Interview of Nicolas de Brabandère, from Urban Forests, main contributor of Miyawaki mini-forests in Europe
Nicolas de Brabandère planted his first Miyawaki forest in 2016, in Belgium. He creates projects of restoration of ecosystems with the aim to meet new people and to work with the living world. By the beginning of 2023, Nicolas and his team have already planted over 118,000 trees inside micro forests!
I met him in his own house for an interview. In the first part, he explains his experience with the Miyawaki method and in the second part he gives his own advices for future actions on nature restoration.
– JB from Restore Forest
Thank you Nicolas for accepting this interview on the Miyawaki mini forests. Let’s start with the first question: when you are at a party, how in a few words do you describe who you are and what you do?
– Nicolas from Urban Forests
I say I plant trees and I do it in a special way. More than just planting trees, I create micro-forests, I create small ecosystems, I work with life systems. I am passionate about trying to understand the technology of living systems.
With my team, we plant micro forests in places where people live, work and do activities. The idea is to create high-performance ecosystems, which grow fast with a quick and visible impact on biodiversity and on the landscape.
How did you discover this Miyawaki method of mini forests and how have you applied it over the years?
I have always been fascinated by the functioning of ecosystems and by forests in particular. I studied biology. I was most interested in nature restoration. How to restore environments that have been degraded? At the time, I was only offered opportunities in research. I didn’t particularly want to do pure research. I then became interested in working with NGOs. But I did not find work. Something did not click for me. I was looking to work on wild forests, and to understand how to repair ecosystems. I was also looking for an entrepreneurial dimension, to become self-sufficient money wise, to be part of the regular economy.
Then out of the blue, I came across the famous TED Talk from Shubhendu Sharma on Miyawaki forests. I was fascinated. I really had the impression that all the pieces of my own puzzle came together: the forest, repairing degraded environments, the entrepreneurial dimension. So I contacted Shubhendu who kindly invited me to India to join his team. I spent a month there and I learned the Miyawaki method on the ground. On my return to Belgium, I had to adapt what I had learned to the European context.
As a result, you created Urban Forests (Urban Forests website) which has since contributed to mini forests. How many have you planted and how has Urban Forests developed?
Precisely, I made a assessment before you came. I am actually pleasantly surprised! Urban Forests started in 2016 and we have made 81 projects so far. We planted over 118,000 trees on the total surface of 4 hectares. I did not expect at all that the accumulation of these small micro forests would come to reach a total surface of 41,063 m²!
We have a high percentage of success: the growth is good and most forests are truly beautiful. Only a couple are failures and a few more are a little disappointing. Sometimes the forests are not growing well because of droughts, lack of maintenance or some mistakes we did in the preparation. We have nevertheless learned a lot of things and improved a lot our know-how over time.
It was complicated to do the first project. I like to say that it took me three years to do ten projects. Then it took me three months to make ten new projects and now I manage to make ten projects in one month. It’s really unbelievable. The interest for micro forests is there.
Now what’s also nice is to see that our influence has inspired many other people to do just the same. For example, I sometimes do on the ground training on the Miyawaki method with a real forest created at the end. It’s not only the theory but also getting our hands dirty and planting trees together. And I see people carrying on and creating more micro forests on their own in their own localities. It’s really nice to see the movement growing.
The first project was the most difficult to do. I did not have enough belief I could do it on my own at first. So I talk about it with people in forestry. I thought they were going to be the most receptive. But they were not. They listened to me kindly but they did not like the idea of creating forests for their own sake. They life work is to produce wood for sawmills, for the industry, and so on with a long tradition of their own. So the Miyawaki method to them was more like a fancy scheme for the hipsters if I may say! The Miyawaki method had no use to them. So they listened to me from a distance and despite my repeated requests, I couldn’t get anywhere with them. At some point, I realized that I had to manage to do it on my own. As I sometimes say to people who want to get started: learn as much as you can and go for it, learn by doing!
The first forest I made in 2016 in Belgium was on public land, between a farm and a road. It was quite impressive to do this first project. It’s then I realized a few days before planting that there were so many trees to plant and I could not do it on my own. I had to find people to help me. That’s when I thought of asking local schools to invite them in. I also contacted the local press to spread the word. The planting event was a success from the very first project. Even journalists were there. That gave me lots of confidence. Luckily I found out I was not just tripping on my own about reviving natural ecosystems, but in fact, I was not alone. People are interested. It actually sparks the enthusiasm of many!
