We are QR coding 100,000 trees (and counting) in our forests!

First things first.

Turns out, this blog is coming out at quite a prescient time. For a while now we have been planning to document and share some cool things we have been experimenting with on-the-field to track and account for each tree we plant, in order to accurately measure tree survival rates and health . This blog does that, but will also inadvertently address some of the concerns raised in a recent research study that is getting a lot of attention (not planned at all, we promise).

In September, Nature journal published a research study that examined the long-term tree-planting and forest restoration efforts in Northern India- and found no evidence of any significant environmental or social benefits. The study was covered by several mainstream publications and, needless to say, many friends and supporters understandably brought it to our attention given that one of our major interventions is ‘tree planting.’ At least in layman’s terms.

Teak monoculture plantation (on the left) in Western Ghats, India. Monoculture plantations of fast growing trees like teak are “green deserts” that are terrible for the environment (Source: Conservation India)

Except we don’t think of ourselves as a tree-planting organization. In fact, Farmers for Forests (F4F) was born out of a concern (among many other concerns) for these massive tree planting campaigns around the world, which sometimes tend to be unscientific in their implementation (resulting in high tree death rates) and to the exclusion of the interests of forests-dependent communities.

And while we are on this topic, let’s move away from “tree planting organization” as a descriptor for non-profits/social enterprises working on forest restoration. It’s like describing organizations working to improve educational outcomes as “textbook distributors” or “suppliers of teachers.” “Number of trees planted” cannot be our impact. It is just the activity we undertake to achieve our impact- which in our case is protecting and restoring thriving biodiverse forests that will provide long-term environmental benefits. Because let’s remember, in order for trees to actually provide long-term ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, groundwater recharge, habitat for wildlife or soil conservation, they actually need to survive and become mature trees.

Now back to the original point of this blog post

By the end of this financial year, F4F will complete planting and actively be taking care of ~120,000 trees across ~150 acres. We’re thrilled that we have been able to meet our scale-up objectives, but also a little nervous. With fewer trees, it was easy for us to keep track of them and our impact manually. Now as we inch closer to the hundreds of thousands range, manual counting has become an onerous task.

Why is counting and oversight necessary, you ask?

For several reasons, the first being bringing more accountability and sustainability to the forestry space in India (as we highlighted in the beginning). Second, F4F follows a ‘results-based payments’ or ‘payments for ecosystem services’ (PES) approach, where we financially support farmers and forest-dependent communities, in order to fairly incentivize them to increase and protect India’s biodiverse forest cover. This is because we think there is enough evidence to suggest that to protect existing forests or grow new forests that survive long-term, we need to directly address the social and economic drivers that often drive deforestation - fuelwood, unsustainable agriculture practices, pasture for cattle-grazing, etc. So measurement and accountability is especially important to our model, given the financial support we provide is contingent on our program participants protecting and restoring these precious natural resources.

While we’ve been able to automate a large portion of the monitoring process, what we’ve found is that some amount of manual oversight is unavoidable. Baby trees, like any other species, need a lot of care and attention in the first two years of their life if you’re optimizing for survival and growth. They need a steady supply of water and nutrients and protection from grazing animals. A couple of rounds of tree inspections every few months allows us to find and fix problems like leaky pipes (because rats chewed on them!), clogged drippers and pest attacks.

But what we were grappling with for a long time is whether there is a way of making the counting and tracking process a lot easier?

Output data from DeepForest estimating number of trees in a program area

To figure this out, we experimented with several methodologies. For example, more recently we’ve been counting trees in our deforestation prevention programs using high-resolution drone imagery and an open-source tree counting algorithm called DeepForest. So we thought, why not try and do the same for saplings in our reforestation areas?

This method didn’t work out too well for us. Turns out, it’s hard to detect saplings even in very high resolution imagery. This method will likely work well only 2 to 2.5 years after plantation when the trees are large enough to be detected. Alternatively, we could work on developing better visual analysis algorithms that can detect even small saplings, but this will take some time.

Drone shot of our recently planted saplings in Ahmednagar District (Maharashtra)

In the meanwhile, we needed a way to make the process of manual counting easier since we were facing some problems in the field while doing this. Saplings are usually planted before the monsoons and once the rains hit, there’s a thick undergrowth of weeds making saplings hard to see. Another problem that often comes up during the process of manual counting is over or under counting. It’s easy to mistake a weed or other invasive shrub or sapling as a planted sapling and vice versa.

To solve some of these problems, we’ve been experimenting with a QR code system for tracking trees.

QR code after being pinned to the bamboo support of a sapling in our Raigad reforestation area

The ubiquitous QR code was originally invented to track vehicles and vehicle parts, but is now used in everything from digital payments to tombstone insignia to tracking trees. In our case, we pin the QR code onto a bamboo stick that we insert into the ground next to the sapling for growth support.

Screenshot of part of our dashboard that keeps track of survival rates of our trees (according to species)for our afforestation projects

This QR code is then scanned with a mobile phone app we’ve developed that feeds the data directly into a database that creates a dashboard — that helps us track information over geographical location and time.

Every few months a manual visit is done on all our reforestation/afforestation areas and the QR code allows us to collect information for each sapling, including which farmer’s land it’s planted, what species it is, a photograph, it’s geolocation, which donor paid to plant it and so on.

In a few months, when it’s time to track the tree again, simply scanning the QR code again will bring up all previous information about the tree and also allow our field teams to enter in new updated information.

After several pilots, we are now in the process of rolling out QR code tracking in all of our reforestation / afforestation efforts, but still have our thinking caps on to come up with an even better way to do this since the QR code method is not without its drawbacks. Laminated QR codes have a small shelf life — 2 years at maximum and lower still if you take into account the damage from regular exposure to sun, wind and rain. We’re also cognizant of the additional plastic footprint this work is generating and are working on ways to offset it.

We know this work is hard and tedious.

Piloting the QR code system in Raigad District. F4F team member scanning the QR codes using a mobile phone to ensure they work

But nature-based solutions to climate change were never supposed to be easy. Simply planting millions of trees without looking into whether they are the right types of tree for that environment, soil, climate or community cannot be an effective strategy for combating climate change, nature loss or community deprivation. Successful nature restoration work requires long-term energy, resources and investment — especially if you’re looking to grow long standing biodiverse forests that actually help mitigate climate change and support dependent communities.

So, to quote some of the media coverage of the Nature study, can we “plant our way out of the climate crises”? Absolutely not. And no thoughtful person or organization would suggest otherwise. There is no replacement for radical emission reductions. But neither is there any replacement for solving the unprecedented biodiversity loss and species extinction we are currently witnessing, other than protecting and sustainably restoring ecosystems like forests. Nature should and has to be part of our overall climate mitigation strategy. We don’t have an alternative.

For now, our field team loves the QR code tracking system compared to what the alternative was (which was manual counting and then going back home and recording it in an Excel spreadsheet). But we’re sure there will be other challenges that we will have to solve. We will continue to regularly update you on the same in the near future.

Arti Dhar & Krutika Ravishankar | Co-Founders, Farmers for Forests

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Farmers for Forests

Farmers for Forests

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A not-for-profit organization committed to helping farmers increase and protect India’s biodiverse forest cover to fight #climatechange and #poverty