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Rapid Reforestation in Nepal

Rapid Reforestation in Nepal

Lt Col (Retd) Philip Holmes OBE, Founder and CEO of Pipal Tree

Pipal Tree and its Nepal implementing partners, Mithila Wildlife Trust (MWT) and Lily’s Leaves have been pioneering the use of the rapid-reforestation Miyawaki Method in Nepal since December 2021. The results have been dramatic – far exceeding our expectations – but does this expensive, labour intensive method have relevance in the context of Nepal? Do we stand to make a real difference? In this blog post, I will present three specific scenarios where I feel the method can have a significant impact that justifies the investment of resources.

What is the Miyawaki Method?

Developed by a Japanese Professor of Botany, the late Akira Miyawaki, the method is designed to create rapidly growing, dense tiny forests. The minimum size is said to compare with the dimensions of a tennis court. This is often the scale of what might be available in an inner city area, within the budget of a corporate or in the grounds of a school. In a nutshell, the method differs from conventional reforestation where saplings are planted in small pits, well-spaced from one another to avoid competition. Instead, excavators are used to dig to a depth of around 1.5m to site a thick layer of compost. After the topsoil is replaced, saplings of native species are then planted densely (nine per square metre) rather than spaced out. The loosening of the soil by excavation and the compost layer allows roots to penetrate deeply and quickly. Above ground, there is a synergistic effect with saplings supporting one another, including giving shade from the hot sun. Species are chosen that give high, medium and low cover.

In Nepal, we have introduced some additional features. It is of critical importance that the area is fenced off to exclude domestic and wild grazers (such as goats and deer). Wildlife will be very welcome, but not in the early stages! We have used a range of substrates for compost such as straw and manure, but the most useful one has been Water Hyacinth. This is an invasive species that clogs ponds and waterways in south Nepal, but as a compost has tremendous water retentive capacity. Turning this prolific, nuisance species into compost is a fine example of “converting lemons to lemonade”. The other point to state is that MWT works closely with the community but also with the Department of Forestry. Divisional Forest Offices provide free saplings for nineteen timber-producing species. We have purchased saplings from private nurseries for a further fifty-seven species that can produce nuts and fruit, much valued by local people and loved by wildlife.

The increased cost of the method (excavation, labour, fencing, sapling purchase) over a conventional approach means that this precludes its use for general reforestation activities. However, there are three scenarios where the increased financial investment is well worthwhile.

Scenario 1:   Rural conservation community forests

Nepal’s southern plains (the Terai) were once covered with jungle. In the 1960s the process of jungle clearance began with the land being converted into arable farmland that should have become the bread basket of Nepal. In fact, the land has become exhausted and there has been an expensive over reliance upon chemical fertilisers that are both expensive and highly detrimental to the environment. Much of Nepal’s fruit, vegetables and rice is imported from India. These jungle clearances were of course at the expense of wildlife and biodiversity and few remnants of the original jungle remain. A notable example of a surviving part of virgin jungle is the Dhanushadham Protected Forest (DPF) in Dhanusha District, Madhesh Province, which has survived only because of its sacred significance to Hindus. Even then, the forest was being progressively stripped before the intervention of Dev Narayan Mandal, the Founder of MWT. He has been highly successful in marshalling the support of communities and the authorities, including Division Forestry Offices (DFOs), to put a stop to the illegal felling.

We are restoring biodiversity on the Terai through establishing small community managed conservation forests; being embedded within rural communities, as opposed to within national parks, is a central ethos of MWT. These forests, the first of their kind in Nepal, offer the following three main advantages beyond delivering a very rapid benefit to flora and fauna:

  • Providing a potential income to local people through ecotourism, as a more viable and lucrative alternative to farming exhausted land.
  • The forests provide an educational focus spanning the environment, art and history which connects local schools and colleges.
  • To act as a demonstration site for the efficacy of the Miyawaki Method.

The first of our community’s to manage rapid-growth forests was The Dhanusha Bird Park, to the southeast of DPF. This involved the transformation of a barren piece of community land alongside a small creek, that is being extended by phases as funds become available. The pictures below show the dramatic progress achieved in the first two years of the project.

December 2021
June 2022
November 2023

In setting up the site, a strip of land was planted conventionally as a “control” to allow comparison of the two approaches. This demonstration site has attracted visits by forestry experts from sixty-six of Nepal’s seventy-seven Districts. This site has been used for educational purposes, overlapping art with education. A number of handmade glass mosaics of local birds, made by Pipal Tree’s Founder, Philip Holmes, have been sited on plinths around the plantation. Mosaic art is also new to Nepal and is intriguing for schoolchildren.

