Following the tsunami of 2004, Auroville's Shakti Nursery has done important environmental work along the coast, and learnt some invaluable lessons in the process. The work continues with success and its unique challenges.
When Auroville's Tsunami relief efforts began in March 2005,
eco restoration work was given high priority. The protective role of the coastal eco-systems against natural disasters and the damaging effects of climate change have long been known but were confirmed following the recent tsunami. Those areas with coastal forest cover and mangroves suffered far less damage than those with little vegetation. Thus the importance of sustainable and long-term protection of the coastline by resilient ecosystems like the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF) was recognized, and projects funded to carry out this work.
In Auroville, Shakti took up the eco restoration project in the coastal villages of the bioregion. The project had three primary objectives: to create a shelterbelt of vegetation along the Coromandel coastline through intensive re-forestation; to get people's participation through income-generating activities such as setup of plant nurseries; and finally to increase awareness of basic environmental issues amongst children and adults and thus get the community involved in protecting its green cover and ecosystems.
Shakti's first task was to create a protective barrier or treeline along the coast. A mixed planting of indigenous TDEF and non-TDEF species along with some exotic (non native) species, such as Coccoloba uvifera and Scaevola taccada. The wisdom behind the mixed planting was that the faster growing non native species would provide the necessary cover and protection to the more slow growing indigenous varieties. Later as the latter established themselves, these exotic varieties would be phased out. The rationale was similar to that followed in Auroville's own early afforestation efforts.
The eco restoration work began in March 2005. Initial activities involved negotiating with the local panchayat leaders for coastal land on which to carry out the planting. With the help of Paalam members [Paalam which means bridge in Tamil was a group of three – an elder and two youth from the village – who communicated between Auroville Tsunami office and the village community] a series of surveys were organized in the villages and GIS maps created.
After extensive community dialogue, about 133.28 acres of land was secured. The initial plans saw the local fishing communities managing the plantation sites. However it soon became clear that the fisher folk do not have the time to be involved both in the fish trade as well as managing the plantations. After deliberations, another solution was decided upon that the local Dalit communities – who are not involved in fishing – become involved in managing the eco restoration sites.
The first planting
The first planting was carried out in two of the Northern-most coastal villages – Anumandhai Kuppam and Chetti Nagar. A total of about 10,000 saplings were planted over an area of approximately 25 acres (400 saplings to an acre). Members of the Self Help Groups (SHGs) assisted the Shakti team in the planting.
After six months of the planting, only 20% of the saplings were alive. Two factors were found to be responsible for this poor survival – unexpected coastal erosion that led to loss of the beach to the sea along with the 3 to 5 rows of plants standing on the land; and some species not taking to the challenging coastal habitat. By the end of the year, this dropped to 10%.
This additional loss was attributed to unexpected social factors. NGOs working in the same area had hired those employed to do the watering, by offering higher wages for other work. Also certain planting sites had been used to dry an exceptional catch of fish. In both cases, no watering happened for an extended period resulting in plant death.
In the following year, the village of Nocchikuppam (south of Chetty Nagar) was identified for eco restoration with about 4000 saplings.
With a deeper understanding of the ground realities from the first experience, the team from Shakti took several remedial measures. For example, the species of choice for planting on the seafront end was the hardy casuarina. Also older and more mature saplings that had been well nurtured in the nursery were chosen for planting as they were found to survive the dry summer with little or no watering.
Another simple and innovative solution that the team came up with was to physically protect young saplings from the salty sea spray and grazing animals. Palm fronds were fashioned into a protective cover instead of using expensive fencing or conventional tree guards. Named the Shakti guard, these were placed around those species identified as most vulnerable. The Shakti guards performed well and there was a marked improvement in survival to approximately 70% of the new saplings.
The work has also begun to create an impact on the children of the local schools in these three villages. Besides ‘biofencing' of the school perimeter as well as tree planting within the campus (the students take care of the saplings themselves), Shakti has initiated, through funding from Trevisio and AVI-Italy, ecological awareness programmes for the school children. Several groups of students have since visited Shakti, as well as Auroville's other ecological education centres – the Auroville Botanical Garden , and the Pitchandikulam forest and bio reserve.
This coastal eco restoration work by Shakti has not just been about the environment, it has had an impact on several levels many of which are intangible. Community building is one. The involvement of Dalit women in the planting work and management of plantation sites particularly calls for a mention, as village communities are strictly divided by caste lines or occupation. Such interaction and movement can only strengthen community bonds.
Women's empowerment is another. Over the three years, the project has provided employment to over fifty individuals, half of whom are women. It has also provided livelihood opportunities for two women SHGs in the Dalit hamlets of Koonimedu and Gangai Nagar, by setting up nurseries where seedlings for planting can be raised. Shakti provided the infrastructure to start these enterprises, as well as extended loans. Both nurseries reached their full operational capacity within the first year. With about 25,000 seedlings between them, an arrangement has been reached that Shakti will buy all the nursery stock at fair market price.
There are many challenges to eco restoration work outside Auroville especially coastal eco restoration. Land speculation of beach area, salt water intrusion and subsequent beach erosion are some of them.
However one of the major challenges to this work has been awareness building and establishing a sense of ownership in the beneficiaries. The existing attitude is that the plants and the bio-shields have to be maintained by the stakeholders and not the local people themselves, so maintaining both the community and stakeholder interest becomes a long-term challenge.
The slowness of endeavour does not make it easier. Re-establishing tree cover along the coastline is a gradual process; not only because of the speed at which trees grow, but also because the local culture and traditions surrounding the valuing and conservation of trees and forest cover need to be revived.
It is clear that forests, probably the TDEF kind existed along the Coromandel coast at some point in history; and the reason for their disappearance must have been connected to the disappearance of this culture towards the care and protection of natural resources. Reviving these values – which may have been lost probably over generations – will be a lengthy process.
In the meantime Shakti quietly continues with its work as it has over the last 28 years.
All images courtesy Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants