A study published in Springer Nature in July 2020 stated that the developmental activities in Mumbai resulted in a 42.5% decline in its vegetation cover between 1988-2018. Consequently, there has been a three-fold increase in land surface temperature affecting the city's micro-climate, which is visible through several factors like changes in the rainfall distribution. But how has this change percolated into the lives of the residents of Mumbai? Well, 36-year-old George Remedios has witnessed the worst effects of this change.
"For a number of years, I was fed up with the failing environmental situation and the loss of tree cover all around us," said George, "There was a lot of 'Vinash' (destruction) in the name of 'Vikas' (development) happening in the city and the surrounding areas." In a conversation with The Logical Indian, he noted how these developers never even tried relocating the trees.
Around 6 years ago, George's friend lost his mother to lung cancer. George's mother also suffered from asthma for years, and the amount of dust and particulate matter had increased due to rampant development in Mumbai. Refusing to make peace with the situation, George decided to swim against the tide.
Taking The Plunge: Starting The Turning Tide Project
He gathered some friends and began planting saplings in his housing and the surrounding areas. The initial fund for buying the saplings was raised by selling old newspapers. George's friends and neighbours were impressed by his efforts and gave him their old newspapers to sell and buy more saplings.
After months of reading, research, and extensive trial and error processes, they devised a way to merge waste management and regenerative agroforestry to create food forests. Eventually, the initiative has been shaped into a non-profit organisation, rightly named 'The Turning Tide'.
The Turning Tide took up a 13 feet wide and 145 feet long piece of land in Vakola to develop its first food forest. But the biggest challenge was not the tiny space: the land was by a construction site. Hence, the soil was so inferior in quality that it looked grey.
But the enthusiasm of the residents of the area overcame all the hindrances. Early on, George had suggested that if the residents spend more on digging the ground, he could develop ways to make the soil fertile for less money. Following this, large pits of five feet depth and four feet width were dug up so that the roots could get the necessary nutrients.
Eventually, bacteria and microbes started decomposing the waste. The process was further facilitated by increased moisture as it was monsoon. 2 feet of manure and mud were added, and finally, the saplings were placed on top.
After a month, all organic compost decomposed. The pit fell, turning into a doughnut shape around the sapling. The soil sank, automatically collecting all water from irrigation and rain, and the roots went down into pure compost.
The results? Five years hence, it has developed into providing fruit trees like apple bears, bananas, coconuts, drumstick, guavas, mangoes, three types of papayas, pomegranates, sapodilla, and starfruit. In the future, the forest is expected to produce jackfruit and even breadfruit. It is also home to a myriad of trees like ginger, lady's finger, tomatoes, and several others.
Merits Of Food Forests: Biodiversity, MicroClimate And More
These forests can serve as instruments to solve issues about food security and food localisation. Not just humans, it can feed the local ecology as well, including pollinators. It also becomes a natural habitat for birds, good insects, squirrels, and other creatures.
"There's a type of beetle called the Coconut Rhinoceros beetle," George said enthusiastically, "It feeds on coconut tree leaves. If not trapped, it can eat up an entire tree. In Mumbai, you have so many of them." With an increasing shift towards monocultures, most of the soil in agricultural lands does not support multiple species of plants. According to George, this gives rise to problems like massive crop losses caused by the unseasonal rain. Food forests can also solve this problem since they are home to various plants and trees. However, the benefits of the food forests are even beyond this.
The increase in green cover increases shading. It absorbs the sun's harmful UV rays, which otherwise bounce off every surface and heats the surroundings. Also, green covers cool the surroundings and create a microclimate, as 90% of the moisture (that trees use during photosynthesis) is released through transpiration. Also, since plants absorb particulate matter and carbon dioxide and create more oxygen for us to breathe, the forests make up very calming spaces that can put one's mind at ease.
The Turning Tide mainly uses compost created by waste from markets and homes, resulting in the management of biodegradable waste by the tones, even in small spaces. This reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfills.
Forests For Social Good
But if the forests yield so much, where does the produce go? Early on, George had decided to merge these projects with social causes. The organisation began developing food forests at orphanages and old-age homes with the thought that these forests could add value and diversity to the nutrition given to the residents there. Moreover, since most orphanages and old-age homes depend on donations, this project would bring them one step closer to self-sufficiency.
