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Bilal Akhtar Chaudhary

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Bilal Akhtar Chaudhary

The man who builds climate-resilient

Miyawaki urban forests

“Jungle in a bazaar;” doesn’t it sound weird? Do you think it is possible to plant a forest in a bazaar or marketplace? If you say no, think again! That has already happened in Lahore.
In a short span of only three years, such a forest has been built in Lahore’s famous Liberty Market. This would, of course, be new to many Lahore residents as well as most Pakistanis. This forest is the result of steely determination and sustained efforts of one individual Bilal Akhtar Chaudhary. Growing such a forest has a lot of significance as it has been done at a time when Pakistan is losing its forests so fast that if we fail to adopt a technique by which the forests can be successfully planted and their growth can be significantly accelerated, the growing menace may result in an ecological imbalance ergo, environmental crisis which is already showing ubiquitous signs of its presence. That we are fast losing our forest cover is not hearsay but a reality. Take the example of Punjab province where the forest cover has declined by 72% in just eight years, i.e. between 2007 and 2015. This fact has been pointed to in ‘The Punjab Clean Air Action Plan’ of the Environment Protection Department which says, “Satellite imagery … reveals 72% loss of tree cover in the province in just 8 years from 2007 to 2015.”
In this state of affairs, a forest in Liberty Market, Lahore, has been grown by employing the Japanese technique of ‘Miyawaki’ and it has paved the way for another 51 Miyawaki forests in the city. Moreover, the world’s largest Miyawaki forest, on an area of 100 kanals, in which 160,000 trees have been planted, has also been recently inaugurated in this provincial capital.
Bilal Akhtar Chaudhary, the brain behind the Miyawaki forest in Lahore is among Pakistan’s top experts in this domain. As we commemorate ‘Earth Day’ on April 22, Jahangir’s World Times interviewed Mr Chaudhary to get detailed information on his endeavour. Here are some important excerpts from the interview:

Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): What is Miyawaki technique and from whom did you learn that?
Bilal Akhtar Chaudhary (BAC): ‘Miyawaki’ technique, which was developed by world-renowned Japanese botanist and an expert in plant ecology Prof. Akira Miyawaki, helps to plant forests with indigenous species of trees that can thrive in the local climate and topography. With this technique, plant growth is 10 times faster than normal and it also ensures the viability and sustainability of the forest in the long run. Since it can be planted in a minimal space, such a forest becomes as many as 30 times thicker than a normal forest. It is very suitable to urban settings. When you hear the word ‘forest’, the first thing that comes to your mind generally is that a forest covers a very large area. But this technique to grow an urban forest can be successfully employed in a limited area where dozens of native species can be planted on erstwhile forest-less areas. Such a forest needs care for just the first three years. After three years, the forests require minimum upkeep and maintenance. No cutting or pruning is required, and dead leaves, flowers, twigs, and wood are allowed to turn into mulch naturally. I learned this technique from an Indian expert, Mr Shubhendu Sharma.

JWT: How is the Miyawaki technique used?
BAC: First of all, we visit the area where a Miyawaki forest is to be planted to study as to what are the indigenous tree species there. Then, a sample from that soil is subjected to laboratory analysis. Its physical properties are observed to ascertain what is lacking in the soil. The secret of fast growth of trees with Miyawaki technique lies in adding natural ingredients to provide the soil with what it lacks – no chemicals are used at any stage in the preparation of this forest. For example, if the area is sandy and has low water-holding capacity, we will use sugar mill waste, called bagasse, in a certain ratio. Similarly, if the soil is predominantly clay, which we find mostly in Lahore and its peripheries, it will need water from below. It means the water needs to be taken deep so that as soon as the roots of the trees get developed, they have access to water as they require it to make their own food. We use wheat straw (called toodi in local parlance), and sometimes rice husk, to carry water down. These are the organic elements that we use to make the soil fit for planting so many trees.
The simple principle behind our visits to an area where the forest is to be planted is to study local tree species as they can easily adapt to the indigenous climate. Such trees support the local flora and fauna, insects and the bacteria that Mother Nature has created for that environment and region. These forests are multi-layered and trees in them are virtually in a race to grow taller than others. Another major purpose of a Miyawaki forest is to restore and revive the lost trees that were once a hallmark of an area. We want to bring them back. This is called climax forest and it is naturally sustainable.

