Urban Tree-Huggers

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Women demonstrators protest a plan to to cut down more than 14,000 trees for a redevelopment project in New Delhi in June 2018. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Yale e360’s Mumbai-based Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar:

In India’s Fast-Growing Cities, a Grassroots Effort to Save the Trees

In India’s burgeoning urban areas, residents are rallying against the widespread destruction of trees to make way for development. The recent protests highlight a global issue: densely populated megacities in the developing world, which are most in need of tree cover, often have the least.

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Thousands of trees have been cut down in Mumbai in recent years to make way for new housing, wider roads, and a $3.3 billion subway line. COURTESY OF ZORU BHATHENA

The funeral cortege was small. Six people shouldered the bier and others followed, clad in the traditional Indian white. As the group filed past the state assembly building, the armed guards did not give it a second glance. In a few minutes, however, the security forces caught on. The procession winding its way through Mumbai’s government district was not a real funeral: It was a protest. The shrouded body held aloft was not a human — it was the trunk of a tree, one of many, including grand old banyans, cut down for the construction of a $3.3 billion subway line.

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A protester hugs an old tree in Mumbai to prevent it from being cut down for a subway project. COURTESY OF ZORU BHATHENA

Mumbai’s old trees have borne the brunt of new development in the booming city, including road widening, transport projects, and housing construction. The new subway alone is destroying or damaging 5,000 trees, from hundreds of old street trees in the dense parts of the historic island city to more than 2,000 trees in a mini-forest in suburban Aarey Colony, where a rail car shed is to be built. A less visible loss lies in defunct industrial areas, where large plots with old trees and ponds are being redeveloped into residential and commercial towers. “Developers are supposed to replace the trees but no one really checks,” says Stalin D., head of local environmental group, Vanashakti.

The loss is palpable for many in this city of 12.4 million. Mumbai has always had one of the world’s worst ratios of open space to people (at 1.1 square meter per person compared to 6 square meters in New York City), and the city’s air quality has deteriorated in the past few decades with increased construction and traffic — a million vehicles were added to roads between 2012 and 2017. “We’re not only losing our natural heritage in the form of old trees,” says Stalin. “Trees and parks are what make our city liveable, breathable.”

Mumbaikars have not taken the destruction lightly. Residents have climbed up trees to stop them from being felled, held mass rallies to save the Aarey forest, put up banners accusing the municipality of murder, and repeatedly gone to court. These efforts have not always succeeded in preventing the loss of trees, as demonstrated by the subway line, but they have raised public awareness and forced authorities to do more compensatory tree planting. In October, the courts ordered an overhaul of the municipal tree authority and required the agency to add qualified, independent environmental experts to help assess tree-cutting proposals.

Such battles are being fought in cities across India, where growth has come at the cost of thousands of urban trees, especially old street trees, leading residents to protest in dramatic and heartfelt ways. In Bangalore, a historically green city that has become a traffic nightmare as its economy has grown, residents formed a human chain in May when they found 25 large flowering trees felled overnight to make street-side billboards more visible.

In the sprawling capital of Delhi — which lost around 112,000 trees between 2005 to 2017, largely to road construction — a new proposal to cut 14,000 trees for a redevelopment project brought about 1,500 protesters onto the streets in June. The protesters included students who hugged and chained themselves to the trees, echoing a famous 1970s tribal conservation movement. The Delhi government has since promised not to cut any large trees for the project and to transplant smaller ones in the path of development…

Read the whole story here.

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