George said, "We also do these for Adivasi tribals and farmers so that they can add diversity to their agrarian lifestyle and boost their earning potential, along with making them resilient to the ill effects of climate change."
The organisation has also planted food forests in schools. "We believe that schools are the ideal places for food forest projects as children can run, play amongst nature and experience the wonders of God's creation and how food grows," George told The Logical Indian. So, the students or residents of these institutions are the ones who enjoy the produce of a forest.
The Turning Tide has also partnered with around six organisations, most of whom have participated in plantation drives as part of their employee engagement programmes. Apart from that, many forests are funded by individual sponsorships and donors who have felt inspired by the initiative. However, budgets have always remained a constraint.
Challenges Of Growing Food Forests
However effective a solution might be, it almost always comes with its set challenges and limitations. At The Turning Tide, the biggest challenge was perhaps changing people's mindsets about some agricultural age-old practices.
George observed that most people were uncomfortable with the idea of dried leaves and broken branches that have fallen under a tree to be kept as is. They would sweep away whenever they would notice them. But it's difficult to clean a forest floor, George explains. A forest only grows above a fallen forest. Fallen twigs and leaves are meant to serve as natural compost for the plants. But it takes a significant shift in people's mindsets to let those be there and build a forest floor naturally. However, the problem with people's mindsets does not end here.
George said, "We have grown up thinking that we have planted trees, so the job is done. But to create an ecosystem is a very complex process."
The primary need of such an ecosystem is care. And the lack of that care is something a few food forests have suffered from. On few occasions, the saplings have not been watered or cared for by those in charge.
"Planting saplings is only the tip of the iceberg. I don't believe in 'selfies with saplings'. We shouldn't be chasing after numbers of saplings planted. Rather we should chase looking after these saplings," George adds. But does the man himself ever visit the forests?
"Always", said George, "As and when I can. And through the magic of technology, now we are also able to communicate with people through video calls and pictures," George explains in a conversation with The Logical Indian.
Rising Above All Odds: Dealing With Health Issues
But what makes George's effort all the more laudable is that he has consistently worked for all these years despite his tragedies.
George narrated, "Three years ago, I had a train accident. My leg snapped off into two. They have had to reconstruct my left knee. Maybe I can't jump, or I can't run. But I still get it done. I am not trying to say I am brave or any of that stuff, but the work for food forests helped me as well."
The man believes that his work serves as physiotherapy for him, as he continues to go on plantation drives, even if it means carrying a stool, sitting on it, and then digging holes for saplings.
"When you are passionate about it, you want to do it; you will do it the right way," he said, "six years ago, when I decided to go around this path in life, I knew for a fact that it was going to be challenging, it was going to be difficult. I have had to live a frugal life. No heavy spending. No going out and splurging. A big shift in lifestyle in order to make this dream a reality," George shares with The Logical Indian while sharing his personal struggles.
Reconnecting People With Nature
One of the motives behind The Turning Tide was also reconnecting people with nature, which the organisation now does successfully. Two volunteer groups engage in the plantation drives, one based out of Mumbai and one in Pune. Together, they have almost 60 members.
Mumbai-based lawyer and conservationist Shefali Alvares is one such volunteer. She went on her first plantation drive at a school in May. When asked to comment on the significance and sustainability of the initiative, she said, "A simple principle that I follow is that: why do I need to go to the forests, all these sanctuaries, (when) we can create that in our own backyard?"
Drawing on an example, she noted, "Trees in the footpath give us shade while we're walking. People go to forests and safaris for holiday destinations. Why not create beautiful surroundings outside my gate? This initiative is important, and I think it's extremely sustainable, to be maintaining our open spaces in urban areas as well as our tree cover: if we all do our bit."
When asked about plans, George responded that after planting 12 food forests in and around Bombay, The Turning Tide is looking forward to expanding its activities in Pune and other places. If provided with an adequate budget, he is willing to travel to any part of the country and replicate the initiative. The organisation is also planning to develop food forests on a micro-scale on rooftops.