Can living fig-tree bridges save lives in a changing climate?

By AditiVerma2193 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1841, a young Scotsman called Henry Yule was exploring the Khasi Hills of north-east India when he came upon something no other European had ever reported. There, in that challenging landscape of thick rainforest and perilous gorges, was a most extraordinary structure — a living bridge formed from the roots of a gnarly old fig tree.

The tree’s roots had somehow reached more than 20 metres across a river and taken hold on the far side. Over time, they had thickened and interwoven to form a walkway, onto which Yule now had to step. One of the roots, which in places was thicker than his thigh, provided a handrail. Side roots had descended from it and merged into the walkway, making the whole structure strong and secure. Yule could cross with confidence.

The bridge was no miracle. Long before, human hands had guided the tree’s roots across the river, training them into a shape that could promise safe passage. Yule had assumed the bridge to be “unique, perhaps half accidental”, but he soon saw several more. Their architects were local Khasi people, whose attitudes towards time, the environment and their unborn descendants we are sorely lacking in our fast-warming world.

Fig tree bridge. Credit: Laurence Mitchell (https://eastofelveden.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/crossing-the-bridge/)

The Khasi Hills are in Meghalaya, an Indian state whose name means ‘land of the clouds’. The clouds cry often on this land, for nowhere else on Earth must people endure such heavy rainfall. Twelve metres of it falls in a typical year. After monsoon rains, the region’s rivers rise. The rush of water racing downstream renders steep gorges impassable, isolating villages and endangering lives. Yet people have lived in the Khasi Hills for at least 3200 years. For generations, they have overcome this extreme environment by harnessing the strong yet pliant roots of Ficus elastica, a fig species best known as the Indian rubber tree.

Fig roots are exceptional. They grow fast, long and strong. They can even rip apart bare lava and concrete. In many fig species, including Ficus elastica, the roots aren’t all underground. These figs produce aerial roots that flow down their trunks and drop from their branches. Their roots can merge and split and merge again, forming strong, mesh-like structures. Long ago, the Khasi people worked out how to get such fig roots to do their bidding.

It’s a practice still alive today. The Khasi and neighbouring Jaintia peoples have shaped fig roots into living ladders, whose rungs ease journeys up steep slopes. They have woven the roots into nets that hold banks of earth in place, preventing landslides and soil erosion. They have even forced fig roots to form a platform, from which to watch football games. But the masterworks of Khasi architecture are their bridges. Most — like one Yule sketched, below — form from the roots of two fig trees, one on either side of a river. The longest spans more than 50 metres, the oldest an estimated 500 years.

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Building these bridges involves first guiding slender fig roots through hollow trunks of betel palms, which support, nourish and protect the roots as they lengthen. Once the fig roots are long and strong, the bridge builders bind them to those of the opposing tree or embed them in the ground on the far side of the river. They shape secondary roots that grow from these mainstays into a net that will form a walkway. They use stones and soil to plug any gaps then wait for the roots to thicken and hold everything in place.

It can take 15-30 years before the bridge is strong enough to use. But in Khasi time this is an eye-blink. The Khasi people are investors in the future. People living there today benefit from the ingenuity and foresight of their ancestors and today’s bridge builders bequeath security to future generations. The fig tree bridges don’t only make commerce and romance possible between otherwise isolated villages. They also save lives. As the climate changes, this ancient approach to bioengineering has never been more relevant.

Meghalaya was already the wettest place in the world when Henry Yule explored its forested hills in 1841. Back then, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 283 parts per million. Today it is more than 400. More carbon means warmer air, and as warmer air carries more moisture, this means more rain. The state government’s climate change action plan says rainfall has increased in most districts of Meghalaya in the past century, with the highest increase in the West Khasi Hills. It warns that as temperatures continue to rise, so will rainfall and the risk of floods and landslides.

To architect Sanjeev Shankar, these threats call for renewed attention to living bridges. In a research paper he presented in 2015, he warned that they are being replaced by “inappropriate solutions”. Quick-fix bamboo bridges buckle and break – they can’t withstand the monsoon rains. People have died as a result. Modern steel bridges corrode, their cables weaken and snap. And because repairs are rare, these bridges last just 40-50 years compared to hundreds for living bridges.

Shankar says the living fig bridges cost next to nothing and become stronger, more robust and resilient with time and use – unlike expensive, short-lived steel suspension bridges. Indeed, some of the bridges Henry Yule saw in the 1840s are still saving lives today. Shankar urges a revival of fig-tree bridge-building, and even foresees bridge that are strong enough for vehicles to cross.

