloma, respiratory system cancers, Hodgkin's disease, prostate cancer, and leukemia. The method used for deforestation can therefore determine both the nature and the extent of the devastation, not only for the present but also for future generations.


We are merrily shredding every leaf from our planet, seeing in each instance only the short term gain, utterly blind to the long-term catastrophe that looks us in the eye. The prefix for forestation should be shifted from ‘de-’ to ‘re-.’ 


Reforestation cannot solve every problem caused by deforestation. All the carbon released into the atmosphere cannot be re-absorbed by new trees. Extinction is forever; restoring the habitats of vanished species cannot conjure them back from oblivion. The best solution is to stop deforestation, but since that won’t happen, we need battalions of Bouffiers to speed up reforestation and mitigate the consequences. This could go hand on shoulder with other measures. Sustainable cultivation methods can make croplands last long. Rainwater can be captured and used. And some argue that large-scale shifting to a vegetarian diet reduces the need to deforest land to build livestock ranches. Activism that positively influences corporations and governments can also help.


If these seem like Olympian tasks, conjure up these two images in your mind: a 16-year old boy looking with tears in his eyes at a heap of dead snakes on a sandbar bleached by the scorching sunshine, and next, that same boy’s efforts resulting in a sprawling forest on a gigantic sandbar bang in the middle of one of the mightiest rivers of the world.



India, Ecology, Reforestation