Restoring ecosystems from above.

Why did Dr Bremley Lyngdoh look to the skies to save Myanmar’s mangrove forests? Yee-Liu Williams finds out.

When Bremley Lyngdoh attended the Vatican in October 2017, it was as a winner of the inaugural BridgeBuilder Challenge, inspired by Pope Francis’s challenge to youth leaders to build bridges. As an 18-year-old, dreaming of aviating the skies and exploring outer space, he joined the air cadets flying with the Delhi No 1 Air Squadron of the Indian Air Force. Now 44, his life has been more down to earth, but he still looks to the skies, using drones and planetary technology to ‘heal the soil for the farmers on earth’.

The BridgeBuilder Challenge awards $1 million a year in prize money for ideas with global impact. Bremley’s proposal to use tree-planting drones to restore mangrove forests and protect livelihoods in Myanmar won a grant of $250K. The bid was a strategic partnership between Worldview Impact Foundation (WIF) in London and BioCarbon Engineering (BCE) based in Oxford. Bremley and Dr Irina Fedorenko, of BioCarbon Engineering, are part of a team organising the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security at the Caux Forum 2019.

This is the first time that drones have been used to ‘fire seedpods from the sky to restore mangrove ecosystems’, Bremley says. The technology has the potential to fire over 7,000 seedpods an hour – ‘manna from heaven’ to help restore degraded land and communities impacted by environmental disaster.

Mangroves absorb CO2 emissions, protect vulnerable coastal communities from extreme weather and are a vital foundation for marine life, sustaining not only fisheries but many other forms of wildlife. Since 1980, a million hectares of mangroves have been cut down in Myanmar. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, this loss contributed to the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when more than 140,000 people lost their lives and 800,000 were displaced. ‘It is so easy to destroy ecosystems but very hard to restore them,’ Bremley states.

Bremley’s quest is to fight climate change by planting one billion mangrove trees in the next 20 years. Sixty per cent of villagers in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta don’t have permanent jobs and cut down mangrove trees for their livelihood, he says. The region is known as the ‘rice bowl’. Rates of deforestation here are three to five times higher than the global average, according to WIF. To date, local teams have planted six million trees. The task is painstakingly slow and Bremley fears it is a race against time before the next cyclone hits.

Bremley travels extensively as an international speaker on climate change, future technology, land security and social enterprise. He describes himself as a global citizen and nomad. He grew up in Shillong, capital of the North East Indian state of Meghalaya, which gained independence from Assam two years before he was born. The state, whose name is Sanskrit for ‘where the clouds come home’, is mountainous and its forests are among the richest botanical habitats in Asia.

Bremley’s father EB Lyngdoh was part of the core team of community and political leaders who negotiated for Meghalaya’s separation from Assam through ‘non-violent direct action’. ‘Not a single drop of blood was shed,’ he recalls proudly. He acknowledges the role of IofC (then Moral Re-Armament) in the reconciliation between rival leaders that made this possible.

He quotes his father as saying: ‘A tree with no roots withers away in the lightest breeze and it bears no fruits.’ He believes each person needs to find their roots and purpose and says that ‘taking care of trees is in my blood’. Every clan in Meghalaya once had a ‘sacred forest’, where they worshipped the Creator.

Meghalayan culture is matrilineal, with daughters inheriting the land and taking on the mother’s family name. ‘It is the girl child that is blessed,’ he says. ‘What I’m trying to do is protect what we still have and regenerate for every family what they had a long time ago.

Bremley has recently launched Spring Valley Farm in India, an initiative that looks to educate young people on ancient agri-architectural concepts. Using drones to plant trees is just one way of connecting ‘environmental observation to agri-tech innovation’ in the cause of global sustainability, he says.

Bremley urges each one of us to take action to fight climate change. In the UK, each person generates 10 tons of CO2 emissions each year. If every person, wherever they lived in the world, planted a tree every year, that would neutralise their carbon footprint. He maintains that if we don’t take action over the next decade to reverse the damage to ecosystems, there will be no planet for our children to inherit.

For more information on the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security, visit cauxforum.org

The above article by Yee-Liu Williams first published on changemakersmagazine.org in Jun, 2019.