Man fights climate change by planting a forest

Abdul Kareem in his forest in Kerala.
Abdul Kareem in his forest in Kerala.


Thirty-five years after planting his first tree, Abdul Kareem, an environmental activist, has succeeded in growing a 32-hectare forest on land that was once dry and arid in Kerala state, southern India. His forest has provideed numerous benefits: it has helped the local environment, tourism and is also a powerful response to climate change.

With more than 800 plant species, 300 medicinal plants, thousands of trees and hundreds of birds and insects, “Kareem’s forest” looks very much like a naturally occurring forest. However, all of it was planted using his two hands and sheer willpower. Until the early 1980s, the land was dry, cracked and rocky. But that didn’t discourage Kareem, who has worked tirelessly since 1977 to make this hostile terrain verdant.

Researchers, students and environmentalists from all over the world now visit Kareem’s forest. In fact, ‘Kareem’s model” has been added to the curriculum in Indian universities as an example of how to reforest an area without using a single chemical product.

Kareem has received many prizes for his forest, which is now a tourist destination in Kerala. He says that he is proud of his work, but his greatest hope is that it will serve as a concrete example of how to fight global warming.

A view of Kareem's forest. 

“I want to prove that, with determination, nature can regenerate”

Abdul Kareem, the creator of “Kareem’s forest”, is 67.

I grew up and worked in different Indian cities in polluted, urban environments. I was always attracted to trees, which represented peace and tranquility to me. I worked various jobs and, in 1977, when I had saved enough, I bought a plot of land in my home region of Kerala with the idea of planting a forest.

It was quite a gamble: the land was rocky and arid and had almost no vegetation. I bought 5 hectares, which only cost me 3,750 rupees (or, roughly, 55 euros). I think the owner was glad to get rid of it. I planted a hundred shrubs, which the regional forest administration gave me. I watered them faithfully every day. I would cycle to nearby villages to fetch water, carrying it back on my bike. People made fun of me and called me crazy.

For the first two years, none of the trees took root. But during the third year, I had some luck. I decided to plant slightly older shrubs and some survived and started growing. I just had to be patient! When the forest started to take shape, in 1982, I bought 27 more hectares. My forest now covers 32 hectares.

I never studied botany — I just relied on my desire to succeed and, as the years went by, on my experience. All I want is to show is that anyone can plant a forest if he or she wants to. We despair as we see so many forests being destroyed and so many waterways running dry. But I want to prove that, with determination, nature can regenerate.

“The wells in the local villages no longer run dry in the summer”

I have never used a single product, no pesticides or fertilizers. I’ve never picked up a single branch or leaf off of the ground or trimmed a tree. I wanted the process to be entirely natural, to show that it is possible to grow a forest with just water and time.

Now, there are so many trees that I can’t count them. What I am proud of is that the water holes that I dug in the forest have attracted all different kinds of birds. Different plants have grown and different insects now also call my forest their home.

As the years went on, I noticed that the forest was having positive effects on the surrounding region, especially because it produces water. The grass that now grows absorbs rain water and irrigates the soil. When I first arrived, there was a well on my land that provided about 500 litres of water a year. Now, even during the hottest periods in the summer, the same well produces 100,000 litres of water. During the monsoon season, it overflows. My well provides enough water for many families, and the wells in the nearby villages no longer run dry in the summer thanks to the irrigation of the soil. There is also a real microclimate in my forest. While Kerala can experience summer temperatures as hot as 40 degrees Celsius, my forest stays stable between 20 and 30 degrees all year.

Numerous developers have asked to buy my land. I definitely don’t want to sell it! I’m sure that, if I did, they’d just build a hotel or shopping centres and destroy my trees.

The earth’s forests hold about 19% of the world’s greenhouse gases. When forests are destroyed, they release that carbon into the air, contributing to global warming. Yet the rate of deforestation is accelerating. These days, forests cover about a third of the planet’s surface as compared to two thirds only 400 years ago. The land that has been deforested over the past 25 years is equal to four times the surface area of Italy. Though Kareem’s forest may be small, his trees stand tall as symbols of the fight against this crisis.

Post written with France 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier).