In a patch of land on the sprawling grounds of a school in the heart of Mumbai, environmental activist George Remedios and two volunteers dig the soil to plant some saplings in a “food forest” that lies tucked amid tall concrete buildings.
“This time I have brought a few fruit tree saplings, a few flowering tree saplings to bring in pollinators as well as some chili pepper saplings, which will add to the food that is grown over here,” says Remedios, who has founded the volunteer group, The Turning Tide.
This miniature replication of a forest has been created over the last three years by planting shorter trees, shrubs and creepers in different layers under towering coconut trees. They are all fruiting trees or edible plants.
This food forest is one of a dozen such edible islands that the group has grown in and around Mumbai. The inspiration: disappearing green spaces in a densely packed city of more than 20 million that has lost about 40% of its green cover in the last 30 years amid relentless urbanization.
After spending years planting trees along roadsides and highways to compensate for the loss, Remedios says he hit upon the idea of turning unused strips of land in schools, orphanages and old age homes into “food forests.”
“We are fed up of the environmental conditions and the rampant construction you see all around. I have friends who lost parents to lung cancer. My own mom had asthma and struggled with bad air quality," says Remedios. "I knew trees are something that not only give us oxygen, they shade, protect us from the heat, as well as pull in particulate matter, acting like buffers, like a carbon sink."
Creating a food forest was not easy. The first step was to regenerate the degraded soil to create a forest bed. Dry leaves that usually end up in landfills came in handy. The school also began composting both garden and kitchen waste, helping to cut short the biological process of creating fertile soil.
In the last three years, trees like papaya and pomegranate are among those flourishing under tall coconut trees. In their midst lies an unused slide and merry-go-round -- reminders of an old school playground. Amid the clump of trees, the sound of chirping birds replaces the incessant sound of traffic.
The food forest fulfills other functions. It prevents waterlogging that is common in a city that experiences a heavy monsoon. It serves as a waste management system, saving the institutions where they have been planted hundreds of dollars that would have been paid to cart away the garden waste.
The project runs with the help of volunteers who usually turn up on weekends to nurture it in different ways. As city resident Floyd Almeida digs into the earth to plant a sapling, he re-establishes the connection with nature lost when his low-lying childhood home was replaced with a tall building. The upmarket area around the school once consisted of bungalows surrounded by trees but soaring land prices have altered the skyline.
“It’s so good to get your hands dirty, pick up the mud and the trash,” says Almeida as he prepares the soil for a chili seedling. “It is so beautiful, because you have birds, and bees. You come in the morning to work here, it is like music when the birds whistle, it is so good.”
Another city resident, Jasmine Bagri, brings a lemongrass seedling to be planted in the food forest. She says it is important for ordinary people to do something practical to save the environment and improve cities that have degraded under the pressure of huge populations. “It is very easy to sit, to have a conference, a WhatsApp group and talk about it, but instead of doing that, if you can plant even one sapling, that would really help,” says Bagri.
As schools reopen after nearly two years of COVID restrictions, Remedios hopes the forest planted in the middle of the school yard will also help young children learn more about nature.
Three years ago, when he gave up his job in advertising to turn into a fulltime environmentalist, he says he was the butt of many jokes and much skepticism. “People called me the village idiot,” he recalls.
Now the forest is becoming a draw. “I want to stay here. I feel like working, I actually want to dig in. I can see so many small plants, I want to pick them up and plant them somewhere," Bagri says with a laugh. "These are heaven, these are places which we should cherish and have more.”
"The Turning Tide" is spreading its wings to other cities – it is growing similar green patches in Pune, where Remedios has relocated temporarily.
And after a morning's hard labor, the food forest is also a perfect place to unwind – as the volunteers leave, he pulls up a chair and pulls out a book to spend some time reading under the shade of trees.