It’s quite amazing because I’ve never met anyone who does not show any interest at all in creating micro forests in the community. Everyone is receptive and that is very encouraging. It looks like the idea meet a vital need.
Then usually finding land and money for the project is the biggest challenge. So what’s your advice for creators of mini-forests?
Finding land for creating micro-forests is not easy, but at the same time there is a lot of potential in so many places. The main challenge is to convince the land owner to make his land available for it.
My advice to anyone wanting to create a Miyawaki forests is first to learn and understand the Miyawaki method. You really need to understand the aim, the technic, the objectives, how it works, step by step and to turn all of that into your own story. You have to make a link to yourself and make it a story that is convincing for others. It’s not just about planting trees. It’s your personal story, it’s what brought you to do it. What are your motivations? Why do you think it is important? Why is it worth the effort? Why would people like it? Who are these people? Once you have some answers, once you realize you have started your own path, only then you can looking for land and convince people to join you with such a project. It will become easier.
Maybe you should start at home, just like I did, on lands that belong to your family, to friends. Make it simple. Start small. You will learn a lot by doing and seeing it grow. Then you can do more with some real earned confidence. I invite everyone to start like that.
Then check some opportunities with the local schools, meet your municipalities, share your ideas with local groups, with friends. Talk with your heart, make a good story, emotion is more powerful than lecturing about the technic. Then with a bit of luck, you might find just the perfect plot of land to do another micro forest. You really have to communicate a good story that will touch people. Do not focus on finding the funds at first.
If people don’t buy it, don’t insist. I had this experience, I insisted, it doesn’t work. If people aren’t receptive, so be it, look elsewhere. In general, the projects that work best happen rather smoothly, one step after another. If you stress too much, in general, it probably won’t happen. Obviously there are obstacles along the way, but you should fairly find your way over each one. Otherwise, look elsewhere.
So, by getting your hands dirty. Documenting what you do is also important to show people what you have done. “See what it looks like”.
There are different sources of funding. You can do it yourself and use your own funds. It’s a great way to learn, see what it takes. Sometimes a municipality might fund a project, but this is not very common. You can also do a crowdfunding. This option is time consuming, but it works very well. You need to find a platform, do the narrative, perhaps a video also, then you have to go out for it, it’s not going to happen by itself. Sometimes, you have a stroke of luck, a good meeting, someone loves the projects and bring all the means for it.
My experience finding subsidies is not good, I don’t rely on subsidies. The Miyawaki method is new and does not fill the criteria easily. Often when there are grants, the eligibility criteria are very specific. you can’t always fit into the boxes. Sometimes it takes so long to get a response that it’s very frustrating. Especially if it’s negative after waiting all this time. Subsidies work better for associations than for individuals.
It’s important to be independent if you can. Often planting trees is perceived as being non-profit, as being “nice to do”. But I want to say that planting trees must be an activity in its own right, it must fit into the real economy, it must be like any other activity, create jobs. When you make a house, you decorate it, you paint, you must comply with safety regulations. Unfortunately, far too often, gardens and the outdoor spaces are neglected with little budget put in, even though the outdoor surface is much larger than the hard infrastructure. We spend a lot of time outside and it feels good to have a pleasant environment. The current situation in terms of climate warming and biodiversity loss should be wake up calls. It’s important that creating micro forests and regenerating ecosystems start generating revenues for entrepreneurs if we want to have a real impact. It’s important to earn a living with it. If you manage to create jobs and become independent, if you can generate revenues for others as well, you create an economy around you and it becomes much more impactful. The goal is not to have nice ideas only, but to bring a transition, a new economic model with new positive elements. Because if we can’t create jobs and be self-sufficient by planting a micro-forest, it will always remain marginal. It has to develop. We must repair our environment and our nature. We need to find a better balance with the living world.
