Prof. Miyawaki died on 16 July, and his funeral rites were done on the 23rd. The world came to know of his demise only on 2 August. We don’t know whether the delay was because Olympics is going on in Japan or because certain rituals had to be done. By evening of the day we received the news via email, websites added this information to his profile. He was a man who planted four crore trees all over the world, spread across 17 countries, of which he was directly involved in planting three-and-a-half crores. Those who drew inspiration from him, like us, might have planted roughly 30 crore trees or more.

I created a video last week as a tribute to him. Just when we finished adding the subtitles, I received a whatsapp message stating that the Miyawaki Method was not suited to Kerala. What it indicated was that a dialogue on the subject was necessary. I understand that dialogues are all about conducting debates on a subject, until one argument wins. Quite like what used to happen in the Indian royal courts in ancient times. Since such regal forums are unavailable now, debates now happen on TV channels. But no side wins there because the anchor calls the shots, closes the programme at 9 pm, and resumes them the next day.

The methodology of science however is different. Now, in this case, there are environmentalists and environment scientists. I am an environmentalist. I have not studied this subject in a formal manner. All I can claim is that I take a stand that is favourable to our natural environment. There are many like me though they may be of different shades, like “the lunatic, the lover and the poet”. Some argue that not even a single leaf should be plucked, no change should be brought about, the natural world should remain untouched and so on. This is a matter of personal choice. Each one’s desires and decisions are their own. No one can interfere with them.

But science has its own way. If a scientist wishes to propagate a certain truth, she has to do research, publish her findings in a research article, make it available to the global scientific community, and inspire a discussion. Those who oppose that particular argument should do their research, come up with an alternate argument, and prove that the previous one is wrong. Until then, we will continue to acknowledge the earlier argument as true, and follow it. But if we think it is wrong, we will either do research to prove our point or wait for another scientist to do it. This is the methodology.

Prof. Miyawaki was not an environmentalist but an environmental scientist. He was the founding Professor of the Department of Environmental Science in Yokohama University, and he continued working there as Professor Emeritus for 40-odd years until his retirement. He died at the age of 93. From the mid-1950s, he would go to Germany frequently – as many as 35 times in total. That was where he did his initial research after completing his university education in Japan. On returning home, he embarked on a huge academic project that resulted in a massive publication [10 volumes of Vegetation of Japan] published before The Healing Power of Forests. (Prof.  Kazue Fujiwara, who worked with him on this project, has come to Kerala.) Prof. Miyawaki described his method in very clear terms in this book, and it was published globally. Following this model, he created forests in 17 countries and planted three-and-a-half crore trees.

If the argument is that this method is not suitable to Kerala, studies should be done to prove it. There is no point in being emotional about the subject. Prof. Miyawaki’s opponents should either dig out an article published anywhere in the world that proved, during his own lifetime, that his findings were wrong, or – now that he has passed on – undertake the task themselves, and prove Prof. Miyawaki wrong on the strength of their scientifically-derived conclusions.

There are people who argue that there is nothing to match the kaavus [snake groves and sacred groves] of Kerala. Kaavus are indeed extraordinarily great. There can be no doubt about it. But Japan also had similar forests. Such forests may have existed all over the world because what ancient humans worshipped initially were animals and trees. With increasing urbanization that trend dwindled, so that it has now almost vanished completely. I receive a lot of messages urging me to focus on our kaavus. In reply, I have only one argument to make. I am ready to learn. But can you tell me of any place in Kerala where kaavus have been newly created in the last 100 years? With the existing ones getting destroyed, how many are engaged in planting trees in them? Has the area of any existing kaavu increased? So what is there to learn from them regarding afforestation?

I don’t believe that kaavus were ‘created’ in the strict sense of the term. If the truth is otherwise, let someone give me proof. These kaavus have always existed on their own. Kerala was a region rich in trees and plants. Humans destroyed them in order to make space for themselves. However, they left small patches intact for the purpose of worship, and they became known as kaavus. As human population increased, the land value went up, and our commercial interests grew, our attacks on kaavus became aggressive. In the last 100-150 years, all we have done is to destroy the kaavus. We haven’t made a single new one. It is in this context that we advocate a new manner of afforestation. And we have only one reason to recommend the Miyawaki Model of Afforestation – there is simply no other way to grow plants and trees faster.

Another allegation against the Miyawaki Model is that it is very expensive. Let us consider the issue. How many trees, planted by using traditional methods in the last 50 years in Kerala, have survived to this day? The other question is: “How do we compute the expenditure involved in afforestation projects?” Those who put up forests do not take them home. True, there are expenses on purchasing cow dung, rice husk and manure, meeting labour costs, filling the site, buying grow bags and so on, without which a forest cannot be created. When you calculate its worth in business terms, aren’t you considering its industrial value or its commercial benefit? Certainly, it is not done in emotional terms. When you ask the question: “Should we spend so much on one square feet of land?” you are, in effect, asking: “Will we get back our money’s worth?”