The only downside is the time it takes the bridges to grow. But Shankar sees potential to blend the old with the new. Having seen how Khasi people have used fig roots to mend steel bridges, he envisages planned hybrid structures — steel bridges that fig trees envelop with their roots and make stronger. Shankar wonders if other fig species could perform this role in other countries, helping people adapt to the changing climate.

The question is, will there be time? It’s a question for us all, as climate change doesn’t respect the short-term thinking that tends to rule our lives. The Khasi people’s approach is instructive. To build living bridges, they invest time and effort knowing they might not personally benefit but that their children surely will. Such foresight, patience and selflessness is rare.

This post was first published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and is reproduced here with permission.

IMAGE CREDITS: Top (Aditi Verma, via Wikimedia Commons); middle (Laurence Mitchell); bottom (Henry Yule, from Yule, H. (1844). “Notes on the Khasia Hills, and people”. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 14 Part 2, Jul-Dec (152): 612–631).

My new book —published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests.

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The majesty and mystery of India’s sacred banyan trees

Some 550 years ago, so a story goes, the poet-sage Kabir was on a silt island in India’s Narmada River. He was brushing his teeth with a twig. When he flung his toothbrush to the ground, up sprang a gigantic tree whose crown spread so wide it cast shade over a whole hectare of land. Today Kabir’s tree is one of the biggest plants on the planet. Its true story is no less extraordinary than the myth.

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It is a banyan (Ficus benghalensis), one of hundreds of species of fig trees. No other plants feature in so rich a mix of folklore and faith stories as the figs. And none is as awesome to behold as the banyan. Walk beneath Kabir’s tree’s crown and you will see the illusion of a forest, a tight mass of thousands of trees. But look closer and you will see that everything is connected. There is just one tree. The banyan’s Sanskrit names —nyagrodha, ‘the down-grower’ and bahupada, ‘the one with many feet’— hint at its secrets.

Many years earlier another tree had occupied the spot where Kabir’s banyan grows. That tree’s fate shifted when a bird, or perhaps a bat or monkey, passed by having fed earlier on ripe Ficus benghalensis figs. The animal pooped on the tree and condemned it to a slow death by smothering.

The animal’s droppings had delivered a banyan seed to a moist nook. Within weeks, the fig seed had split open. It sent up a firm stalk with a collar of two tiny green leaves. It sent down tiny roots that hugged the host tree as they stretched earthwards in search of soil. In time these roots would expand and enlace. They would encase the host tree and erase all trace of it.

As the banyan grew, its branches also sent out roots. They dangled like strands of unkempt hair. When they reached the ground these roots grew thick and woody and merged to form what looked like new tree trunks. The massive branches reached ever outwards, sending down yet more and more prop roots. These pillars formed increasingly wide circles around the banyan’s core, enclosing it in nested cloisters.

When British historian Thomas Maurice wrote about Kabir’s banyan in 1794, he said it had more than 350 of these false trunks, each one thicker than an English oak tree, and another 3000 smaller stems. He noted that locals said the tree was 3000 years old, suggesting it existed long before Kabir himself. This raises the possibility that it is the same banyan Alexander the Great and his army encountered on the Narmada River when they arrived in India in 326 BCE.

Alexander’s men were certainly the first Europeans known to have seen a banyan. They were amazed. The vivid descriptions they wrote down would inform Theophrastus, the father of modern botany, back home in Greece. But local people saw banyans as much more than impressive trees. The banyans had long been part of the cultural fabric. More than a thousand years earlier the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation adopted a stylised banyan as a symbol in their script. Later Vedic, Jain and Buddhist and Hindu scriptures and stories mention banyans often.

To bodies, these trees provided shelter, food and medicines to treat dozens of disorders. To minds, they formed bridges to the supernatural. Gods and spirits moved among their leaves and pillar roots. By 500 BCE, Hindu texts described a cosmic ‘world tree’, a banyan that grew upside down with its roots in the heavens. Its trunk and branches reached to Earth to bring blessings to humankind.

The banyan became a potent symbol of fertility, life and resurrection. It features in Hindu stories of the universe’s periodic death and rebirth, when everything that exists dissolves into a ceaseless sea. One story says an ‘undying’ banyan is the only thing to survive the deluge. Another says that to ride the sea’s currents, the god Vishnu assumes the form of a baby, lying on his back on a raft formed of a banyan leaf. With one breath the baby swallows all that surrounds it, taking the turbulent universe into the safety of his stomach before exhaling it into fresh existence.

