A new generation of Auroville youth brings vigorous pragmatism to the environmental scene.
In early March, a rather urgent appeal appeared on the Auroville intranet that opened the eyes of the community to a relatively unfamiliar issue – that of human-tree conflict. Can we let the biggest silk cotton tree in Auroville come down? This tree is in the process of being cut down. It is still save-able. What we need is an insurance fund to cover damage trees can do in public areas when they fall. Is anyone willing to donate money for this […]?
Its author was Island (pronounced ‘Is-land'), a young Aurovilian of French origin who, together with arborists or tree doctors Juan and Indra, founded Tree Care in 2005. A sub-unit of the Auroville Botanical Gardens, Tree Care offers all kinds of assistance related to trees. It also runs an apprentice programme, when possible, for Auroville youth having a respect for nature and interested in trees – like the two at present, Ilango, and Gopal.
So what's the story with the silk cotton tree?
Island explains. “A few months ago I was called by the people at the Dental Centre to take a look at a silk cotton tree. They wanted us to cut it down. I suggested that I'd first go up to check if it was healthy or not, and then give my evaluation. It was healthy and so we refused to cut it.” The tree, around 20 metres in height, was a giant in the making. This one was relatively young at 40 years as these trees are known to live for hundreds of years.
“Many factors complicated the issue with this particular tree,” explains Island . “There were overhead electrical cables running beneath it posing danger, incidents of branches dropping on the building below, but most importantly, it was the focus of people living nearby who were afraid that the tree could become a danger during a storm even though it survived the last one untouched. Of course, it is not possible to have a group of tree experts guarantee that it will not fall down in a storm. Later perhaps, when we have accumulated data, we will be able to do this.
“The other issue was that we could not move the people from that area – this would have been the only way to save it really. And there was the dispute with a neighbour. The Dental Centre is located in the middle of the village, and every flowering season, the cotton with the seeds would drift across the neighbourhood and people complained about that. So it became a cultural conflict of sorts.”
Though the outcome of Island 's efforts to save this tree was unsuccessful, he believes that it has been a first step in preventing such incidents from happening in the future.
Another positive outcome of this episode has been exploring insurance options in India against public tree damage, perhaps as part of a community insurance plan. “We know such policies exist in other countries – what we need is information relevant to India .”
Arboriculture or the art and science of tree care, is a relatively new area to India and even to Auroville. Says Island , “Our early foresters were good at planting trees and knew how to help them stay alive and grow in harsh environments, but little was known about pruning. It's only after Xavier and Juan came that people began to become aware of this aspect.”
In Auroville, Tree Care's job description also includes removing parasitic plants from tree tops, working with the Auroville Electrical Service in removing branches close to high tension wires – “it's a frequent cause of power failure in the rainy season” – and the occasional pruning of some of Auroville's fruit orchards.
Educating the public is also a priority, according to Island . “There are a few things that people need to be aware of,” he says. “Like knowing what kind of sapling one is planting and how big the tree is going to get, because some of them can get quite enormous. For example, some of the banyans in Auroville have been planted too close to people's homes – they're bound to become a problem in the future.”
Island confesses to being a perpetual student himself. This summer he is off to Perth in Western Australia “to work and maybe to do a short course on arboriculture. I hear the ecosystem there is similar to Auroville; there are a lot of eucalyptus and many other species that were introduced here!” He is also considering developing a database on trees for the Auroville area that can be expanded to include the urban Indian context as well.
For Tree Care's expertise is not only sought within Auroville. Last year, their work at Pondicherry 's Bharathi Park drew a lot of media attention. “We had three local newspaper crews gawking at us as we were swinging from the trees in our ropes and harnesses. You could see how surprised they were – it was all very new to them.”
Recently Tree Care landed a more high-profile assignment. “It happened completely by chance,” says Island . “We went to check out a store in Chennai that had recently become the dealer for Petzl, a French maker of mountaineering gear. We met the manager who informed us that Petzl was going to do a seminar in Chennai to demonstrate their products. We gave him our card, and 3 days later he called to say that Petzl's export sales people wanted to meet us to see if we would want to do the demo for them.”
This contact led Tree Care to demonstrating their safety equipment in pepper plantations in Kerala. “Petzl is trying to improve workers' safety while they work on these very tall trees that have the pepper plants growing on them. Apparently there are a lot of injuries on the job, and even some deaths due to people falling from heights.
“Ultimately our aim is to improve tree-human relationships,” says Island . His idealism appears tempered with a healthy dollop of pragmatism. Having grown up in Auroville – he came at the age of 12 – he is used to its ground realities. “One shouldn't enforce things – the solution is to try to find a middle way that will satisfy everybody, which of course doesn't always happen.
“In the forest, there is little tree-human conflict, but in an urban setting, many things are trying to live together, often with different objectives. And our work at Tree Care is all about respect for diversity.”