We have found that it doesn’t take much to tip the balance in favour of wildlife. Even within a few months, bird species had moved into the area like the Lesser Adjutant Storks and Woolly-necked Storks which are endangered species. Even a family of increasingly rare Bengal Foxes moved into the site.

The second community conservation forest project is the Gurkha Memorial Forest (GMF) that we have been creating to the northeast of DPF. This project, which launched in May 2022, focusses on an area to the northeast of DPF. The project has two main goals over and above environmental enhancement and benefit to local communities:

  • To develop a strategic wildlife corridor that connects the isolated DPF with the wooded Chure hills to the north – a kind of umbilical cord that will in future offer safe passage for endangered species, including Nepal’s dwindling herd of wild elephants, mitigating against human-wildlife conflicts that can be fatal for both parties.
  • To commemorate the thirteen Gurkha soldiers and officers who have won Victoria Crosses (VCs) since 1939. We are planting a Miyawaki forest for each VC, with forests eventually coalescing through conventional planting between these forest nuclei to form a wooded strip.

Scenario 2:   Riverbank stabilisation and flood risk mitigation

The Kamala River acts as the District boundary between Dhanusha and Siraha Districts. It is as deadly as it is beautiful. The communities along the Kamala have to contend with some degree of floods annually. These were extreme in 1978, 1987, 2004 and 2007. The 2004 flood was the worst of these, claiming eight hundred lives and destroying several villages. People lost their land and had to be relocated to nearby government-owned land at Pasman Tol where thereafter they lived a hand-to-mouth existence. In 2023, we completed the building of a Community Learning Centre (CLC) to support the education of children at Pasman Tol to encourage and support their attendance at local mainstream schools.

The river is steadily moving closer to Pasman Tol and there is a very real risk of history tragically repeating itself. In response, the local authorities have recently been reinforcing the banks with stones and sandbags filled with cement, but we can see how a rapid growing forest and a mixed plantation could play a critical role in stopping further encroachment.

Scenario 3:   The urban environment

The Miyawaki Method comes into its own in the urban setting where only small amounts of land are available for reforestation. In this context, the method delivers three additional benefits:

  • Absorption of pollutants
  • A cooling effect
  • Improvement in the mental wellbeing of city dwellers

In recent years, Kathmandu has experienced dreadful air quality due to a combination of factors. These have included increased urbanisation, poorly regulated vehicle emissions, smoking brick kilns and its topography (the city lies in a basin that traps pollutants). Small wonder that Nepal has the world’s worst record of deaths from chronic lung disease. But in early 2023 the underlying toxic mix was exacerbated by climate change. The seasonal winter rains that normally clean the air failed and the same drought fuelled massive wildfires, the smoke from which drifted into Kathmandu valley. Kathmandu officially became the world city with the worst air quality; air pollutants exceeded a hundred times the WHO safe daily limit and, as ever, it was the poorest and most vulnerable within society who experienced the worst impact.

In July 2023, we responded to the need by creating Kathmandu valley’s first Miyawaki forest, a project implemented by Lily’s Leaves in conjunction with the local DFO, the municipal authorities and local schools, and closely supported by MWT. The aim is to reforest the bank of the Bishnumati River, transforming a stretch of public land that had become a communal dumping ground. See more here.

The land area available for restoration comprises a total of 4600m2. Under Phase One, we planted 1,500m2 with 2,320 saplings from thirty-eight species. In doing so, we have engaged with two major schools; The British School and Rato Banglo, with the site proving popular for project work and field visits. In just a few months, the results have been, once again, spectacular.

During Phase two, we will reforest the remaining 3,100m2, as soon as funds become available. This is going to be a greater challenge as the site has been used as a dumping ground for rubble that will be more difficult (and expensive) to remove.

It should be noted that we will take the plantation one step further as our vision is to develop this site as an oasis of peace, not just for general mental wellbeing but to benefit mental health. One of Nepal’s other grim statistics is that it has the seventh highest suicide rate in the world, mainly impacting upon young women. If we can develop this site – and replicate it at future locations – this stands to have impact within a broader therapeutic programme.

Future challenges

There are two major challenges that we need to address:

  • Climate change: A further grim statistic is that Nepal is the tenth most affected country in the world by climate change. Weather patterns have changed significantly, even over the past decade. Once predictable patterns have become highly irregular with droughts occurring where the south of the country was once saturated with rainfall during the monsoon season. We have to time our planting of saplings accordingly, irrigate the sites ourselves, and be alert to the risk of wildfires which are also on the increase because of climate change.
  • Funding: In spite of the crises in the climate and in nature, it remains difficult to find funds for projects that are environmental and being conducted 3,500 miles away. However, we plant by phases as funds become available. Usually, we require £20,000 to £30,000 to implement each phase.

Find out more about Pipal Tree and its work in Nepal here!

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