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The ingenious living bridges of India

The ingenious living bridges of India


For centuries, indigenous groups in north-east India have crafted intricate bridges from living fig trees. Now this ancient skill is making its way to European cities.


When monsoon clouds bring pelting rains to the village of Tyrna, Shailinda Syiemlieh takes the nearest bridge to reach the opposite bank of a gushing stream. The bridge is no ordinary structure made of concrete and metal. Instead, it is composed of a single giant fig tree that sits by the riverbank, and the support that Syiemlieh walks over is a mishmash of aerial roots tightly knotted and woven together. The bridge is not only a part of the landscape, it is helping to support its ecosystem at the same time.

Tyrna lies just above the plains of Bangladesh in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, which hosts hundreds of these bridges. For centuries, they have helped the indigenous Khasi and Jaintia communities to cross swelling rivers in monsoons. “Our ancestors were so clever,” says Syiemlieh, “When they couldn’t cross rivers, they made Jingkieng Jri – the living root bridges.”

Meghalaya hosts some of the wettest locations on Earth. The village Mawsynram, the world’s rainiest place, receives an annual rainfall of 11,871mm (39ft) – that would be enough to submerge a typical three-storey house if deluged all at once. Nearby Sohra comes second, averaging 11,430mm (37.5ft). From June to September, monsoon winds sweep north from the Bay of Bengal, passing over the humid plains of Bangladesh. When these air currents meet the hilly terrain of Meghalaya, they break open – and torrential rains begin.

When monsoon downpours periodically isolated the remote villages of Syiemlieh’s ancestors from nearby towns, they trained living aerial roots of Indian rubber fig tree (Ficus elastica) to form a bridge across flooding rivers.

Researchers consider these living root bridges as an example of indigenous climate resilience. Aside from the connectivity they provide, these bridges attract tourists and help local people earn an income. Meanwhile, as researchers have found, they have regenerative effects on the surrounding environment. Scientists hope this concept of indigenous living architecture can help modern cities adapt better to climate change.

The trees are important not just for crossing rivers, but they hold a revered place in Khasi culture (Credit: Alamy)

Building these bridges takes decades of work. It begins with planting a sapling of Ficus elastica – a tree that grows abundantly in the subtropical terrain of Meghalaya – in a good crossing place along the riverbank. First the trees develop large buttressing roots and then, after about a decade, the maturing trees sprout secondary aerial roots from further up. These aerial roots have a degree of elasticity, and tend to join and grow together to form stable structures.

In a method perfected over centuries, the Khasi bridge builders weave aerial roots onto a bamboo or another wooden scaffolding, wheedle them across the river and finally implant them on the opposite bank. Over time, the roots shorten, thicken and produce offshoots called daughter roots, which are also trained over the river. The builders intertwine these roots with one another or with branches and trunks of the same or another fig tree. They merge by a process called anastomosis – where branching systems like leaf vessels, tendrils and aerial roots naturally fuse together – and weave into a dense frame-like structure. Sometimes, the Khasi builders use stones to cover the gaps in root structures. This network of roots matures over time to bear loads; some bridges can hold up to 50 people at once.

The generations that follow the initial bridge builders continue the maintenance of the bridge. While only one single person may maintain small bridges, most require the collective effort of families or the entire village – sometimes several villages. This process of care and development down the generations can last for centuries, with some bridges dating from 600 years ago

As well as being a regenerative form of architecture, living root bridges grow stronger with time, self-repairing and becoming more robust as they age. “When it rains heavily, small cement bridges wash away and steel bridges tend to rust, but living root bridges withstand the rains,” says Syiemlieh.

When it rains heavily, small cement bridges wash away and steel bridges tend to rust, but living root bridges withstand the rains.

Shailinda Syiemlieh

“People came to realise that root bridges are much more durable than modern alternatives, and they cost absolutely nothing. So villagers now repair root bridges they had abandoned in the forest valleys.”

This resurgence in interest in root bridges is in part thanks to the efforts of Morningstar Khongthaw, a native from Rangthylliang village, who founded the Living Bridge Foundation. Khongthaw and his team create awareness about root bridges, repair and maintain old bridges while also constructing new ones.

