Shubhendu Sharma, Urban Forest Guru
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
At a time when 36 football fields’ worth of forest are destroyed every minute, industrial engineer Shubhendu Sharma followed his calling to plant urban forests – even if it meant quitting a dream job at Toyota.
By Melissa Pandika
Shubhendu Sharma doesn’t think people should need to drive for miles to the mountains or countryside to connect with nature — or even leave home, period.
“Cities should be so full of forests that no empty space should be wasted,” said 28-year-old Sharma from his home in Bangalore, India. “Rather than people going to the supermarket to get fruit, they should be able to directly pluck it from a tree.”
The Thoreauvian vision sounds odd coming from an industrial engineer. But Sharma believes that industry and ecology can co-exist — and in a world where 36 football fields’ worth of forest are destroyed every minute, they simply must.
Afforestt’s method could yield forests that would normally take 100 years to grow in just a decade.
So Sharma quit an engineer’s dream job at Toyota in 2011 and launched Afforestt, a Bangalore-based company that uses a scientifically tested method to grow dense urban forests in just two years. In fact, Afforest’s method could yield forests that would normally take 100 years to grow in just a decade. What’s more, they can thrive in even the most crowded cities; Afforestt claims it can grow 300 trees in an area as small as six parking spaces. Their leaves filter pollution, while their roots absorb water from sinks, showers and washing machines, which would otherwise go to waste down a storm drain.
So far, Afforestt has planted 31 forests for residences, schools, businesses and hospital campuses throughout India. The company charges clients for each square foot of forest. Sharma decided to make Afforestt for-profit from the get-go. “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.”
But some experts argue that Afforestt’s method has its drawbacks. Densely planting trees might actually stunt their development, and without careful planning, it can also disturb the existing ecosystem in surrounding areas. And although Afforestt’s method can theoretically achieve 100 year’s worth of growth in 10, the company has seven more years to go before it can back up its claims with data.
In the face of such skepticism, Sharma meditates on a Sanskrit saying: vasudhaiva kutumbakam, or “the whole Earth is a single family,” a reminder of how humans and trees depend on each other to survive. It’s a primal connection he sees when locals help plant his forests — like the two-year-old girl lowering a sapling into the soil, followed by a 92-year-old woman, who murmured a prayer as she did so. “The sheer realization that what you do caters to everyone from two to 92 is the biggest satisfaction,” Sharma said. “We don’t even teach them [how to plant a tree]. It’s as if they have this instinct.”
With a boyish earnestness — and a tidy sidepart to match — Sharma laughed as he recalled having zero interest in trees or gardening growing up. Instead, he gravitated to carpentry. In high school, he built a machine that won an award from India’s Ministry of Higher Education.
Then he scored an industrial engineer’s dream job at a Toyota plant in Bangalore — where a PowerPoint presentation changed his life. In 2008, Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki spoke to Toyota employees about his afforestation method, which involves densely planting a variety of native tree species to create lush, fast-growing forests. So far, his technique has regenerated rainforests from Thailand to the Amazon, something once thought to be impossible.
“I realized that this is something which has to be done all over India,” Sharma said. The country has lost nearly 385 square miles of forest in two years. “This [deforestation] can’t go on forever.”
Then came a tougher realization: “I knew this was something I wanted to do the rest of my life,” he said. But he also knew how disappointed he’d make his parents if he abandoned a brilliant engineering career to plant trees for a living. When he tried to broach the topic, they would hear none of it. Still, he was so intrigued by Miyawaki’s method that he decided to test it in his own backyard. Sure enough, he transformed his barren plot into a grove of 300 trees as tall as his house in just two years.
Social entrepreneurship is overhyped.
— Shubhendu Sharma
After proving that “even a commoner” like himself could create a forest, he knew what he needed to do next; he quit his job at Toyota — without telling his parents. “When you fall in love with something, you don’t really think,” Sharma laughed. They didn’t find out until four months after he had launched the company, when he came home wearing an Afforestt uniform. Now, they’re “very supportive,” he said. “If you love what you’re doing, everyone around you will be happy.”
Sharma launched Afforestt in 2011, sans investors or donations. Dead-set on building afforestation as an industry — not just Afforestt as a business — he refused to “lie at the mercy” of another corporation’s profits. It was a high bar. But Sharma printed business cards and presented at countless conferences, a cardboard box of native tree saplings in tow. A month later, a furniture manufacturing company asked Afforestt to plant a forest for them — and the requests kept pilling up. Afforestt maintains a positive cash flow to this day.
The six-person company bases its method largely on Miyawaki’s. But Sharma also applies his engineer’s efficiency to speed up the process, designing a computer algorithm to determine what ratio and sequence to plant each tree species, for example. Ninety-two percent of his saplings survive and grow nearly two meters each year.
The Afforestt team first surveys the soil to determine which nutrients it lacks, as well the native plant species in the closest forest. Then they prepare the saplings and mix any needed nutrients into the soil. They spend the next two years watering and weeding the area, which then no longer needs maintenance.
Yet Afforestt’s method “may not be the best solution,” argues Pedro Beja, a senior scientist at Portugal’s Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Planting trees too closely together might cause them to slow their development to compensate for the lack of space. And planting an abundance of native species might cause them to outcompete existing exotic species — such as those in urban parks — that help support native species already growing in the area. Plus, growing forests near grasslands has been shown to displace animals already living in these habitats. “Afforestation should not be regarded as a panacea,” Beja said.
But Sharma doesn’t waste time worrying about whether afforestation will heal the planet. Instead, he stays rooted in the teachings of a sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. “You have to concentrate on what you do, your karma, and never think about the benefit. It will eventually come,” he said. “It’s my karma to make more and more forests.”
- Melissa Pandika, Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with an eye to all things science, medicine and more. Likes distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.Contact Melissa Pandika