P. K. Madhavan stood proudly next to a young, sturdy mahogany tree, one of a hundred he planted three years ago on his farm in Wayanad district in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Madhavan’s two acres (0.8 hectares) of land in Meenangadi village used to be lush with cash crops – coffee, black pepper and betel nut – but two decades of drought and unseasonally heavy rain have decimated his yields.
Now the mahogany plantation is one of his only reliable sources of income, earning him up to 5,000 rupees ($67) a year – and all he has to do is keep the trees standing.
The 84-year-old farmer is being paid to plant and protect trees through a “tree banking” scheme, the project at the heart of Meenangadi’s campaign to become India’s first carbon-neutral village by 2025.
Madhavan got his saplings for free from Meenangadi’s panchayat, or village council, which will lend him 50 rupees per tree for every year he does not cut it down until 2031.
At that point, the loan is written off and he can do what he likes with the trees, including felling them to sell for timber.
“Every morning, I spend some time looking after these trees. I am really happy to say that except for three (which died naturally), all are steadfastly growing,” Madhavan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Sooner or later, my land will become a small forest filled with infinite greenery.”
Over the past decade, Kerala’s farmers have faced an ailing business struggling with rising temperatures and erratic rains, while deforestation has caused soil degradation, making their land more vulnerable to flooding and mudslides.
Wayanad district is suffering more than most, with the Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change naming it as one of the state’s four hotspots.
Tree-planting initiatives are taking root worldwide as governments and corporations look for ways to cut planet-warming emissions, and fight pollution and land degradation – or simply to earn credits to offset their carbon emissions.
But many projects fail when they rely on locals with little time or money to look after newly planted trees.
Meenangadi’s tree-banking project avoids that pitfall by giving farmers an ongoing incentive to protect trees, said C. Jayakumar, executive director of Thanal, a local environmental group helping implement the village’s carbon-neutral programme.
“The message here is that climate change is being linked with climate justice,” he said.
“Usually, it will take a farmer one or two decades to get the financial benefits of planting a timber tree sapling. With this project, the farmer gets money from the start.”
Money grows on trees
When Meenangadi started its carbon-cutting journey in 2016, an energy audit indicated the village population of 33,450 was generating 15,000 tonnes of excess carbon every day.
To help bring that number down to zero within the next four years, the aim is to plant at least 350,000 trees to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, said K.E. Vinayan, president of the village council.
A farmer who joins up is given tree saplings grown in the council’s nursery or donated by the Kerala Forest Department.
Ranging from trees for timber and fruit to bamboo, most are native species chosen for their ability to absorb large amounts of carbon and withstand wild weather swings, as well as to generate an income for farmers once they mature, Vinayan said.
Three years after planting, the farmer can mortgage the trees for a 10-year interest-free loan from the council which only has to be paid back if any of the trees are cut down.
If a tree dies due to disease, heavy rain or drought, the farmer continues to receive money for it, Vinayan added.
So far, 780 farmers have enrolled in the scheme and the village has planted 172,000 saplings, including on vacant lots and those handed out to farmers who support the net-zero push but do not want to join the tree-banking project.
It has already distributed 350,000 rupees in the first tranche of loans, with the second tranche coming soon, boosted by a 100 million-rupee grant from Kerala state.
While a first survey is still underway, Vinayan said as far as he knows, none of the trees have been cut down.
But it is vital that farmers be allowed to use their trees however they want at the end of their loan period, because “they are the real owners and custodians of the trees”, he noted.
“We don’t want to permanently infringe on their rights,” he said.
The council will regularly review the project with a view to extending the mortgage period or launching a new scheme to incentivise farmers to preserve their plantations, he added.
Even if most farmers joining Meenangadi’s project decide to leave their trees standing, many environmentalists warn tree-planting drives are not nearly enough to slow planetary warming.
G. Balagopal, an environmentalist and committee member of scientific organisation Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, said he supported the tree-banking scheme but it had limitations.
“Climate change is a global phenomenon – it can’t be mitigated by massive tree-planting in a particular region,” he said.
The benefits of planting trees are cancelled out if the carbon they pull from the air is replaced by greenhouse gases coming from cars, household heating and power sources, he said.
“The need of the hour is new (green) technology like solar,” he added.
Meenangadi council members said they were looking at other ways to bring down carbon emissions, including shifting to solar lighting and electric vehicles and using high-efficiency stoves.
And the village’s climate ambitions are spreading. The governing council for Sulthan Batheri
Block, the district sub-division where Meenangadi is located, launched its own net-zero programme in January.
“Meenangadi’s carbon-neutral mission has really inspired us,” said C. Assainar, president of the Sulthan Batheri Block Panchayat.
For Madhavan in Meenangadi, the village’s plan offers hope that he and his fellow farmers could help calm the erratic weather that has turned Wayanad district from an agricultural champion to a region in crisis.
“I hope the ongoing carbon-neutral campaign will help us recapture our past glory,” he said.
Reporting by K. Rajendran, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Thomson Reuters Foundation