Spaces of Contestation: Situated Vegetal Ecologies of Street Trees in Coimbatore

Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Forging an urban political ecology beyond Western-centric frameworks and narratives means, not least, confronting interventions that resist both narratives of top-down biopolitical regimes and bottom-up models of community participation in greening, argues Charrlotte Adelina in her contribution to the “Kin City” series, zooming in on an environmental initiative in Coimbatore, India.

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In order to carefully sense and expand the boundaries of the political ecologies of urban greening, this piece invites the reader to reflect on an ambivalent fieldwork encounter in Coimbatore: I rode my rented scooter down a narrow arterial road in a central neighborhood of Coimbatore. The street connects two important places in the city: a four-way intersection with schools and hospitals, and a central neighborhood that has been redeveloped for upper-middle-class leisure through the ‘Smart City’ program. The street was bustling with students, small pottikadai (grocery) shops and salons, interspersed with a row of flowering badam and jamun trees. When I inquired about the maintenance of these trees, the shopkeepers directed me to Prakasam.

Prakasam is a tempo driver and he is parked around the intersection. He works for a few hours every day. He has been planting trees since he was a child. He has a house and some free time, so he grows, plants, and gives away saplings for free. He tells me proudly: “All the trees you see as far as your eyes can see are all planted by me.” He is said to have planted some 7,000 trees in the two central neighborhoods of Coimbatore, growing trees wherever there is space – including schoolyards, graveyards, temple grounds, and roadsides. Most people in these areas, he says, would confirm that it is a tempo-kaarar (tempo-man) who has greened the neighborhood.

Greening the neighborhood

His setup is simple: Right at the intersection, he fetches ditch water from a jug and waters his saplings, which he has placed on a makeshift wooden cart. About five years ago, he mentions that he had an agreement (“a verbal one, not a written one,” he clarifies) to use a shrubby yard adjacent to a cemetery site as a nursery. When the seedlings in his cart reach a certain height, they are transported to the nursery, where he has about 3,000 pots. All he wants is not fame or glory, but to keep the city from becoming a desert and to keep it cool. He is happy when someone mentions that a jamun or monkey pod he planted is now bearing fruit.

When asked if anyone supports him in his endeavor, Prakasam replies, “Actually, everyone is really angry with me,” as there have been several neighborhood battles related to tree planting. From negotiating with bureaucratic officials from the sewer and electricity departments about trees obstructing infrastructures of service provisioning, to heated arguments with homeowners who disagreed with him about the “nuisance” of trees, his stories were rife with conflict. The homeowners did not want to attract the kind of sociality that trees convene: not only can the roots potentially upend the walls of a compound, but the canopy attracts people and parked scooters on matters of thermal regulation and bats, squirrels, and crows seeking food and shelter.

He once hit a barber who was cutting down his tree when the Crown hid the sign and dragged him to the police station. A local councillor has a deep-seated grudge against him because Prakasam filed a complaint with the forest department against the politician for cutting down a tree to display his newly minted banner celebrating the start of his political career. He complains that goat herders are grazing their herds irresponsibly and destroying the “civilization” of the town. As a result, he now has to spend 350 INR to fence the saplings with wire nets. Confused, I ask, “Are you involved in politics?” “All political parties include me, but I am not part of any party,” he says.

Ambivalent intentions and messy micropolitics

At that moment, I realized that the literature on urban greening had not equipped me to grasp the ambivalent intentions and messy micropolitics of greening enacted by hustlers like Prakassam. His story did not fit neatly into narratives of top-down biopolitical regimes or bottom-up models of community participation in greening. Not only did he use greening as an arena to enact his complex engagement with party politics at the neighborhood level, but the act of greening itself was a site of more-than-human political negotiation and struggle with multi-species actors in the neighborhood. His vision of greening was made possible by a form of what Blom Hansen and Verkaaik (2009) call “infra-power” – as seen in his humorous and dangerous encounters and arrangements in the neighborhood, his affective experiences in the city shifting between desire, aspiration, and fear, and in his rhizomatic and liberated visions of greening that render intellectual traditions archaic.

Anna Zimmer (2015) authored a chapter in the International Handbook of Political Ecology, entitled “Urban political ecology ‘beyond the West’: engaging with South Asian urban studies.” Here, she offers several productive entry points for advancing a pluralistic political ecology by incorporating insights from urban theory “from elsewhere.” Southern urbanism shows that the state itself is a heterogeneous and fragmented entity, with intermediaries helping to mediate relations with the state and such political forms of organizing assistance in accessing services. The urban fabric is made up of contestation, disorder, and fragmentation – thus Zimmer argues how a group of actors would have to struggle to fully realize their goals through protracted negotiations and everyday contestation. Such a move helps us to go beyond simple and dichotomized frameworks of winners and losers of urban environmental transformations.

Fraught ethics and politics of the Kin City

Reflecting on the sociality and mythologies of the city, Hansen and Verkaaik write about how the moral complexity and ‘real’ ways of navigating the city elude sociological (and, I would add, political-ecological) analysis. Similarly, the ‘real’ realm of ‘nature’ has been left out of the analytical purview of urban studies and political ecology. Considering the vibrancy of street trees as willful beings -both inhabiting and shaping urban environments through the production of more-than-human relations – can further help us understand how environmental issues and vibrant relations configure more-than-human politics, relations, and subjectivities.

In such a situated urban political ecology one can trace the configurational outcomes of multiple motivations and meanings ascribed for and against vegetal growth. Uneven state practices and socio-political fault lines can still be implicated in relations to urban environments in situated vegetal geographies. The strength of situated vegetal geographies, however, lies in their ability to point us to existing practices and narratives of greening beyond simplistic ethico-aesthetic registers and environmental visions. It splinters (and expands) notions of kinship, cosmopolitics, and becoming in multi-species thinking by addressing issues of power and negotiated claims to space. By looking at the green fragments in the city, such as those created by Prakasam, a fraught ethics and politics of the kin city emerges.

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