The living root bridges of north-east India have become famous as a tourist attraction - but they could also inspire European urban architecture (Credit: Getty Images)
The living root bridges of north-east India have become famous as a tourist attraction – but they could also inspire European urban architecture (Credit: Getty Images)

Unlike conventional bridges, root bridges are also central to their surroundings. Apart from producing their own building material, the trees absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. They help stabilise the soil and prevent landslides. Conventional bridges can disrupt the soil layers, but roots can anchor different soil structures which helps protect against soil erosion, says Ferdinand Ludwig, professor for green technologies in landscape architecture at the Technical University of Munich, who has been studying the bridges for 13 years.

This is true of many trees, but Ficus elastica plays a particularly important role in its ecosystem, says Salvador Lyngdoh, a local to Meghalaya and a scientist at the Biodiversity Institute of India, whose work focuses on conservation in the Himalayas. Fig trees are framework species that promote biodiversity around them: moss grows on them, squirrels live in their branches, birds nest within their canopy, and they support insects that help with pollination. The act of turning these trees into bridges can also help animals to thrive in their habitat, says Lyngdoh. Bark deer and clouded leopards are known to use root bridges to move from one part of the forest to another.

Root bridges may not be able to outperform the conventional kind in every sense, Lyngdoh notes. A conventional bridge can bear more weight, for example. “But root bridges are much more useful to a large sphere of natural species than the modern bridges we have,” he says. “The living root bridge is a mosaic that’s embedded within the forest. Species do not differentiate between the bridge and natural forest.”

This form of indigenous architecture has fascinated scientists like the Technical University of Munich’s Ludwig, for the potential to learn from them to make buildings and spaces in other parts of the world greener.

Ludwig sees these bridges as an example of not just sustainable development, which minimises the damage and degradation of natural systems, but of regenerative development. The latter attempts to reverse degradation and improve the health of the ecosystem. But understanding the living root bridges is not an easy process.

“There’s no one way to build these bridges,” says Ludwig. “How these roots are pulled, tied and woven together differ from builder to builder. None of the bridges looks similar.”

The lack of historical written information on the bridges has also been a challenge in researching them. Until the British colonial period in the 19th Century, native Khasi inhabitants in Meghalaya didn’t have a written script, as the Khasi way of life is passed down through oral histories. This has meant that documented information on the bridges is sparse.

The fig tree is uniquely adaptable to making root bridges, but other species can also be used to integrate into architecture, such as the London plane tree (Credit: Alamy)
The fig tree is uniquely adaptable to making root bridges, but other species can also be used to integrate into architecture, such as the London plane tree (Credit: Alamy)

So Ludwig’s team turned to conversations with Khasi bridge builders and digital tools to understand the bridge-building techniques. They started with mapping the complicated shapes of roots and built digital skeletons of the bridges; next, they used photogrammetry – recording, surveying and interpreting root bridges using photographs – to document the bridges and construct 3D models using them.

With this information, Ludwig’s team began designing a roof for a summer kitchen using a pavilion of trees, inspired by the root bridges.

“[Conventionally], when we construct a bridge or a building, we have a plan – we know what it’s going to look like,” says Ludwig. “But this isn’t possible with living architecture. Khasi people know this; they are extremely clever in how they constantly analyse and interact with tree growth, and accordingly adapt to the conditions.” Whenever a new root pops up, Khasi builders find a new way to integrate it into the structure.

But in Europe, with its very different climate, using Ficus elastica wasn’t a viable option, so they had to make compromises, choosing instead Platanus hispanica, the London plane tree. “That’s not all. The Khasi have incredible knowledge because they live in nature, and are deeply coupled with the ecosystems. We are not,” says Ludwig. So his team used digital tools to mimic this process and to settle on a geometry that allowed for weaving twigs together into a roof. The team constantly trims and prunes the trees to encourage them to grow to keep the trees thinner.

“We are learning how to react to plant growth in Europe: humans plant trees, trees grow, humans react, trees react again,” Ludwig says. “This way of interacting with nature is essential for a sustainable and regenerative future.”

The Double Decker Root Bridge of Meghalaya is now famous, drawing tourists from around the world (Credit: Alamy)
The Double Decker Root Bridge of Meghalaya is now famous, drawing tourists from around the world (Credit: Alamy)

Ludwig hopes that living architecture can contribute to improving the outer wellbeing of residents in cities. Integrating trees in buildings, bridges, and parks will help bring nature into crowded areas. “The idea is not to copy the bridges, but to borrow the elements of this indigenous engineering and try to understand how we can adapt it in our urban environments,” says Ludwig.

