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TED@BCG Paris

Shubhendu Sharma: How to grow a forest in your backyard

May 18, 2016

Forests don't have to be far-flung nature reserves, isolated from human life. Instead, we can grow them right where we are -- even in cities. Eco-entrepreneur and TED Fellow Shubhendu Sharma grows ultra-dense, biodiverse mini-forests of native species in urban areas by engineering soil, microbes and biomass to kickstart natural growth processes. Follow along as he describes how to grow a 100-year-old forest in just 10 years, and learn how you can get in on this tiny jungle party.

Shubhendu Sharma - Eco-entrepreneur
Shubhendu Sharma creates afforestation methods that make it easy to plant maintenance-free, wild and biodiverse forests. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
This is a man-made forest.
00:12
It can spread over acres
and acres of area,
00:15
or it could fit in a small space --
00:18
as small as your house garden.
00:22
Each of these forests
is just two years old.
00:27
I have a forest in the backyard
of my own house.
00:31
It attracts a lot of biodiversity.
00:34
(Bird call)
00:37
I wake up to this every morning,
00:42
like a Disney princess.
00:43
(Laughter)
00:45
I am an entrepreneur
00:46
who facilitates the making
of these forests professionally.
00:48
We have helped factories,
00:52
farms,
00:54
schools,
00:55
homes,
00:58
resorts,
01:00
apartment buildings,
01:02
public parks
01:04
and even a zoo
01:06
to have one of such forests.
01:08
A forest is not an isolated piece of land
where animals live together.
01:10
A forest can be an integral part
of our urban existence.
01:15
A forest, for me,
01:22
is a place so dense with trees
that you just can't walk into it.
01:23
It doesn't matter
how big or small they are.
01:27
Most of the world
we live in today was forest.
01:30
This was before human intervention.
01:34
Then we built up our cities
on those forests,
01:36
like São Paulo,
01:38
forgetting that we belong
to nature as well,
01:40
as much as 8.4 million
other species on the planet.
01:43
Our habitat stopped being
our natural habitat.
01:48
But not anymore for some of us.
01:52
A few others and I today make
these forests professionally --
01:54
anywhere and everywhere.
01:58
I'm an industrial engineer.
02:01
I specialize in making cars.
02:03
In my previous job at Toyota,
02:05
I learned how to convert
natural resources into products.
02:08
To give you an example,
02:12
we would drip the sap
out of a rubber tree,
02:14
convert it into raw rubber
02:16
and make a tire out of it -- the product.
02:18
But these products can never
become a natural resource again.
02:21
We separate the elements from nature
02:25
and convert them
into an irreversible state.
02:28
That's industrial production.
02:31
Nature, on the other hand,
works in a totally opposite way.
02:33
The natural system produces
by bringing elements together,
02:37
atom by atom.
02:41
All the natural products
become a natural resource again.
02:44
This is something which I learned
02:50
when I made a forest
in the backyard of my own house.
02:53
And this was the first time
I worked with nature,
02:56
rather than against it.
02:59
Since then,
03:01
we have made 75 such forests
in 25 cities across the world.
03:02
Every time we work at a new place,
03:09
we find that every single element
needed to make a forest
03:11
is available right around us.
03:16
All we have to do is to bring
these elements together
03:18
and let nature take over.
03:21
To make a forest we start with soil.
03:24
We touch, feel and even taste it
03:27
to identify what properties it lacks.
03:30
If the soil is made up of small particles
it becomes compact --
03:33
so compact, that water cannot seep in.
03:36
We mix some local biomass
available around,
03:40
which can help soil become more porous.
03:44
Water can now seep in.
03:48
If the soil doesn't have
the capacity to hold water,
03:51
we will mix some more biomass --
03:55
some water-absorbent material
like peat or bigas,
03:57
so soil can hold this water
and it stays moist.
04:00
To grow, plants need water,
sunlight and nutrition.
04:05
What if the soil doesn't have
any nutrition in it?
04:10
We don't just add nutrition
directly to the soil.
04:14
That would be the industrial way.
04:16
It goes against nature.
04:18
We instead add microorganisms to the soil.
04:19
They produce the nutrients
in the soil naturally.
04:22
They feed on the biomass
we have mixed in the soil,
04:26
so all they have to do
is eat and multiply.
04:29
And as their number grows,
04:32
the soil starts breathing again.
04:34
It becomes alive.
04:35
We survey the native
tree species of the place.
04:38
How do we decide what's native or not?
04:40
Well, whatever existed
before human intervention is native.
04:43
That's the simple rule.
04:47
We survey a national park
04:49
to find the last remains
of a natural forest.
04:54
We survey the sacred groves,
04:58
or sacred forests around old temples.
05:01
And if we don't find anything at all,
05:04
we go to museums
05:07
to see the seeds or wood of trees
