‘Plant trees, save environment’ – we have been seeing this slogan for the last few decades on postal envelops, billboards, festoons, banners, walls, office noticeboards and colourful stickers pasted all around us.
The most popular television show, Ittady, has been giving plants as winning prizes of different games performed in the show. This campaign supposedly has had tremendous impact on championing social forestation in Bangladesh.
From hobby, plant nursery development became a commercially viable business. According to the agroforestry department of the government of Bangladesh, there are more than twelve thousand registered nurseries in Bangladesh, which has created about 100,000 jobs. Along the coast, plantation has been encouraged to reduce degradation of rural earthen structures.
In my research, it came out that such a promising adaptation measure became detrimental during super-cyclone Sidr, when 240 km/hour wind was swishing over those trees.
I am a social scientist by training and study implications of slow and quick environmental onsets on peoples’ everyday life. I believe in learning from how people experience in things.
Despite knowledge of the potential risks of growing plants without roots, the same types of plants were distributed to the victims
Following Cyclone Sidr, I lived in a coastal village for about eight months and worked there as a school teacher to understand everyday vulnerabilities of a coastal community, which is ignored in the powerful knowledge framing, limit peoples’ ability to withstand a cyclone, through rebuilding, relief support, access to natural resources in land, water and forest, alternative income opportunities, patron-client networks, and local power dynamics. Since then, I have been in visiting my research sites regularly. Throughout my research fieldwork one overwhelming observation I heard from all corners was about obstructions by uprooted trees on the roads preventing outside help reaching some areas.
This issue was encountered from the outset when nature became wild and dissuaded many people from leaving their homes to take refuge at their nearest cyclone shelter.
Falling trees and flying debris killed and injured a substantial number of people. Professor Bimal Kanti Paul from Kansas State University, USA, surveyed 132 Sidr-survivors from 12 affected coastal villages and found that 55 per cent of injuries were from falling trees and the remaining 45 per cent from flying debris.
It was really a great irony that, while the whole world is campaigning for a greener world, the implementation of such ideas at coastal villages in Bangladesh created additional risk.
Interestingly, most of the uprooted plants were not local species. They were imported from different parts of Bangladesh more than two decades ago as a part of a social forestry programme. Linked with a poverty alleviation programme, this strove to inspire peasants nationwide to plant timber trees like chamble, mahogony, shirish, rain tree, and so on, so that the peasants could have petty cash from selling mature timber.
Several small and medium entrepreneurs responded to this campaign, which gave rise of a significant number of plant nurseries all over the country. These nurseries tried to maximise their profit by increasing their productivity in a limited space. In particular, they cut the main root of the growing plants so that they could be grown on compost in a small plastic container.
There was also a demand by farmers to have the plants at and above a certain height so that their cattle could not reach the top of the plants to browse the leaves. However, while these plants grew bigger, their roots expanded only horizontally in the loose alluvial soil because of this severing of the taproot at a very early stage.
It was these plants that were unable to withstand high velocity winds and they became deadly airborne missiles in the high winds of cyclone Sidr. Despite the Sidr-affected communities’ unanimous endorsement in acknowledging the taproot issue as the main reason for big trees being uprooted, as shown by their lived experience, the experts rejected this local ‘perception’. For example, a high ranking officer from the Department of Forestry disputed it, arguing that in the Sundarbans, the Forest Department practices traditional plant nursery methods.
He was not, however, able to answer my further question about how practices in the Sundarbans are relevant to a rural settlement where trees are not densely planted, and nor would it be practical to do so.
As a result, trees are not resilient against high force winds through obtaining support from their neighbouring plants. My personal observation from the remaining legacy of the Sidr is portrayed in the picture, which shows how a plant with its main root intact has survived while another without a taproot, was blown away.
After Sidr, there was direct and indirect support from many International NGOs and donor agencies. Despite knowledge of the potential risks of growing plants without roots, the same types of plants were distributed to the victims.
By way of explanation, the NGOs blamed their donors for allocating insufficient money to buy appropriate plants. But in my conversations with donors, they claimed a very good cooperation with their partners, especially regarding funds.
So, I enquired about this matter with the Upazila local government executive, the UNO, as the government runs a monitoring device by empowering local government executives to authorise and approve any development project, before and after the project implementation and accomplishment.
Giving several examples of the on-going plantation programme during my research fieldwork, I asked the UNO why he would approve a project which would have fatal consequences during any cyclone event in future. His reply was quite strategic and straightforward.
His former bosses, who are likely to have very good connections with the high rank government executives, have joined the NGOs as consultants after their retirement from the government service. Hence, any action by him against an NGO could jeopardise his career. Thus, he remains silent and despite having an institutional monitoring device to evaluate development activities, the issue remains unaddressed.
In the last couple of decades, natural hazard events have increased dramatically and in recent years climate-induced casualties have increased by 18% worldwide. Statistical, satellite and observational data suggest that both the intensity and magnitude of storms will increase in the future as a result of further climate change. There are several issues like our engineered plants that need to be understood and addressed. Otherwise, what we have learned from our lived experiences will have no use.
Besides, the government’s ‘build back better’ slogan in regard to housing will suffer a substantial threat from uprooted trees and other flying debris.
The houses might survive high velocity winds and a high water surge, but would they be able to avoid structural collapse due to fallen trees? Prof Paul’s survey shows that 61.54 percent of structural collapse was due to tree impact on those houses, which caused more injuries indoors during the Sidr event than outside.
The writer is an assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Management, Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).