Julia Watson, architect and assistant professor at Columbia University, whose work revolves around nature-based technologies of indigenous knowledge, says part of this is changing the way we see trees.

“Instead of viewing trees in cities as passive elements, we can view them as active infrastructures, to expand the ecosystem services trees provide in the urban context,” she says. For instance, trees can reduce the effect of urban heat islands (where concrete structures absorb heat and keep cities warmer) and lower outdoor ambient temperature, Watson notes.

The Ficus elastica provides potential that goes far beyond bridges, Watson says. These trees needn’t be an add-on to a building, but an integral part of its façade or roof.

In Meghalaya, the Khasi’s practice of bioengineering takes integration of the trees with their surroundings one step further, bringing people together as well as the ecosystem. The bridges, Lyngdoh says, promote community life and create reverence within the society when people come together to build, maintain and repair the bridges.

The young bridges being trained today won’t be traversed by those who are tending to them now, but by generations to come. “The community doesn’t think of today. It’s a selfless act. It’s a conservation philosophy,” says Lyngdoh. He sees this selflessness as a sacred element that pulls the community together and protects the ecosystem. 

As well as being a part of Khasi culture, the root bridges have always brought economic benefits to the community. In the past, a network of bridges connected villages with nearby cities, providing a pathway for locals to transport and sell betel nut and broom grass. Today, there is also the tourism economy they bring, says Syiemlieh.

About 3,500 steps below Syiemlieh’s home village of Tyrna is the Double Decker Root Bridge that connects the two banks of the Umshiang River. When water levels rose high, Khasi villagers trained additional roots of the same fig tree across the river higher above the water, creating a second bridge over the first.

Today, it’s a major tourist attraction. As tourists began flocking, homestays opened. Locals built campsites and guided visitors through the hilly jungle. Makeshift stalls stacked up everything from crisp packets to bottled drinks. In March, when Syiemlieh visited Laitkynsew, a village just south of Tyrna, she saw locals pull, twist and weave aerial roots of a fig tree on bamboo scaffolding to build a triple bridge – two layers run parallel to each another as in the double-decker bridge, while a third root layer is slanted across the river bank. “Maybe they thought that three layers can attract more tourists,” says Syiemlieh.


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Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach (2000)

THAILAND PLOTS SUSTAINABLE COMEBACK FOR DICAPRIO MOVIE BEACH


While travel stopped and the world locked down, in the dazzling blue waters of Thailand’s idyllic Phi Phi islands, a gentle renaissance was under way.

Mass tourism had brought the archipelago, immortalised in Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”, to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Now Thailand hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism as the country reopens to visitors after the long covid shutdown.


Tourism comes with concerns, Syiemlieh says. Aside from the empty crisp packets and bottles, some root bridges see crowds of hundreds at a time as tourists clamber for selfies, potentially overburdening the trees. But locals are already planning different models of sustainable tourism.

Khongthaw, for example, is building a museum and a learning centre to educate tourists about living root bridges and other infrastructure made of Ficus elastica, such as canopies and tunnels in the deep jungles, and ladder-like structures, which farmers would use to climb up and down rock ledges on the way to Meghalaya’s fertile plains for cultivation.

Although still in its infancy outside Meghalaya, Watson hopes that architecture inspired by the living root bridges could come to play a fundamental role in cities – bringing with it benefits for urban air, soil and wildlife. “Living infrastructure can support incredible biodiversity and species, not just humans,” Watson says. “We need that biodiversity to survive.”

Source:

Zinara Rathnayake at Future Planet



Thailand plots sustainable comeback for DiCaprio movie beach

Thailand plots sustainable comeback for DiCaprio movie beach


While travel stopped and the world locked down, in the dazzling blue waters of Thailand’s idyllic Phi Phi islands, a gentle renaissance was under way.


Mass tourism had brought the archipelago, immortalised in Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”, to the brink of ecological catastrophe.

Now Thailand hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism as the country reopens to visitors after the long covid shutdown.

Near a coral islet just a few kilometers from Maya Bay — the iconic cove surrounded by towering tree-clad cliffs that was home to the beach paradise of the DiCaprio film — marine biologist Kullawit Limchularat dives through eight meters of crystalline water and carefully releases a young bamboo shark.

His mission: to repopulate the reefs after years of damage caused by uncontrolled visitor numbers, a crisis that got so bad the authorities were forced to close Maya Bay itself in 2018.