existing there a long time ago.
05:08
We research old paintings,
poems and literature from the place,
05:14
to identify the tree species
belonging there.
05:19
Once we know our trees,
05:23
we divide them in four different layers:
05:24
shrub layer, sub-tree layer,
tree layer and canopy layer.
05:26
We fix the ratios of each layer,
05:30
and then we decide the percentage
of each tree species in the mix.
05:32
If we are making a fruit forest,
05:38
we increase the percentage
of fruit-bearing trees.
05:40
It could be a flowering forest,
05:43
a forest that attracts
a lot of birds or bees,
05:45
or it could simply be a native,
wild evergreen forest.
05:49
We collect the seeds
and germinate saplings out of them.
05:55
We make sure that trees
belonging to the same layer
05:58
are not planted next to each other,
06:01
or they will fight for the same
vertical space when they grow tall.
06:03
We plant the saplings close to each other.
06:07
On the surface, we spread
a thick layer of mulch,
06:10
so when it's hot outside
the soil stays moist.
06:13
When it's cold,
06:16
frost formation happens only on the mulch,
06:18
so soil can still breathe
while it's freezing outside.
06:21
The soil is very soft --
06:25
so soft, that roots
can penetrate into it easily,
06:28
rapidly.
06:32
Initially, the forest doesn't
seem like it's growing,
06:33
but it's growing under the surface.
06:36
In the first three months,
06:38
roots reach a depth of one meter.
06:40
These roots form a mesh,
06:42
tightly holding the soil.
06:44
Microbes and fungi live
throughout this network of roots.
06:46
So if some nutrition is not available
in the vicinity of a tree,
06:50
these microbes are going to get
the nutrition to the tree.
06:54
Whenever it rains,
06:57
magically,
06:59
mushrooms appear overnight.
07:00
And this means the soil below
has a healthy fungal network.
07:02
Once these roots are established,
07:06
forest starts growing on the surface.
07:08
As the forest grows we keep watering it --
07:11
for the next two to three years,
we water the forest.
07:16
We want to keep all the water
and soil nutrition only for our trees,
07:20
so we remove the weeds
growing on the ground.
07:25
As this forest grows,
it blocks the sunlight.
07:28
Eventually, the forest becomes so dense
07:32
that sunlight can't reach
the ground anymore.
07:35
Weeds cannot grow now,
because they need sunlight as well.
07:37
At this stage,
07:41
every single drop of water
that falls into the forest
07:43
doesn't evaporate back
into the atmosphere.
07:46
This dense forest condenses the moist air
07:49
and retains its moisture.
07:52
We gradually reduce and eventually
stop watering the forest.
07:54
And even without watering,
07:59
the forest floor stays moist
and sometimes even dark.
08:00
Now, when a single leaf
falls on this forest floor,
08:05
it immediately starts decaying.
08:09
This decayed biomass forms humus,
08:12
which is food for the forest.
08:15
As the forest grows,
08:17
more leaves fall on the surface --
08:19
it means more humus is produced,
08:20
it means more food so the forest
can grow still bigger.
08:22
And this forest keeps
growing exponentially.
08:26
Once established,
08:29
these forests are going to regenerate
themselves again and again --
08:31
probably forever.
08:35
In a natural forest like this,
08:38
no management is the best management.
08:40
It's a tiny jungle party.
08:44
(Laughter)
08:46
This forest grows as a collective.
08:48
If the same trees --
08:51
same species --
08:52
would have been planted independently,
08:54
it wouldn't grow so fast.
08:56
And this is how we create
a 100-year-old forest
08:58
in just 10 years.
09:02
Thank you very much.
09:03
(Applause)
09:05

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Shubhendu Sharma - Eco-entrepreneur
Shubhendu Sharma creates afforestation methods that make it easy to plant maintenance-free, wild and biodiverse forests.

Why you should listen

Industrial engineer Shubhendu Sharma was working at Toyota in India when he met Japanese forest expert Akira Miyawaki, who'd arrived to plant a forest at the factory, using a methodology he'd developed to make a forest grow ten times faster that normal. Fascinated, Sharma interned with Miyawaki, and grew his first successful forest on a small plot behind a house.

Today, his company Afforestt promotes a standardized method for seeding dense, fast-growing, native forests in barren lands, using his car-manufacturing acumen to create a system allowing a multilayer forest of 300 trees to grow on an area as small as the parking spaces of six cars -- for less than the price of an iPhone. Afforestt has helped grow forests at homes, schools and factories. Sharma seen improvement in air quality, an increase in biodiversity -- and the forests even generate fresh fruit. Afforestt is at work on a platform that will offer hardware probes to analyze soil quality, allowing the company to offer step-by-step instructions for anyone who wants to grow a native forest anywhere in the world.

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