These symbols of life became agents of death after the British arrived in India and began to use them as gallows to execute rebels who resisted their rule. By the 1850s, there had been multiple occasions when they hanged over a hundred men to death from a single banyan. India restored dignity to these trees when it gained independence and made the banyan its national tree.

While the British knew these trees by name, Alexander’s army would not have heard the word banyan. The name only arose more than a thousand years later when Portuguese visitors to India modified the Gujarati word vaniyan, meaning merchant. They named the tree banyan after the traders who set up their stalls in its shade.

A banyan is a natural meeting place, a vast umbrella of dark green leathery leaves that blocks out the sun or showers of rain. These trees form the centrepiece of many villages. Entire cities have even grown up around these trees. Vadodara in western India is one example. It is thought to derive its name from the Sanskrit word vatodar, meaning ‘in the heart of the banyan tree’. Asia’s oldest stock exchange, the Bombay Stock Exchange, was also born beneath a banyan in Mumbai where stockbrokers would gather in the 1850s.

In cities today, the banyans are curtailed by construction or cut down to make way for roads. But if left in peace, there is little to stop a banyan expanding. The biggest one on record exceeds even Kabir’s tree. It is said to have begun life in 1434 at the spot where a woman called Thimmamma died when she threw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre. The tree, in Andhra Pradesh, now covers two hectares. Twenty thousand people can shelter beneath its crown.

All this from a seed that is just a couple of millimetres in length. Crack one open with your thumbnail and you won’t find much inside, yet the genetic material within has the power to create a tree vast enough to resemble a small forest. Ancient Hindu sages employed this paradox in a parable, which used the imperceptible power within a banyan seed as a parallel of atman, the invisible essence Hindus say permeates and sustains the universe and all it contains.

The banyan’s power reaches deep into our world. Like all fig species, these trees depend on specific wasps to enter their figs and pollinate the flowers hidden within. A side effect of this relationship is that banyan figs are available all year round. They offer a lifeline to birds, fruit bats, monkeys and other creatures, which in turn disperse the seeds of hundreds of tree species, planting the forests of the future. The banyans truly are trees of life.

This post was first published on 21 September 2016 by Newsweek. It is an edited extract of my new book Ladder to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, published by Unbound on 8 September 2016. Chelsea Green Publishing will publish an edition for the United States and Canada in November 2016, with the new title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

Photo credit: Chad Husby / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Pastoralists in the Media: Three ‘E’s please

Once upon a time, not so long ago, we were all mobile. Movement was what enabled our ancestors to track resources that were here today, gone tomorrow. In parts of the world where water, pasture or good hunting are not constantly available, mobility is still the key that unlocks scattered resources. It is the key to resilience. And as the climate changes, this ancient strategy could become more important.

Yet in many countries, governments marginalise mobile pastoralists and would prefer them to settle instead of roaming the land. Dominant policy narratives cast pastoralism as a backwards, unproductive activity that takes place in marginal fragile areas, where unpredictable rainfall leads people to overgraze and damage the land.

New research coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development with funding from the Ford Foundation has identified gaps in such policy narratives in the Indian, Chinese, Kenyan and global contexts. These policy narratives overlook both the dynamics of dryland ecosystems and how dryland communities have long learnt how to live with and harness variability to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems.

The narratives ignore the ways that mobile herding can increase people’s resilience in a changing climate. They also ignore the three ‘E’s –the economic value of pastoralism, the environmental benefits that herding brings to rangelands and the equity that should be at heart of good policymaking.

The role of the media

Media stories both contribute to and reflect the dominant policy narrative around pastoralism. As part of the project, I analysed media stories on pastoralism from Kenya, China and India and surveyed dozens of journalists in those countries (see the full research paper or a four-page summary). I found significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism.

  • In Kenya, pastoralists feature mostly in ‘bad news’ stories of conflict and drought. They appear vulnerable and lacking in agency. Stories make almost no mention of the benefits that pastoralists bring.
  • In China, the media presented pastoralists as the cause of environmental degradation and as (generally happy) beneficiaries of government investment and settlement projects.
  • In India, newspapers tended to portray pastoralists with more pity, as people whose rights to grazing land had been taken away and whose livelihoods were at risk as pastures dwindle and locally resilient livestock breeds disappear. Overall coverage of pastoralism in India was rare, however, and journalists there stated that pastoralists are ‘invisible’ to editors of national newspapers.