JWT: Can a large area be reforested with the help of Miyawaki technique?
BAC: Yes, of course. Hundreds of kilometers of forests have already been planted around the world using the Miyawaki technique. There is no doubt that you can spread it on many acres and even beyond in very large areas. However, people are reluctant to plant Miyawaki forests in very large areas because it involves intervention which requires a lot of investment. In our country, it is generally believed that planting trees or planting forests is one and the same thing and it should not cost much. Nonetheless, it is encouraging that owing to the numerous benefits of Miyawaki forests, we have large clientele that do not want to wait anymore. This technique is not limited to any specific climate zone. It can be used in any area by studying its environment and soil conditions.

JWT: So does this mean that forestation using the Miyawaki technique is an expensive process?
BAC: Yes, it is true. However, a difference in scale comes into play in it. When you plant a forest in a very large area and you do not want fast-growing trees there or, in other words, the fast growth of the forest does not matter to you or your client, there is no need to employ this technique. However, when a client is willing to spend money to have a fast-growing forest in his house, factory premises or on any other piece of land, he will surely do that. So, you may call it ‘expensive’ but, at the same time, we cannot brush aside the fact that our environment has degraded to such an extent that having artificial forests is a pressing need of the hour. Remember, we have almost annihilated our ecological cover and we neither have adequate land nor a suitable environment to restore that naturally. As land/soil in urban areas degrades quickly, it is necessary to blow life into it. We have to toil just because our environment is not conducive to rapid reforestation. The Miyawaki technique has the potential to accelerate reforestation, so it’s not bad even if it involves exuberant costs.

JWT: When and where did the use of Miyawaki technique start in Pakistan?
BAC: The Miyawaki technique was first used in Pakistan in Karachi’s Clifton area. The second forest was planted in a private housing society in Lahore, which was inaugurated on August 14, 2017. The forest in the parking area of ​​Liberty Market was opened in January 2020 and was planted by our organization Restore Green under public-private partnership. This is the first instance of public-private partnership in tree planting. The land was provided by Lahore Development Authority (LDA) and financial resources were provided by Izhar-Monnoo Group.

JWT: Please give some details about the forest in Liberty Market?
BAC: The forest in Liberty Market was planted in two stages; in the first phase, we planted 6,000 trees in an area of ​​2,000 square meters while planted around 4,000 more trees in the second phase. So, at present, there are about 10,000 plants in this forest that covers an area of just over one acre. It has 8-10-foot wide corridors. The forest has more than 50 species of trees which also include medicinal plants and fruit trees. We have purposely planted fruit trees in the outer ring so people may pick and eat their fruit once they start bearing that. Most trees here are now around 22-foot tall. I would like to again mention here that no fertilizers or other chemicals have ever been used in this forest. We try to plant a plant having a height of three to five feet. To date, we have completed around 50 projects and have achieved 95% survival rate of plants – a feat that cannot be achieved with any other technique. Moreover, such a forest does not need much care. We have developed guidelines, with the help of regular writing and photographs, for this and we use the manual to train the would-be caretakers of the forests we want to grow.

JWT: What ecological benefits of the Liberty forest have been reaped so far?
BAC: Since we are a water-scarce country, therefore, a huge benefit of Miyawaki forest is that its water requirement in the long run is minimal because we mulch the forest floor with straw or some local grass species to keep the soil moist. Moreover, it guards the soil against the winter frost layer, which is harmful to the bacterial life in the soil. As the forest matures, all the rainwater that falls directly on its floor is absorbed into it and automatically raises the water table. Liberty Jungle is important in this regard also as the current location of the forest is known for stagnation of rainwater for a long time as it did not have the capacity to absorb that. Our most recent observation has found that all this water gets easily absorbed into the earth which, in other words, means a better water table level. Qarshi Park, where a tube well is installed, is located nearby. Previously, water supply from that would reduce in summers but with the existence of Liberty Forest, the declining groundwater level in the surrounding area has improved a lot. The Forest has now become self-sustainable and we don’t water it anymore. However, it is purely an eco-friendly project and not a model of commercial forestry. Its density is more visible than any other type of plantation in the area. During the 1970s, there were more than 70 species of native birds in Lahore, but now there are only 15-20 species. We are confident that these vanished species will come back to these forests.
Another distinctive feature of this forest is that it provides birds, humans, insects and other creatures of Allah Almighty with an environment no common tree or bunch of trees could provide. Birds feel safe here and they make nests here. They have an old connection with these native trees which is being revived. As you know, we have long summer seasons during which commuters and pedestrians need some shady places to get some respite from the scorching heat of the sun. We have observed that the temperature inside the forest is 10-12 degrees Celsius below than that outside it. Now, wherever we design a forest, whether it is to be planted in private or public sector, we try to incorporate as many corridors as possible and make provision for seating so that the people may remain safe from urban heat island during the summer months. The Miyawaki technique is very effective for this.