Five small brownbanded bamboo sharks are set free, their striped bodies and long tails flickering through the water.

But after being raised in captivity they are reluctant to swim out among the clown fish, barracudas and turtles.

“They need time to adapt. We waited until they reached 30 centimeters to maximize their chance of survival,” says Kullawit, who is working on the project with the Phuket Marine Biological Center. “The aim is that once they are adults, they will stay and breed here to help repopulate the species.”

Before the pandemic, Phi Phi National Marine Park, with its white sandy beaches and coral reefs, attracted more than two million visitors a year.

Until it was closed, Maya Bay’s dazzling beauty and Hollywood fame drew up to 6,000 people a day to its narrow 250-meter-long beach.

Inevitably, so many people arriving in noisy, polluting motorboats with so little control over numbers had a huge impact on the area’s delicate ecology.

“The coral cover has decreased by more than 60 percent in just over 10 years,” says Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

As early as 2018, Thon raised the alarm and pushed the authorities to close part of the bay.

Then the pandemic hit and visitor numbers dwindled to virtually nil as Thailand imposed tough travel rules, putting the entire archipelago into a forced convalescence.

As a result, dozens of blacktip sharks, green turtles and hawksbill turtles have returned.

And whale sharks, the world’s largest fish and listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have been spotted off the coast.

“Everything suggests that there is more reproduction, especially among sharks, which particularly appreciate calm waters,” says Thon.

As for the corals, “more than 40 percent of the fragments replanted in Maya Bay have survived, a very satisfactory figure obtained thanks to the absence of visitors”.

But recovery will be slow: at least two decades will be needed to restore the coral reef, Thon warns.

Phi Phi is slowly resuming tourism, still mostly local for now, but foreigners are returning as Thailand eases its draconian rules for visitors, and Maya Bay is due to reopen on January 1.

The government has said it wants to move on from Thailand’s history of hedonistic mass tourism, with Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn saying the focus would be on “high-end travelers, rather than a large number of visitors”.

On Phi Phi, national park chief Pramote Kaewnam insists the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.

Boats will no longer be allowed to moor near the beach and will instead drop tourists off at a jetty away from the cove. Tours will be limited to one hour, with a maximum of 300 people per tour.

“Maya Bay used to bring in up to $60,000 a day, but this huge income cannot be compared to the natural resources we have lost,” Pramote said.

The number of visitors will be regulated on other key sites of the archipelago, while boats anchoring on reefs and tourists feeding fish face $150 fines.

Some of the first foreign visitors to return to the area are happy with the new more exclusive approach.

“We didn’t just come to dive in the turquoise water. We also want to help,” says Franck, a visitor who has just arrived from Paris. “It would be fantastic if the island stayed this quiet.”

Local businesses face the challenge of adapting to the new model. For some, the change is welcome.

“We need the revenue from tourism, but we also need to educate them to be good tourists. We all understood that with the pandemic,” says Sirithon Thamrongnawasawat, Singha Estate Vice President for Sustainability and Development.

Singha Estate, which owns a 200-room hotel on the island and has built a marine centre dedicated to the archipelago’s ecosystem, is financing several projects, including the replanting of coral and the breeding of bamboo sharks and clown fish.


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LEONARDO DICAPRIO HAS RAISED MORE THAN $80M TO SAVE THE WORLD’S WILDLANDS


The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation states its goal as ‘protecting the world’s last wild places’, and has 6 key areas of activity: Wildlands Conservation, Oceans Conservation, Climate Change, Indigenous Rights, Transforming California, and Innovative Solutions.


But the enthusiasm is not shared by all 2,500 inhabitants of the archipelago, many of whom have built livelihoods around tourism and hope to see visitors return soon.

Pailin Naowabutr has been plying the waters of the archipelago for seven years, ferrying tourists on his longtail boat.

“Before COVID, I was making $30 a day. Since then, I’ve had to do a lot of odd jobs for less than $10,” he told AFP.

He gazes wistfully across the sea towards Phuket, Phi Phi’s much larger neighbor which used to welcome millions of tourists.

“They will soon come back, everyone wants to visit Phi Phi,” he says.

But the Omicron COVID variant, which has led some countries to reintroduce travel restrictions, could ruin his hopes — and give the islands’ wildlife a little more time to recover.

Source:

Sophie Deviller and Thanaporn Promyamyai at Japan Today