Aranya Forest in Poothurai village, Tamil Nadu, is home to canyons, bird nests, two-decade-old banyan trees, bonsai creations, climbers to ferns, and moss. It has lakes and a flourishing ecosystem.
But did you know two decades ago, it was just a barren piece of land? This transformation is 25 years of unwavering dedicated efforts of a true environmentalist at heart, D Saravanan. He is the living example of a famous quote, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’. He dedicated nearly 25 years of his life to turn barren land into a green luscious forest spread over 100 acres.
In 1994, Saravanan joined the Auroville Green Work Resource Centre (AGWRC) as a teaching assistant. Immediately, knowing his passion for the environment, Sarvanan was given Aranya and its development.
Despite being honored with the responsibility, Sarvanan knew it was a Herculean task. The land was devoid of any vegetation, and though several individuals and experts had tried planting seeds, no one recorded any success. Even the grass refused to grow.
From there to having over a crore trees and 900 species of indigenous plants is a commendable feat. The forest is now home to six water bodies and pristine ravines. It has close to 240 varieties of birds, 54 butterfly species, and 20 species of snakes, all adding to the compelling biodiversity of the forest. He is the honorary wildlife warden of Aranya Forest and Sanctuary.
The first task at hand was the health and ecology of the land. A time-consuming and labor-intensive work that took nearly three years to just level the land. Then came carefully choosing plant species that were rainfed and climatically adjustable. Considering the water scarcity problem in the area Saravanan and his team opted for rainwater harvesting via bunds. These bunds helped in controlling soil erosion by diverting the water to ponds and reservoirs.
They dug 100-foot deep borewells and built six reservoirs to capture the rainwater for growing grass and millets.
The grass was to attract birds who play a crucial role in enhancing the ecosystem as they bring insects and worms. Bird droppings essentially act as fertilisers for plants. Owing to this trick, the land was covered in mulch, that increased fertility.
Saravanan was very strict and particular about the seed collection drive. He made a seed calendar for different seasons. He would travel every month to places to source seeds from farmers.
Saravanan started a nursery to nurture the seeds personally before planting them in the ground. Closer to the monsoon, Saravanan and his men started the plantation. Monsoon – as this saved water.
The forest started flourishing with several species of flora and fauna every year, and by the mid-2000s. It had an 80 percent survival rate.
Not a Cakewalk
Educating the villagers about the massive plantation project and getting their corporation was not easy as now the land was not open to cattle grazing.
For this, Saravanan created a barter system, where villagers would cooperate, and in return, they would get fodder for their animals. He dedicated a small portion of land to grow fodder.
“Poaching affected the health of plants and vegetations. As animals reduced, we noticed the leaves were drying faster. Apart from installing a wired fence and took help from the locals as well and educated them about the ecosystem and global warming. Eventually, we mitigated poaching,” says Saravanan.
Along with improving the air and water quality—as the greens and moisture perpetually keep the temperatures lower by 1-2 degrees—Saravanan has achieved a personal victory. He identifies the animals just by their voices and footsteps. A feat that only experts like wildlife officers or photographers can achieve.