They walk the talk to save trees

Group strives for sustainable planting

They walk the talk to save trees
The group does not want to be branded environmentalists
Intense green activism, at times, comes with an in-built handicap of sentimentality. Amid the cheer around Environment Day vigils and human-chain symbolism, the core debate – how does a modern city allow inevitable, burgeoning development without compromising on its green cover – could get hijacked, with not much space left for concerted follow-up action.

A group of tree lovers in Thiruvananthapuram is trying to bring in a sense of grounded pragmatism in its campaign to protect trees in the city by organising guided Tree Walks on Sundays.

The walks were originally conceived as hands-on tutorials to generate greater awareness on trees of the capital city and, in turn, build a consensus of concern over their often unscientific felling. Three years after the walks started, the group has evolved into a platform for deliberation, a facilitator of awareness programmes for students and in its own way, a potential partner in civic planning.

The members of the group, however, like to take the campaign forward as stake-holders of the city without being identified as “branded” environmentalists.

Tree Walk was launched in May 2012 with 15 to 20 members; now, the group has 40 to 50 people joining in for the walks that cover specific areas over about two hours. Anitha S, an ecologist and consul­tant in environmental education, started the group in memory of her late mother, botanist Dr C Thankam. “We often realise the value of a tree only after it is gone. Its absence hits us only when we notice that the shade it had been providing is no longer there.

The walks were planned in an effort to document trees in the city and sensitise residents on the importance of trees in sustainable urban planning; any city that doesn’t have space for trees is a badly developed city,” says Anitha.

The group has, so far, documented presence of about 150 tree species in the city, some of them endemic.

Members of Tree Walk come from diverse backgrounds but all share a concern over the city’s shrinking green spaces and are trying to look beyond the tokenism that invariably derails similar initiatives. The group also has a Facebook community page where members share opinion and proposals to extend scope of the project.

The call is for a change in attitude among administrators and urban planners toward the idea of conservation. The tree protection committee attached to the civic administration comprises activists and writers but not ecologists. Their absence could translate into knee-jerk responses to the issue of dealing with dangerous trees. It’s convenient to cut down old trees with spread-out branches on a perception of threat but there could be alternatives before drastic measures are adopted. “It’s more or less like a friend reacting to your illness. A friend could be comforting and compassionate but you still need a doctor for the diagnosis,” says Anitha.

The call, also, is to build a culture of scientific, sustainable planting. The rain-tree that comes with a rich canopy and provides extensive shade is, still, not tuned to the local climate and cannot take extreme seasonal shifts. Here, a balance of aesthetics and longevity becomes imperative. When the city planners proposed cutting of a Madras Thorn tree – a species with origins in Spain that has adjusted to the city’s climate – to redesign a traffic signal, Tree Walk members intervened with alternative recommendations that were accepted by the administrators.

Recently, the Government High School in Atta­kkulangara – a rich biodiversity spot with over 100 trees – was in the news after three trees in the school compound were marked for felling to reconstruct a drain as part of Operation Anantha, a flood-mitigation drive against encroachments, helmed by Chief Secretary Jiji Thomson. After an initial face-off, members of Tree Walk managed to convince the authorities that a scientific pruning of some of the branches would avoid cutting the trees down. The group has also proposed participation in a Rs 3.05-crore renovation and beautification project at the iconic, century-old Kanakakunnu Palace – that housed the durbar and banquet hall of the erstwhile Travancore Royal Family – to ensure that the area’s rich green cover is not tampered with.

Tree Walk has commenced work on a Butterfly Garden at the State Central Library in the city and is lining up plans for a seedling bank. The group also works with students of five government schools in the city as part of its tree-protection campaign. The Sunday meet-ups are largely theme-specific and hence, the group is not keen on putting together walks to make the numbers. It has conducted similar walks in Thrissur and Kozhikode but expansion becomes a tough ask for a volunteer-driven initiative. On the way forward, Tree Walk is pitching itself as a citizen’s voice in the process of urban planning. “There are voices of mourning every time a tree is cut down but we would like to persist with the opposition while simultaneously pushing for more tree-planting initiatives to make up for the trees that we have lost,” says Anitha.

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