Seven years after its creation, the Auroville Botanical Gardens achieved a new milestone; the completion of an environmental education centre. On August 10th it was inaugurated by the Lieutenant-Governor of Puducherry, Shri Mukut Mithi.
The Lieutenant-Governor of Puducherry, Shri Mukut Mithi planting a tree. From left: Secretary M. Ramaswamy IAS, Paul Blanchflower, Mrs. Mithi
“The main focus of the work at the Auroville Botanical Gardens is education,” says Paul Blanchflower, the coordinator of the project. “This has been the intention from the beginning – to create an environment where love, respect and understanding of the natural world can be nurtured and developed.” The programme targets school children and has an ambitious goal – to provide a basic environmental education facility for over 300 schools within a 30 kilometre radius of the gardens. Apart from botanical education, environmental issues such as conservation of biodiversity, global warming, water cycles, food security, and environmental monitoring will be taught. “Our second aim is to be a model of sustainability and to show what can be achieved with today's technologies,” he adds. The Botanical Gardens depends on solar energy for powering its buildings, while wind and solar are used for pumping water.
The new environmental education centre building at the Auroville Botanical Gardens.
The latest addition to the Gardens' infrastructure is the 400 sq.m. environmental education centre. Designed by Poonam, it is a light and airy building that will provide ample space for students for sit-down activities. “Very necessary when it gets too hot in the day.” The building also hosts a library and an office space, plus a water garden that is fed by the rain water collected from the roof. “Now our task is to equip the building with chairs and computers, and to install the kitchen where the lunch for the children can be prepared,” says Paul. “But this will have to wait awhile until the next grant comes in, which hopefully will be fairly soon.”
Lack of funds is also the reason why the original programme of teaching groups of children for 5 hours a day, including providing a nutritious mid-day meal, is still not fully implemented at present. “We run on a shoe-string budget, and the maximum we can do now is 2-hour programmes,” says Paul. “A government grant helped us construct the building, and a small donation last year allowed us to pay for two educational assistants. But what we badly need now is a bus; that would be the key to the work we're doing as we can go and pick up the kids from far-away schools and bring them to the Botanical Gardens.” Paul hopes that he will find corporate support from businesses or industries to meet this need.
In the meantime, the Gardens is pursuing creative ways to generate income. Recently, the nursery has started selling not only small seedlings in plastic bags but also large trees in big tubs; “something that is becoming quite popular with hotels, educational institutions, and architects' offices.” Another effort at revenue generation has been the setting up of nurseries for other NGOs. “Our nursery can take care of only 50,000 plants per year as we're limited in the water we can use,” explains Paul. “So we're more than happy to share our knowledge with others, and to give out seeds and cuttings.” More recently, the Botanical Gardens has also become involved with landscape consultancy, an activity that is financially well-rewarding. “Ultimately,” says Paul, “the Gardens has to become self-sustainable.”
Plans for the future include different types of ‘teaching gardens'. Already an arboretum is in place with good specimen trees. “We also have a demonstration plot of a natural forest area where the flora is allowed to develop as it wishes,” says Paul. Works are now under way for a butterfly meadow with TDEF flowering plants where children can appreciate the interaction between insects and plants. There are also plans for a palm garden having species from all over India ; an orchid garden; a bamboo and grass garden; and a garden of cacti. “Our intention is to take the children to a particular garden space and tell a story,” explains Paul. “This way they can understand how living things evolve and interact and how humans can relate with nature and the environment.”
As Paul explains the state of affairs, a group of school children neatly dressed in purple uniforms and with notebooks and pencils in hand spill out of a van. Their noisy chatter and squeals of excitement breaks the still air. Their guide meets them by the gate and leads them off into the nursery. After a while the group streams out. Now their voices hushed and movements subdued, they head towards the arboretum. As the last one disappears down the bend, all sounds drop away – it's just the bird calls and the chirp of crickets filling the air.
It's another weekday morning at the Botanical Gardens.
The Botanical Gardens
The Auroville Botanical Gardens was started in August 2000 on 50 acres of old cashew land rescued from the threat of real estate development. The Gardens has seen a dramatic growth since then. More than 250 tree species have been planted in the 25-acre arboretum; 5,500 specimens have been planted in the 10-acre conservation forest; and a TDEF plant nursery has been created, capable of producing 50,000 seedlings per year to promote the re-introduction of the indigenous flora of the region.
The Auroville Botanical Gardens has as its special mission to conserve and preserve the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF). This forest-type, unique to India 's south-eastern sea-board and once extending from Vishakhapatnam in the north to Ramanathapuram in the south, has all but disappeared except for a few pockets around sacred groves. It is now reduced to less than 1% of its original area.
Since Auroville's inception, teams of green workers involved in the reforestation work of Auroville have been making trips to sacred groves to collect seeds of the native TDEF species. But a survey done by the Botanical Gardens two years ago has shown that sacred groves are rapidly shrinking in size. Encroachment is rampant. Fortunately with Auroville now having all the native TDEF species, seed collection happens within Auroville itself.