JWT: Which lost native trees have been planted exclusively in the Liberty forest?
BAC: We have specially planted Salvadora and “Jund” tree. These trees were no longer visible around us.

JWT: You are putting a lot of emphasis on ‘indigenous’ or local trees. If all trees benefit the environment, then why plant only the indigenous ones?
BAC: See, no tree or soil is bad. But, nature has provided for the trees in an area in accordance with its environment and natural resources. So, when you plant non-native species, they either die on their own or other plants hamper their growth. This leads to the creation of empty spaces in the forests and when sunlight falls on these gaps, it thwarts the growth of bacterial colonies that we want to produce there. As a result, the quality of the forest is not as good as it should be. Native trees increase soil fertility, keep the environment clean, do not cause allergies and are very important for local flora and fauna. In contrast, non-native trees cause many problems. An example of this can be seen in the fact that eucalyptus tree (called Safaida in local parlance) was introduced in the country for the rehabilitation of waterlogged lands. It sucks a lot of water from the earth. But you will see these trees on many other pieces of fertile land as well. The proliferation of such a tree in a water-scarce country is a matter of great concern. Similarly, Paper Mulberry tree is a major source of pollen allergy in Islamabad. In Lahore, you will find Conocarpus every here and there. But, it is to be understood that birds do not make nests on this tree. Moreover, its leaves do not degenerate after falling from the tree because there are no bacteria in the soil that can decompose them. In addition, the tree affects the foundations of houses and underground infrastructure (sewerage, water, gas, telephone, etc.) due to the spread of its roots. Besides, causing asthma and skin allergies, the tree also absorbs water from the earth and spreads pollen allergy as well.

JWT: How is Miyawaki forest unique from other forests?
BAC: Prof. Miyawaki used to say, “No management is the best management.” Once you have planted a forest, it is better to avoid any undue or unwanted interference. Just give it the care it needs in the initial stages where watering is the most important requirement. Moreover, you need to make sure that the forest, if planted in an area where trees can be damaged by cattle or children playing there, is properly fenced off. You also need to keep the mulch in good condition and weed out the unwanted herbs or bushes. It requires only this kind of care. The maintenance cost of a Miyawaki forest is negligible as only one person is sufficient to look after an acre of the forest and that too only until it is self-sufficient. This takes a period of only two to three years.

JWT: What problems and difficulties did you face initially?
BAC: The biggest problem I faced in the beginning was that people would not understand easily what we want to do. When we would explain the forest to our prospective clients, they would assume that it will not involve their finances. They would feel as if it will not cost them a penny as they would ask us to plant the forest on a piece of land they own. But, we are a private company and the projects are of commercial nature for us. A project incurs material cost, machinery-use cost, labour cost and many other heads which we cannot meet unless we have money. Moreover, when we would tell people about the process of planting a Miyawaki forest, they would say that they have never heard of using particular tree species and why they can grow more quickly. It was quite weird and ridiculous mostly for our public sector organizations. They would argue that planting a large number of trees in a limited space is tantamount to exploitation of the soil. However, I am happy that with the help of broadcast media, we have been able to disseminate more and more information to the people, and eventually promote the concept of, Miyawaki technique. Today, a growing number of people know what a Miyawaki forest is and how it is planted.

JWT: What progress has been made in providing training in this technique?
BAC: We have largely trained a local public sector organization in Lahore in this regard and it is planting Miyawaki forests in Lahore with considerable success. As for the Forest Department, Gilgit-Baltistan is the first region that invited us to work and we have arranged for pilot projects for their Forest Department at various locations. We will provide regular training to the concerned officials while planting the forests with an aim to enable them to carry out the work of spreading these forests in the best possible way.

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