In all three countries, important topics such as climate change, and the links between mobility and resilience were under-reported. While 51% of Kenyan articles mentioned drought, only 3% mentioned climate change.

Very few articles in any of the three countries referred to the economic importance of pastoralism (4% in Kenya, 12% in China and 15% in India) or the fact that meat and milk pastoralists produce contributes to food security outside of pastoralist communities (1% in Kenya, 4% in China and 10% in India). The voices of pastoralists feature in less than half of the articles about them (41% of articles in Kenya, 36% in China and 25% in India). Stories that focused on women and children were even less common.

Towards improved narratives

Incomplete media coverage of pastoralism helps to sustain partial narratives that underpin policymaking and this prevent pastoralists from fulfilling their potential to provide food and sustain resilient livelihoods in a changing climate.

Yet opportunities to reframe pastoralism abound. In Kenya, for instance, an alternative narrative could show how the new constitution could work best for the drylands and their communities. In India, an alternative narrative could show how herding is part of the wider dryland agriculture system that can increase food security in the context of climate change. In China, an alternative narrative can relate how support for pastoralism can increase food security and better manage rangelands for economic benefits.

Journalists and editors can act to create more balanced, nuanced and accurate narratives around pastoralism. This will involve reporting on the economics of pastoralism, as well as on the other values of pastoralism that are harder to price. It will involve a better understanding of mobility and markets, of resilience and vulnerability. It will require journalists and researchers to communicate better together and it will require the media to give more voice to the pastoralists themselves.

Donors and development agencies can act to encourage more accurate, relevant and useful media coverage of pastoralism by supporting training programmes, opportunities for journalists to travel to areas where pastoralists live, and initiatives that bring together journalists, pastoralists, dryland researchers and policy makers.

The test of success will be whether future media reports of pastoralism do more to cover the three ‘E’s – environment, economy and equity.

This post was first published on 13 May 2013 on the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

A changing climate demands change in narratives

Last year I wrote — here and here — about my study of how media portrayals of pastoralists in China, India and Kenya can contribute to policy narratives that limit people’s resilience to climatic variability. IIED has now published my research and a short briefing paper that presents the main findings and recommendations.

Here is a summary of the research paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Resilient food systems depend on appropriate policies that enable people to take advantage of their own adaptive capacity. Pastoralists use their mobility to take advantage of resources – pasture and water – that are patchily distributed in space and time. Pastoralism can make major contributions to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity. However, these benefits often go unacknowledged – by policy makers, donors and the public at large. This is in part because of development and media narratives that paint pastoralism as something bad that needs to change. This paper explores how the media portrays pastoralism. To do so, we analysed the content of newspaper articles about pastoralists in Kenya, China and India, and also invited journalists in these countries to complete an online survey and telephone interview. We identified significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in the media’s portrayal of pastoralists.

And here is a summary of the briefing paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Mobile pastoralism contributes substantially to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity, and can increase resilience to climate change; but policymakers, donors and the public at large tend not to appreciate its benefits. Policy narratives portray pastoralism as an outdated practice, and the media stories that help shape policy processes and public opinion often contribute to these false portrayals. An IIED study analysed the content of stories from media outlets in Kenya, China and India, and surveyed journalists in each country. It identified significant knowledge gaps and inter-country differences in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism. The analysis also found that media outlets in these countries under-report climate change, the economic value of pastoralism and the links between pastoralist mobility and resilience. Journalists, researchers and pastoralist communities need to work together to improve media coverage of pastoralism, and by doing so highlight pastoralism’s potential contribution to sustainable development in a changing climate.

A challenge: To anyone who ever used the phrase “tree-hugger”

It was way past midnight in Montreal and on Rue Saint Hubert a blind-drunk man was weaving his way past my friends Marie-Josée and Diego as they waited for a taxi last week.

They told me the next day how the man had staggered up to a large tree and then hugged it intensely for a few seconds before meandering off into the night, unaware that anyone had seen him.

As we laughed about this private nocturnal meeting between man and nature, I thought about the phrase tree-hugger and the way people tend to use it to denigrate anyone who advocates a more sustainable way of living.

People who use the phrase seem to imply that a tree-hugger would value nature ahead of humanity — and that therefore their views are immediately worthless. But nothing could be further from the truth. Continue reading