Day 95: A growing thought

Farm. June 2020


Day 95

The day began with a reminder of my stupidity. It had rained through the night yesterday. This morning after driving to the farm, I rode down to the waterline of the reservoir shooting down a muddy trail across the road. Over a water soaked bump on the narrow off-trail, the grip-less front tyre skid and the cycle spun around crashing into the bushes. The impact broke the gear shifter and brake lever. Within five minutes of starting the day’s ride was over. This was another repeat of the short seconds that change the direction of days. It happened three months back with a motorbike and today again with a cycle. Life is many stupidities summed over. The trouble now is to source a broken Shimano shifter and brake lever during these days of lockdown and limited business operations. Lesson taken – to use things only for the purpose they are designed for. Cross applications need more thought than what I am generally willing to spare. This tendency has rippled through other areas of living. In profession, in education and of course in all the outdoor sports over the years. But these excursions on cycle in and around the rural blocks of our district have brought about an exposure to the local environment like never before. In these matters it is good to have as early an exposure as can be. This helps in understanding, shaping and articulation of work that one might want to take up after the initial run-up of career and income buildup has stabilized into a steady background process. An unburdened mind can then spend time in free-form exploration of ideas.

As we went about planting more fruit trees today it became clear that there is merit in considering planting as a lever for effecting sustainability and development in a region. Three individuals come to mind when I think of tree planting and afforestation as a personal idea, as a method in environmental rejuvenation and as an approach to community development. Thimmakka of Gubbi town in Karnataka planted banyan trees over several years, driven by personal reasons which nevertheless also meant an outstanding contribution to the local environment. Then, there was Sunderlal Bahuguna and his wife in Uttarakhand who stood against the felling of trees in the Himalayan region. They sparked a well known environmental movement in Garhwal hills. This was known as Chipko movement, which began as a response to prevent felling of trees but later developed into a large community afforestation effort as well. Third, is Prof Wangari Maathai of Kenya who has left an outstanding demonstration of the idea that environmental health is the foundation on which communities prosper.  I have heard of these three  over the years and have visited the landscapes in which their contributions were made. Profi Maathai’s words now ring true  –

“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it, and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You’re just talking.” 

After having ‘done a thing’ with planting on our farm, I am beginning to step into ideas that were just readings until now. The farm opened up a laboratory as well as a whole new portal of experiences with ideas of sustainability, human impact on landscapes, ecology and environmentalism. 

On 10th December in 2004, Prof Maathai stood in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Prof Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in 1977. Over the course of the next twenty seven years, her movement  which was based on planting trees has led to transformative changes in community development, democracy and peace. Can there be a simpler approach to taking a stab at these systemic problems? Perhaps, it is in this simplicity of the idea that the potential for mass movements lie. 

In her address she speaks of the origin of her movement and its course – 

In 1977, when we started the Green Belt Movement, I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.

Here was a simple idea of planting trees that seemed a practical answer to the concerns of the women in Kenya. She recollects –  

Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount of time. This sustains interest and commitment.

So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.

In India, a larger version of Prof Maathai’s work is being done by the MoEF’s Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). CAMPA began its work in 2004. This was a consequence of the landmark TN Godhavarma vs Union of India case which was a transformative moment for forest policy in India. TN Godavarman Thirumulpad was seeking protection for the Nilgiris forest land from deforestation by illegal timber operations. The stretch of land in question was also a part of the property that Godavarman’s family owned before it was taken over by the government of India during the accession of princely states into the union of India. 

The Supreme Court went further than the case and issued an order to stop felling of trees across the country. The idea of compensatory afforestation was brought in here. Indian states were directed to compensate for the forest land that is taken over for other uses like mining and industrial use. The compensation at a predetermined rate is deposited with the state government which must be then used to plant trees so that the forest coverage in the country could be maintained. 

While this activist decision by the Supreme Court was progressive, it had a wide range of effect on forests and industry in the country. For one, an illegal market for timber sprung up, because felling of trees was no longer permitted. However, forests and forest policy benefited from the renewed focus. 

Back in the villages around the farm, a handful of workers are often seen planting Pongamia (Millettia pinnata) saplings along the roads. This is done under the state’s CAMPA project. On many of the farm trips a vista of a dense, radiant green canopy along the road flashes by. This future isn’t far if these saplings survive. Meanwhile, planting will continue, on our farm and in other spaces that can do with this silent yet radical enough method that can change landscapes – human and ecological.

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