This Kerala panchayat 'rewards' farmers for not cutting down trees

The tree banking project as part of the Carbon-Neutral Meenangadi programme, offers interest free loans to farmers which they don’t need to repay if the trees are uncut.
A woman farmer in Meenangadi
A woman farmer in Meenangadi
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Eighty-three-year-old Madhavan was having paddy collected on New Year’s Day. His farm, spread over a modest 75 cents of land in Meenangadi in Wayanad, had added 100 odd trees three years ago. It was the time the panchayat began a new project, called ‘tree banking’. And because Madhavan looked after the trees for three years, he would get Rs 5,000 as part of the project -- an interest-free loan that he wouldn’t need to repay if he never cuts down those trees.

“They (members of the panchayat) brought the saplings, there was maruthu (Indian laurel tree), mahogany, jackfruit and other varieties. They said that if I didn’t cut it and maintained it for three years, I’d get Rs 50 a tree as an interest-free loan for the next ten years. The first installation was given in October,” Madhavan says.

In the same ward – Choothupara – is 28-year-old Prameesh Prakash, who is also waiting for his first instalment of Rs 5,000 as part of the project. “I had applied for the project after learning about it. Some of the trees I planted on my own. The others were brought by the panchayat and they put numbers to all of them. After checking the trees for three years, they took my account details,” Prameesh says.

Carbon-neutral Meenangadi

The Tree Banking project was started as part of a larger programme – making Meenangadi in Wayanad a carbon neutral panchayat. The idea originated after the 2015 Paris conference on climate change. In 2016, Kerala’s Finance Minister Thomas Isaac and two members of Thanal, an environmental NGO, came up with the idea of making Wayanad, one of the highly vulnerable districts to climate change, carbon neutral. Meenangadi in Wayanad got chosen as the first panchayat they work on.

Wayanad was chosen because it is identified as one of the climate change hotspots by the Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change. The district is also primarily an agrarian one and farmers make most of its population.

On June 5, 2016, the Carbon-Neutral Meenangadi project got inaugurated and Thanal was assigned by the government to take care of the technical work.

“We prepared a study report within two years, calculating the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and also did a carbon sequestration analysis. We did surveys involving students and workers of Kudumbashree (women empowerment and poverty eradication programme of state government). We also did a survey of trees and the carbon content in the soil,” says Ajith Tomy of Thanal, who is the coordinator for the Carbon-Neutral Meenangadi project.

The idea was to offset the GHG emissions from 33,375 tonnes (measured in 2016-17) by 15,000 tonnes by the end of 2020. “That audit is going to happen,” says Suresh, former standing committee chairman of the panchayat.

Tree Banking – Rs 50 a tree

Foremost among the recommendations made by the Thanal team was tree banking, the project that would bring Rs 5,000 a year to Madhavan and Prameesh.

Tree tagging

“You need to encourage the idea of planting and sustaining trees without cutting them. People should get some sort of financial benefit from the trees. And if you project trees as an agricultural product, NABARD and other financial institutions may start offering loans by considering trees as security. This project could mark the beginning of that, on an experimental basis,” says Suresh.

The government allowed Rs 10 crore to the Meenangadi Cooperative Bank for the panchayat to take loans from. The panchayat would offer trees for free to willing farmers. Once the farmer takes care of the tree for three years, they will be eligible to get Rs 50 a tree a year, and this will continue for the next 10 years, as long as the trees aren’t cut down. The interest of the loans will be paid by the panchayat and the farmer needs to repay the principal amount only if the tree is cut down.

The Thanal study has included a list of trees that will be planted as part of the project including neem, cinnamon, mango, Indian rosewood, tamarind, bamboo, jackfruit and others.

“More than three lakh trees have been planted and in October 2020, and 157 farmers from two wards – Choothupara and Appad -- were identified as beneficiaries of the first instalment of payments,” says Ajith.

If farmers like Madhavan and Prameesh maintain the trees for 10 more years, they would get Rs 50,000 each.

“A team from Thanal and Kudumbashree went to check every tree in these two wards. When the tree was planted both the tree and the farmer were given IDs. The trees were physically tagged. We also used an app called Tree Banking to map the coordinates on Google Maps. Photos, species, and ID numbers were digitally documented and geo-tagged, to keep track of the trees,” Ajith adds.

Keeping track of the trees

The trees have been planted in 19 wards and monitoring happens every year. If a tagged tree is not there anymore, the farmer will have to return the principal amount received so far.

Reducing carbon emission in waste

Tree planting is a sure shot way of reducing carbon emission. But there are other ways to bring down the greenhouse gas effect. The Meenangadi panchayat has also been tackling the issue of waste production, which contributes 3% of the GHG emission.

“The methane produced in the bio waste is a greenhouse gas. A way out is to compost the bio waste and not let it decay and thereby produce methane. So, we collected bio waste and created a Thumburmuzhy model compost system. The powdered waste got used as manure. We have trained 38 women in the Haritha Karma Sena (Kudumbashree team that collects and disposes waste) – two each from 19 wards, to help with it,” says Suresh.

Bamboo park in Manikav LP School, Meenangadi

Plastic waste is also a contributor of carbon emission and Suresh says that plastic, when it is buried in soil, emits three times more carbon. “So it shouldn’t be allowed in soil. Again, with Haritha Karma Sena workers, we collected plastic from houses and organisations and divided them into two. The non-recyclable ones were shredded in the panchayat’s shredding unit and used as a by-product for tarring roads. The recyclable ones were sold to Clean Kerala Company (formed under the local self-government of Kerala for hygiene management) and that would bring an income for the panchayat also,” Suresh adds.

Other steps

The panchayat encourages organic farming and reducing electricity consumption by switching to LED bulbs. “We are also trying interventions to revive the natural composition of the soil. With the use of chemical fertilisers, the absorption capacity of the soil has changed a lot,” Suresh says.

The panchayat had already converted a land in Manikav to a forest -- Punyavanam - with the help of MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) workers, even before the Thanal project began.

Manikav punyavanam

“Kerala has immense potential to invest in agro-ecology as outlined by FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) and make our soils richer in carbon and thereby move closer to become a low carbon economy,” wrote Jayakumar C, Acting Executive Director of Thanal, on the study done by Thanal for the Carbon Neutral Meenangadi project.

Once the second audit is done to measure the carbon content, based on its success, the carbon neutrality project can be implemented in other panchayats of Wayanad, the Thanal team hopes. The panchayat team they have been working with has just been replaced by newly elected members. The team from Thanal hopes to continue the work in cooperation with the new panchayat members.

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