This is part 1 of Restories, a blog series that aims to put human faces to the vast global community of restoration practitioners that is growing on Restor. We want Restor to become the platform to host all the aspects of the restoration movement. This means providing a space where we can help amplify the incredible stories of the people doing the important work on the ground and exploring how Restor is helping them achieve their goals. Our first story focuses on Raj Mohan and his journey from an engineer to the Founder of an NGO that has planted 10 million trees in India.
I am interviewing both Raj Mohan and Akshay Rajmohan. Both men greet me with wide smiles and the same grey polo shirt: the colorful Sustainable Green Initiative (SGI) logo imprinted across the chest. Raj Mohan, the founder of SGI, an Indian tree-planting NGO, sits in what seems to be his office. Plain white walls and a single small framed picture surround him. Akshay Rajmohan on the other hand is wearing a bright red baseball cap and his face is framed by a colorful and eccentric collection of posters, records, books, lamps, paintings, and photos. They’re father and son. It’s clear to me that SGI is a family organization. As I talk to them, however, it becomes clear that SGI is not just supporting Raj’s family but a larger family as well, an Indian family, a human family.
Our conversation flows easily. Both Raj and Akshay are friendly, speaking eloquently and effortlessly weaving beautiful metaphors into their explanations. Raj begins by telling me about his childhood, which he spent split between moving with his father (a member of the Indian air force) and living with his grandparents in Kerala. He recalls Kerala as green and fertile. A place where people lived in close contact with the nature that surrounded them and where the “most valuable asset” was the village’s largest tree. “Things have changed a lot,” he admits. “None of this makes any sense anymore…and once one got into the entrepreneurial journey one had to move away from nature because nature became something that you went to for a holiday, to look at all the green stuff and come back”. Akshay chuckles in the background, no doubt recalling the last time he took time off work and escaped to the wilderness.
This theme often comes up in Raj’s early life. A narrowing of options and decisions made for him by the rapidly modernizing society in which he grew up. His good academic performance led him to study mechanical engineering. “We didn’t have a choice,” he laughs “if you made the mistake of doing well in school, you either became an engineer or a doctor”. But he doesn’t regret his decision. In fact, he looks back fondly on those years of study, which were spent in a small village surrounded by nature. But the pressures and expectations of finding a stable job continued to take him away from the natural world. After graduating, he worked at an engineering facility for a mere twenty days. He tells me a story from that experience that resonates with me. On one of his first days at the factory, he was tasked with annealing some steel pipes. When steel is allowed to cool slowly, on its own time, it becomes malleable and bends to take the desired form. But Raj, a young inexperienced engineer, makes a mistake and cools the pipes down rapidly by dunking them in water. The steel becomes hard and brittle, resisting the forms that the engineers would like. What a good metaphor for Raj’s life, I think to myself. A foreshadowing of Raj’s eventual rejection of those rigid pressures, which leads him to plant trees instead.
Raj left the factory and went on to work for one of the larger yellow-pages companies in India, becoming an integral part of the communications revolution that swept across the country. He admits that the job was exciting and notes that he wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but also that it was not truly satisfying. “He was like a lion,” Akshay chimes in “I still remember him putting on his suit and cufflinks, the tie and everything”. The image is a stark contrast to the humble man who I’ve been talking to, one who underplays the achievements of SGI (an organization that has planted over 10 million trees across 11 states in India), gets his hands dirty in the soil, and charms me with his unhurried humor.
But a critical moment soon arrived for Raj and his family. He describes a call from his creator to give back what his business had taken for so long. A clear act of reciprocity; from printing pages to planting trees. On that very evening, he calls his family to have dinner together and he breaks the news: “I’m going to spend the rest of my life planting trees”. Akshay laughs as he remembers his own surprise, the lion becoming a farmer. But the family rallied behind their father. Akshay, a hopeful filmmaker with a passion for design and photography, designed the logo and website and handled communications. Raj’s wife took up more work to put food on the table until SGI became self-sufficient. His youngest son became a forester, who Raj is secretly hoping will return from his international studies to help him plant trees in India. “It’s not the easiest thing to work with family,” Akshay comments, to which Raj responds with a knowing grin. “I love my family, but when it comes to work and business you have to have your boundaries”. But it’s clear to me that family is a key piece that makes SGI what it is.
SGI doesn’t just plant trees, they plant fruit trees. Raj continues to bring up a certain statistic: 67% of the world’s population live within 2 to 3 thousand miles of his home and the majority of them live below the poverty line, struggling every day to find food for themselves and their families. For Raj, planting fruit trees means not only giving back to the Earth but providing food and income for his fellow Indians. In a way, they too are part of his family. He even talks about the trees as his children. “If you nurture a fruit tree for two to five years, it will produce fruits for you for the next 40, 50, 60 years”. Raj has ambitious plans. He wants to double the number of trees SGI plants every year, 10 million this year, 20 million the next, and so on. But he knows that planting all the trees in the world is no substitute for cutting our carbon emissions. However, he remains hopeful. He tells me about how the village elders he works with teach him about native fruit species and continue to refer to farms as “jungles”, acknowledging that these lands are borrowed from the wilderness.
Restor is another part of that collaborative learning for Raj, an extension of the family. He talks about the power that Restor has for keeping all of his data in one place, keeping companies honest and responsible in their offsetting commitments, and convincing farmers to adopt sustainable agroforestry by using Restor to show them the already successful farms from across India. However, his biggest challenge he says is finding the right people to help SGI scale. Here too he acknowledges Restor’s usefulness: “Restor could be the place where not only us, but a lot of organizations like us will be able to benefit extremely well…Together we will be able to pull it off,” he says “Restor is going to be able to handle these issues for all of us, you have the technology and the right people there”. Raj, Akshay, and I all agree on the seriousness of the climate crisis. Ultimately, battling systems change will take a massive, global network of restoration practitioners, policymakers, conservationists, public activists, private donors, and climate scientists.
Akshay ends the interview with another beautiful metaphor: “The way I look at the world is like a spaceship. On every ship, you have a crew that makes sure that the ship functions. We are all crewmembers on planet earth, and we should be working together to make sure we make it safely across the galaxy”. That’s what it will take. All of us, working as a crew, a large and diverse team, a community, a family.