(Left) Retired businessman Abdul Kareem now lives on the edge of the forest that he began planting over thirty years ago in Kerala, India. (Center) After two failed attempts, Kareem's forest finally took root within the laterite—a red, rocky soil typical of the tropics and known to be difficult to plant in. (Right) Once a barren landscape, Kareem's forest now sustains fruit trees, medicinal plants, and many small animals, including several species of birds like this Red-wattled Lapwing. Photos: Becca Cudmore

International

The Man Who Plants Trees—In Kerala

In India’s deep south, one man transforms an impossibly barren landscape into a fruitful rainforest where birds nest.

One morning in monsoon season in 1977, Abdul Kareem began to plant a forest. Tired of the big city bustle of his business career, he bought five acres of land in Puliyamkulam, Kerala, a small village near where he grew up in southern India. The land was laterite—a red, rocky soil typical of the tropics. It was also very cheap: the equivalent of $55. Facing bad odds of this clay-like soil ever yielding trees, villagers were sure that Kareem’s forest would flop.

Undeterred, Kareem poked about a hundred cashew, date, and other native seedlings into the spaces between the laterite rocks. The local well was too low to draw water, so he ferried in buckets of water by motorcycle from a mile away.

That first year, just one seedling survived. “People laughed,” he says. The next rainy season Kareem visited the local forestry department to request new saplings. India had just launched a government reforestation initiative and was giving them away for free. Again, the young trees all failed.

In his third attempt in 1980, Kareem thought to sow trees that were slightly older and more robust. They stretched their roots to the groundwater below, and within a month, they shot up. Quickly, Kareem planted more.

Encouraged by his success, he expanded his plot by purchasing 27 more acres of laterite land. More than three decades later, Kareem, age 69, is the owner of “Kareem’s Forest,” a 32-acre plot of blooming, buzzing south Indian rainforest.  It’s listed as “the only man-made forest in Kerala” by the local tourism department and has been featured in many Indian newspapers and magazines over the years. He’s the man that turned a “barren land to [an] ‘ecological miracle,’” according to one local headline.

As his trees grew and dropped their leaves, a layer of rich organic material built up below. Great Hornbills, Kerala’s state bird, now stop in to lay their eggs in the same tree cavities year after year, and wild hens and peacocks hide out in the shrubby understory. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research believes that Kareem’s reforestation success might be replicable elsewhere, referring to it as the “Puliyamkulam model” after the surrounding town.

The forest also provides enough drinking water (“currently free of charge,” Kareem says) for Puliyamkulam’s 60-some homes. Where monsoon rains once hit the rocky earth and ran off into local waterways, Kareem’s forest now catches the rain and cycles it back into the atmosphere. Forty years ago, he says, the well on the property often went completely dry for summer. Now, even during the hottest season in May,  it fills with water.

In Kerala, “it rains a lot,” says environmental journalist Shree Padre, who wrote about Kareem and the influence of his tree-planting method—more than 120 inches each year. But he says Kareem has shown that “it’s not how much rainfall there is—it’s what you do with it.”

Much of Kareem’s success can be pegged to his entrepreneurial spirit. “When I’ve seen opportunity, I take it,” Kareem says. Indeed, his string of previous jobs proves his point. During the Persian Gulf oil boom of the ’70’s, he became a travel agent in India’s biggest city of Bombay. Ten years later, he switched to trading cashews just as the buttery nut grew in global popularity.

“But I’m done with business now,” he says. “I like the peace and fresh oxygen of my forest.” As the forest alone “can’t make me a living,” he says, Kareem now plans to rent out an eco-tourist lodge tucked away under the trees.

For now, he’s done planting trees here and says that, just as he had hoped, “nature has taken over” his forest. Kareem never weeds, never waters, avoids all pesticides, and picks a pineapple whenever he gets a hankering for juice. He and his family live along the forest’s edge, and Kareem has set up pools to attract birds whose droppings will spread flower seeds and bring in new plants from far away. It’s lucky this businessman stuck with his vision—after all, now the forest is sustaining him.

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