Of course micro-forests bring ecosystem services, like soil regeneration, biodiversity boost, better air quality, public health, etc. But it is important that behind these sometimes complicated concepts of ecosystem services, we convey easy to grasp benefits to people. Biodiversity for example is the pleasure of hearing birds sing in your garden, of having a pleasant green environment, seeing how plants grow, how things interact in your garden, how it improves your local environment. It is the pleasure of seeing a lizard pass by, a butterfly flying around, a mushroom come out in autumn, fruits to pick with your family, frogs in a pond… That’s biodiversity. It brings joy and fun. It feels good. You gain better air quality, less noise pollution, you can balance ugly elements with authentic greeneries. So really, beyond complicated words like “valuation of ecosystem services”, we have to find benefits that speak directly to people with simple words. I think that by speaking with emotion, things stay. If it’s purely intellectual or conceptual, the message tends to fly more quickly.
In a more technical way in the Miyawaki method, what do you think is the most important step?
For me, there are two very important steps. First there is the preparation of the soil and that is very important. Our first project worked very well. Then, I experienced a couple failures and at one point I asked myself: “Why is it not working this time? What is happening?”. At first I thought it works just easily. But then I understood that the Miyawaki method is more complicated than it seems. The soil is very important. First I have to understand how a soil works, what it takes to regenerate it when it is degraded. How do you bring back a soil to its optimal conditions for trees so that they are healthy, strong with good growth. You have to think about keeping moisture in the soil, to boost the biology in the soil so that roots find all that they need. So understanding the soil is the first step. How do you prepare good soil? What sorts of amendments to you need to add? How to keep it 100% organic?
Second is tree species selection. It is not a matter of making a random list of species with as many species as possible. That’s not the Miyawaki method at all. The Miyawaki method is to bring back a piece of the primordial forest where you are. This is the forest as it once was, before human disturbances. It is to recreate the original forest. For that, we have tools . There are scientists who have done a lot of research on the subject. In Europe, we are spoiled. We are able to know what the ideal forest really looks like, anywhere on a map, depending on the soil and the climate. There are also species associations. Species do not arrive there by chance. Of course, there is some randomness but we observe that most of the time forests grow with a certain set of species growing in association. This is called phytosociology. It is the assemblage of species that like to be together. There are species that are more numerous than others. There are ratios between species and therefore a list of species is not random at all. You must only choose native species, native to the place where you are, a community of species which is coherent, which is authentic, in balance. Creating a native forest of natives trees is the essence of the Miyawaki method.
That’s it for the technical part. But what we often forget is that the Miyawaki method goes far beyond technique. Technique is one dimension, but the Miyawaki method is about being together. Creating Miyawaki forests bring people together. For Professor Akira Miyawaki, the forest heals the earth, the planet and humans. The Miyawaki plantation brings us together. It has become a rare thing. We’re so busy with our own occupations we forget how good it feels to be together. Well, this is an opportunity to get together around a common project. It’s good to see people smile, to see people in a good mood, working at once for the common good. People experience hope, they learn about forest ecology, they put their hands in the ground, they talk to each other and have fun. They learn about living systems.
On the project management side, what is your best feedback for getting the community on board in a mini forest?
At first, you have to focus on finding people who are motivated by the project, with you, and finding land. That is the most important. Funding comes second. In general from my own experience, when you have found a plot of land and a group that is motivated, you always find the funding. Learn about the methodology, understand the why, make your own story with good sense. Only then you are convincing enough so you can share your enthusiasm with others.
What part do you like the most about Miyawaki mini forest projects?
It’s definitely meeting new people! Personally, meeting people is my fuel, it’s what makes me vibrate the most. Meeting people of different backgrounds. Talking to them, connecting to them, Establishing a dialogue that enriches us both. Sometimes, that’s where I’m also the most disappointed… Even if we can make a forest at the end, I’m only really fulfilled if there is a good human relation that enriches us all. If that human relations does not work, I may be disappointed, or even give up. The heart of creating Miyawaki forests is to come together and inspire each other. It’s important we connect to the earth, that we understand we do something positive together that it will stay, that it’s going to please the people around, that it’s going to transform the neighborhood. That’s the most important thing.
What is your secret mission, your real purpose behind planting forests?
It’s that one day, we associate a Miyawaki forest with every building, with every road. My wish is that we enter into a sane relationship with the natural world. At the moment, there is a world culture which is really to impose humanity on the planet, to impose our will and our knowledge. It would be much more interesting and much more exciting to enter into symbiosis or into relationship with the living world all around us. It’s fair. We need to work, to make buildings, factories, activities, etc. But we can do it much better by entering a balanced relationship with all life forms. It is for example, around a building, to preserve a living ecosystem which will balance the impact of our activities. It is to create places where we live that preserve nature with authentic functioning ecosystems and biodiversity. If we reach that point, we won’t need national parks anymore because life will be all around us. That doesn’t seem like a utopia to me, but a compass for a modern society.