Let me give you an example. During his lifetime, Prof. Miyawaki planted three crore, thirty-five lakh trees or so, in Japan alone. He planted trees in 17 other countries as well. Let us assume that the total comes to three-and-a-half crore trees. Now let us imagine that half of them have grown mature. I personally saw the trees Prof. Miyawaki planted in Japan, that were 50 years old. The camphor tree I saw there may be worth Rs two lakhs, going by the current market rates. But let us peg it at a mere Rs 10,000. If we calculate the net worth of two crore trees that Prof. Miyawaki planted at this rate, the total comes to a whopping Rs 20,000 crores. Certainly, he did not spend so much money on his afforestation projects!
In a similar fashion, we should calculate the worth of trees, that we plant now, in terms of the price they will fetch 50 years hence, depending on the growth they will have attained by then. It is the living entity that is valuable. Humans have value, and perhaps the most valuable item is the human being. But a dead body will fetch only Rs 1,000, if you donate it to a Medical College. I have drawn up my will, pledging my dead body to the Government Medical College here, to be given free of cost. A dead body does not cost much. The same is to be said about trees.
We usually see timber as a costly item, and calculate the cost of teak wood or Indian rosewood. The teak and the Indian rosewood are living trees. As they stand on the earth, trees suck up water, and release it into the atmosphere. They create spaces for birds to make their nests. They give us food to eat. They absorb carbon dioxide. We do not put a value on the services they render. If we did that, it would be so many times more valuable than a dead body.

The trees we plant according to the methodology developed by Prof. Miyawaki should not be seen as expenditure. They are an investment for our future generations. The trees surrounding your house give you oxygen, and take care of groundwater. What is the state of groundwater in Kerala? Even if you dig 18 feet, you do not sight water. And with each passing year, the level of groundwater is going down. Many studies have been done regarding the factors that maintain groundwater tables. I’m not here for a dispute. I only request that you consider these aspects.

If anyone is able to scientifically prove that Prof. Miyawaki’s Model is unsuited to Kerala, I am willing to join that camp, discard the Miyawaki Method, and follow their technique. But don’t try to sell the emotional line, and say things like, “When you look upwards, look towards the trees, those of you who have forests in their hearts . . .” Everybody has the forest in their hearts because all of us were born in the forests. Some of us have the leisure to show it to the world, others don’t. I, for instance, turned to environment protection after I secured a stable means of living. I couldn’t do it for the last 20 years because I had to work hard and relentlessly in order to make enough money to pay salaries to the people in my office. I could not champion the cause of environment during that phase. All of us were born in the forest. We have it in our genes. At certain points of our lives, it becomes dominant. In some, it may be very strong. In other, relatively weak. I have great respect for environmentalists because they are the people who spread awareness about the environment. But I cannot acknowledge a mindset that blindly rejects any new idea even before it has been examined or studied.

In the last 10 years, we have been witnessing the destruction of our environment in Kerala, and the speed with which we have been chopping down trees. Once upon a time, 57 % of the earth’s surface had forest cover. By CE 1800, it got reduced to 50 %. This was before the Industrial Revolution. In the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, another 12 % of the forests was destroyed. In short, what is left of the original 57 % is a mere 38 %! That is, we have destroyed one-third of our forests. If we continue to do this, the average temperature of our planet will rise further.

What we are doing are attempts to stop it. That is not for our sake but for the sake of our future generations. Our lives have advanced a lot. A majority of us do not plant trees but have been actively engaged, for the last 50 years, in discussions about how trees can be planted. The debate can be extended to another 50 years.  Let it continue in the sidelines. In the course of discussions and debates, if a solid research is undertaken, new discoveries are made, papers get published and they get the acknowledgement of the international community, let us follow those new ideas. Until then, let us follow the method we have with us.

Let me show you two more instances. It is said that if a plot of land is left unattended for 15 years, squirrels and civet cats will convert it into a forest. They are the same animals that can shift the Miyawaki forest to the next level. That is because in three years, when the plants grow to 30 feet in height, birds will come. This is a place close to a quarry. Until recently, there was not a single bird in the vicinity because of the terrible noise of exploding rocks. Now, nearly a dozen species of birds come here. Besides, because of civet cats, several new species of trees – like the solitary fishtail palm – have appeared here, possibly from its droppings. Such creatures have brought different types of seeds, and they have sprouted.
Now, if there are still skeptics who ask: “Isn’t it possible to create a forest in such a manner?” let me assure you that I’ve set apart a 10-cent piece of land, exclusively to convince them of what I say. This plot is not on the top but at the very bottom of this part of land [at Puliyarakonam] where you get maximum water. All it has is a cashew tree, which was already there when I bought the land, and a whole lot of creepers, climbers and shrubs that have covered the entire space. That is no forest.

But in three-and-a-half years and following the Miyawaki Method, we have created something that has turned out to be a wonderful forest. You will be able to notice the difference when you come here. This is the transformation on a barren rock that has a 45 degree incline. We are also making tiny forests on three-and-a-half-cent and three-cent patches of land in this area. The very nature of this region has undergone a drastic change. This is a fact. It should not be seen in sentimental terms but from a scientific perspective. That could perhaps be the greatest tribute we can every pay to Prof. Miyawaki.