Wild Systems

ECO Coin Award Interviews: Shubhendu Sharma

The world is changing, and it’s important that we evolve with it. The ECO Coin Award is our way of recognizing innovations and initiatives which help us adapt to our next nature. All the nominees aim at creating a more humane and sustainable future for us and the planet. Now, in the lead-up to the announcement of this year’s winner, we’re interviewing each of the three finalists to learn about their values, insights and visions for the future. First up is Shubhendu Sharma, founder of Afforestt, nominated for the award in recognition of his efforts to spread the unique Miyawaki method of afforestation across the world.

The Miyawaki method involves planting a lot of trees and other vegetation in a small area, in order to encourage a little, but dense, self-sustaining forest to grow. Afforestt, based in India, is Sharma’s vehicle for spreading the Miyawaki method across the world.

In the Q&A below, we asked Sharma about the method, the business and his hopes and plans for the future.

What about the Miyawaki technique that initially inspired you?

I was deeply inspired by the growth results of the Miyawaki forest. I met Dr. Miyawaki for the first time at his presentation at Toyota, where I worked at the time. He showed some pictures of his work and I was deeply moved by looking at them.

In his entire presentation, which was in Japanese, he said one thing in English: “One meter one year”. What he meant was that these forests grow so fast that in just ten years they will be as high as ten meters. And that’s the average height – the tallest trees can be much taller. His promise inspired me to join his team as a volunteer.

What exactly are the unique methods that make this technique so effective?

This method is unique from other methods of afforestation of course, but if you compare it to the way in which natural forests grow, there isn’t much difference.

As humans we are 100% dependent on ecology

The Miyawaki method is totally based on the Potential Natural Vegetation (PNV) of the place. PNV is the vegetation which would grow on the place naturally without any human intervention, in a few hundred years. After going through various stages, this vegetation would reach a state called climax forest. Climax forest is a forest that keeps regenerating itself. We use the climax forest species of trees to make our forests, bypassing all previous stages.

Another difference is density; we plant three to five trees per square meter, which is exactly how you find trees and their seedlings in a natural forest. Unlike conventional plantations these forests are so dense that it’s extremely difficult to walk through them. They are self-sustaining and maintenance free. Dr. Miyawaki says that no management is the best management.

An employee stands in front of the small forest on the grounds of his company. The forest was planted by Shubhendu Sharma.

The intention of the method is to create self-sustaining wild forests, not just gardens. Do you think cities and other urban areas can benefit from a little more wilderness?

As humans we are 100% dependent on ecology; the air we breathe comes from trees. The urban environment is getting more and more filled with concrete and glass – city dwellers are losing their connection with nature and forests. Losing this connection with nature will only make us more depressed.

We need many more forests in our cities for our physical and mental wellbeing. Miyawaki forests can be planted in extremely small spaces and this is why they are so well-suited to cities. Land is scarce, and forests make use of the vertical space which we usually waste when we make a lawn or a garden. Compared to a lawn, a forest enables us to produce 30 times more green surface area in the same space.

We need to examine natural systems and mimic them for sustenance

There’s no particular magic or futuristic technology to the Miyawaki technique. Do you think simply paying close attention to nature can yield more innovations than we’d expect?

Absolutely. During my engineering job at Toyota I was lucky to have a job profile that took me to the suppliers of different parts of the automobile. So I could learn about the manufacturing processes of different materials. One phenomenon that I found common in all the manufacturing processes was that all of them worked against nature. Natural systems are cyclical; each product produced by nature eventually becomes a raw material again. Conversely, most human-made systems are linear and most of what we produce never returns to nature.

What we need to do is examine natural systems and mimic them for sustenance. The linear systems we run today are bound to collapse. When I look at Miyawaki forests with an engineer’s eye, I see that this is the only product which enhances itself with time.

You seem to be concerned with making your forests as biodiverse as possible, while still using only plants which are native to the region. Why is biodiversity such an important value for you?

An ecosystem becomes a naturally self-sustaining only when it has all the aspects of biodiversity – from microorganisms to fungi to large animals. When we make a forest, we establish only trees. Things like fauna and microorganisms must enter this ecosystem naturally. Only a highly biodiverse and dense forest can attract the native fauna, microorganisms and fungi necessary for its survival.

You share your techniques publicly, for anyone to try. Do you often hear from people who have tried it for themselves?

Our method of afforestation is based on Dr. Miyawaki’s work, iterated upon by the lifetime’s work of many other great scientists. It would be wrong to hide this technique from the world; it belongs to all of us.

We often receive emails from people with pictures of their self-made forests successfully using our method. So far, the open source method has reached Kenya, Australia, the US, Korea and a few sites in India.

Afforestation is the best method to restore native natural forests anywhere

Is it important to you that the method spreads beyond Afforestt itself?

It’s extremely important. It’s by far the best method to restore native natural forests anywhere in the world, and no-one should be deprived of such a great method.

What are your current plans for Afforestt? Will you continue to try out the technique in new locations?

My current plan is to develop an afforestation hub in India with a plant nursery, an R&D area and a training centre. I am also planning to open an office in Europe in order to reach many more locations in the West.

You’re nominated for the ECO Coin award, which celebrates innovations in sustainability. How do you feel your work fits in with broader sustainability efforts?

To sustain life on Earth, we need a few essentials like nourishing food, fresh air and clean water. Forests effortlessly produce these essentials. I believe that humans belong to nature as much as the other 8.4 million species on the planet. By bringing back our forests, we can re-establish the broken connection between man and forest and make our world happier, healthier, more peaceful and of course more sustainable.

Images: Afforestt

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