by Clare Dakin
Article image credit: Children and students. Photograph: Courtesy Isha Foundation
Clare Dakin explores the tree-based revolution of Tamil Nadu.
When faced with the collective challenges of climate change, financial instability, energy, water and soil scarcity, poverty, malnutrition and ever-increasing numbers of environmental refugees, it can be difficult to envision the scale of interventions needed to address these issues. Project GreenHands (PGH) is an initiative that aims to resolve some of these concerns on a large yet appropriate scale. Through the auspices of the Isha Foundation, PGH has enabled over a million volunteers to plant 7.1 million indigenous trees in Tamil Nadu, southern India during the last four years, aiming to increase the tree cover of the entire state back to its original 33% within ten years through mass people-participation and the planting of a further 114 million trees.
The project is a direct response to increasing desertification in Tamil Nadu due to over-industrialised farming, climate instability and the degradation and suffering of an increasingly poor and marginalised rural people.
At the core of the PGH strategy is the belief that social transformation is fundamental to environmental transformation and vice versa, and this is achieved by educating local people about the multiple benefits of trees, and then giving free saplings to those who have pledged to care for them for two years. In India trees can grow between five and twenty feet in a year, providing access to fresh fruits that can reverse malnutrition. Trees provide free medicines and shade, fodder for the cattle, green manure for the fields, fuels and fencing.
The consequent increased self-sufficiency keeps more money in the local communities, thereby reducing poverty and urban migration and rebuilding communities around a new vision of environmental abundance. Proof that trees provide a pathway out of suffering inspires villagers to tend their own tree nurseries and work with forestry experts to assess the topography for potential agro-forestry, bringing tree-based agriculture back to the heart of rural Indian culture.
Project GreenHands works because at its core it trusts that people can make the difference in their own lives; that with the right education and help, they will naturally take responsibility for healing their land and themselves. The PGH education campaign offers hope and possibility where there was none and purposefully generates public ownership of the project instead of dependence on outside intervention.
PGH also works to break down social divides, bringing employers and employees, schoolchildren, self-help groups, teenagers and single mothers to work side by side in the nurseries to grow and tend the saplings. NGOs and schools also grow and plant their own trees, university students are sponsoring villages while they study, and 160 Isha Foundation yoga centres offer volunteering within Project GreenHands as one of their ‘pathways of service’.
PGH has obvious importance as a global carbon sink. Few projects can match the scale of work undertaken during the twenty-five years of the Isha Foundation’s selfless service to the people of Tamil Nadu, with literally millions of willing hands prepared to plant trees, which in tropical climates sequester carbon up to three times faster than in temperate zones. Together with the significant social benefits of the trees, PGH provides a template for best practice that other NGOs can replicate.
Project GreenHands UK is looking for help from corporate sponsors ready to respond to the climate emergency and increase the capacity for tree planting in Tamil Nadu. It has also launched a fundraising campaign called ‘The 50p Game’, where fifty pence pieces are no longer seen as simply money, but as a token tree. Anyone wishing to take immediate action to address climate change can play, by saving their 50p pieces and donating them via the PGH website. This is a way to help those people who are least to blame for climate change, and who are most vulnerable to its effects.