Put simply, we can start with our own garden, We can evolve from creating lawns or hedges with single species, which are very poor in terms of species present and positive impact on the environment, to creating gardens lush with life and sensory experiences, habitat for biodiversity. For example, if you mow your lawn all the time, there are no flowers. So how can insects feed on nectar? How do plants produce with no seeds left? So start by letting the flowers grow, it will attract biodiversity. Imagine a bird: how will it find its food? Will it be able to hide, to feel safe? Will it be able to make its nest in your garden? You see, it’s really creating these interconnections with land and yourself. You don’t need to be an expert, a scholar, it’s common sense. It is simply a question of connecting to life, to enter into a genuine relationship, so that we all find our place. It brings joy.
Associations do a remarkable job: they open our eyes, they allow us to realize the situation, they give us the means to improve the situation with solutions. Scientists warn us, bring knowledge, they are able to make predictions that are often correct. The artists also help with documentaries which are magnificent. We are shown that the living world is beautiful, we can see how children respond to that, the good that it does. Every one of us go through difficult time. I hope we all experience the good nature does to us in these difficult times. We realize that nature has a way of really doing us good, of healing us, of calming us down, of putting things in perspective, to make situations less dramatic, more welcoming, more positive, more optimistic. That’s what I’m trying to bring with Miyawaki forests, to create the experience when people say to themselves: “That’s great, we need more, we have to do things differently! “.
These are not big ideas that are impossible to implement because it’s so complicated. Everyone can plant trees, improve your garden. In fact, all these actions together snowball. By entering into actions, we change the mindset and I hope that one day, any entrepreneur, any economist will think about nature, that it will not be something you care about on weekends or holidays in marvelous countries, but that everyone will include nature in every decisions and actions they do.
And in a year, if I come back with a bottle of champagne, what will we be celebrating? What is the next big objective challenge for you?
We will celebrate the fact that more and more natural environments are being restored. We will go beyond the Miyawaki forests, we will see beautiful gardens, lush landscapes filled with life. We will realize that we brought back water where there was no more, that birds have come back. We will feel good about ourselves, optimistic, serene and positively inspired. We will celebrate the return of life.
I cannot wait to be there! What three resources, films or books have been helpful to you on your nature restoration journey?
First, I think hiking was important: moving, walking in nature, observing things. I learned a lot by observing, by asking questions, by realizing the impact nature has on ourselves.
For books, there is so much to read and discover! I think that’s a little bit for everyone to look for. There is a well-known book “The Hidden Life of Trees” for example, and there are so many others. Perhaps also books to discover how the first indigenous tribes used to live. First nations for most of them live in a more balanced relationship with nature. These peoples who have not necessarily created great technological civilizations as we mean it. However, we can learn a lot from them, and perhaps find our way back down to earth, with our feet firmly on the ground, to anchor ourselves, to become true earthlings.
You can also work on yourself, on the inside. Dig a little bit into your own and be honest with yourself. What makes you feel good? Why are you looking elsewhere? Why do you spend so much time outside of you? The idea is to listen more to yourself, to your health, to your emotions, to what makes you feel good and to cultivate it more and more.
Who would be the next person you would recommend me to meet to inspire me on mini forests or even more broadly on nature conservation?
To follow up on this work you are doing on the Miyawaki forests, it would be interesting you meet Roseline Desgroux from “Alvéoles en ville”. She works with companies on creating Miyawaki forests, not just one random forest, but to make it ambitious with a network of Miyawaki forests in many places for a real impact. Then there are always incredible characters: Francis Hallé, the botanist or Sebastiao Salgado, the photographer. Obviously also, there are Jim and Stéphanie in Nantes, they created Mini Big Forest. I also like the collective “Micro Forêt – Toulouse en transition”. I think it’s a really nice group who do great projects with good spirit.
Last question already, if you had a huge billboard with a message for everyone to see, what message would you write?
Maybe instead of a billboard, I’d put a tree… But if I had a message to convey, I like to say in a humorous way: “If in doubt, if you’re not sure what to do, plant a tree! You’re sure you are not doing any mistake.”