Industrial engineer quits job to plant mini-forests everywhere

mini-forests photo
Video screen capture TED

From Van Jones to Majora Carter, TED has brought us some inspiring environmental heroes and important perspectives.

But any time a speaker starts talking too much about "new" methodologies or solutions for the pressing environmental problems we face, I try to keep a critical head on my shoulders. (The temptation to look for silver bullets can be pretty strong in times like these.)

So when I read a blurb for a TED talk by industrial engineer Shubhendu Sharma, an industrial engineer who quit his job at Toyota to plant "mini-forests" populated entirely by native species which he claims are 30 times denser than a plantation, and grow 10 times faster than a naturally recurring forest would, I confess I was skeptical.

Based on the reforestation techniques of Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, Sharma's for-profit business Afforrestt grows mini-forests on barren land at locations ranging from schools to police stations to residential buildings. The idea, he says, is to turn restoring and reforesting large parts of the world into a significant industry.

Here's how he described the proposition in an interview with Ozy:

“Social entrepreneurship is overhyped,” said the 2014 TED fellow. Instead, he wants to make afforestation — the transformation of bare land into forest — a full-fledged industry that “should be taken as seriously as building roads and making software.”

The specifics of the Miyawaki method appears to be based around intensive nursery cultivation of key native species, careful selection of species to include pioneer plants that will support the growth of other species, as well as unusually dense planting and the use of organic soil amendments where necessary. The methodology has already been used to in massive reforestation schemes in Thailand, Japan and India, and Sharma is adding his engineer's mind to expand the methodology to small-scale, often urban applications. Among Afforrestt's own innovations are an open source platform for learning the methodology and selecting species appropriate for your own bioregion, as well as hardware for remote soil monitoring and diagnosis.

Now I'm still trying to keep my skeptic hat on here too, so I should note that the Ozy article speaks to Pedro Beja, a senior scientist at Portugal’s Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources, who has concerns about such dense planting of forests, and cautions folks not to get too carried away with the idea of aforestation as a panacea. In some ecosystems, densely planted native forests may upset the balance of what was there already.

Still, looking at the before and after photos of barren, urban landscapes followed by lush, green mini-forests a few years later, I have to say that I have a hard time seeing this as anything but a very good thing.

Industrial engineer quits job to plant mini-forests everywhere
Using efficiency techniques learned at Toyota, Shubhendu Sharma believes he can grow native forests faster than nature ever could.

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