Reporter & Cameraperson: Smitha TK
Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas
How do you create a forest out of a dry arid pebbled land?
You sow a seed, you tend to it, the shade of the plant allows microorganisms to grow, birds come and perch of the tree. They pollinate the seeds. A forest is born.
It really is that simple, says Deepika Kundaji, a conservationist, a farmer, an eco warrior.
Together, along with her partner, Deepika grew an 8 acre forest in Auroville, on a land destroyed by colonisers and left famished, dry and unliveable. It took 28 years.
A 'metro girl', Deepika was born in Mumbai and grew up in Bengaluru. A history major, she craved the simple life of farmers. At the age of 21, she left the metro life behind and moved to Auroville, near Pondicherry.
The conservationist met her partner Bernard Declercq from Belgium here, and they began sharing notes on living life in an environmentally conscious manner.
In 1994, the seed of an audacious idea to build a forest all on their own was planted.
The ‘Metro Girl’ Turns Into a Farmer
When the couple began work on the eight acres of land, they had three rules in mind: No soil or organic matter from outside and no labourers. Every plant in the forest was nurtured by the two of them.
When they first took over the ‘Pebble Garden,’ the area was just a washed out land ridden with pebbles. Interestingly, over 20 million years ago, a river flowed across the land and tree fossils found here are testimony to it. Over time, the landscape changed and the territory was home to a lush subtropical forest.
In the 1700s, all the trees were cut down by the French and British colonies and the vast deforestation led to rampant soil erosion.
“If we buy soil to regenerate this land, then we will be depriving another part of the world. Then this doesn’t make sense. Nature is beautiful and has an amazing ability to heal; so we decided to go the traditional farmers' way,” she told The Quint.
In 2017, she was awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar by the President of India, which is India's highest civilian award for women.
A Climate-Proof Forest Rich with Flora & Fauna
It was an impossible task to envision a forest in this area, but Deepika and Bernard wanted to make it happen in such a way that the forest would be able to endure any weather or soil conditions.
So they began with a pioneer species, an Australian acacia shrub variety that accidentally first appeared in Pondicherry 10 years before. They chose this foreign shrub as the pioneer because it was the best option to bring back the rest of the natives, and it had already become a part of the landscape.
The pioneer species provided biomass for manure and soon shoots starting appearing across the land.
“You have to wait but in the life of a forest what is 3-4 years? It is nothing. We will not live to see the real forest. Some of the trees take 200 years to grow but it takes 10 minutes to cut it down.”Deepika Kundaji
“The pioneer plants grew significantly in four years and then came the birds. The civet cat, peacocks, porcupines and feral pigs came in,” says Bernard.
Sustainable Farming: The Garden
In the middle of this forest sits small beds for the seed-conservation efforts that Deepika manages. She works with more than a hundred and thirty four varieties of traditional vegetables that are nearing extinction, like 20 different varieties of brinjal (eggplant), seven varieties of lady’s fingers (okra), all sorts of beans, greens, and chilis.
She created the soil for the gardens from recycled vegetation and today the garden requires very little water and most of the crops have grown to be drought and flood resistant.
“When we wanted to regenerate this land we didn't want to bring soil from outside. Or even manure. Termites bring the clay between the pebbles and make this layer of red earth over the leaves. When it rains, the organic matter goes into the 11 water harvesting ponds. In summer, we collect the termite-brought silt and we make layered fertile beds. That is how we created the garden,” she said.
Sustainable Agriculture to Tackle Climate Change
In the past 28 years, the forest has endured floods and drought. Deepika believes the way to tackle climate change is to reintroduce indigenous varieties that can adapt to the climatic conditions. “This forest we've succeeded to regenerate for 28 years could be bulldozed in just a few hours. Then we would have instant climate change. A lot of creativity is manifested in these traditional methods which made it possible for people to farm and live in different conditions. It would just require a shifting of agricultural practices to adapt to climate change."
It has been 23 years since the first seed was planted, and today Pebble Garden is teeming with trees, vines, fruits, birds, animals, insects, and microorganisms.
For two decades, the couple have traveled across the country sharing seeds and lessons on fighting climate change by returning to traditional farming methods.
Every year, the seeds are extracted, dried, saved, renewed and distributed at community seed festivals and farmers’ markers. Her seeds have helped revive livelihoods and have been replicated across the country.
“The varieties we conserve include rare varieties of popular vegetables,
like brinjal, ladies finger, bottle guard, cucumber
and also includes perennial plants that will provide produce throughout the year. When I was driving once to Pondicherry a lady drove alongside me and told me 'Akka you know the seeds you gave me ? It has produced so much yield .thank you very much. ' Somebody told me that winged beans is now a popular vegetable in the village markets in Chitoor, Andhra Pradesh. The other day people from Tiruvannamalai told me they got seeds of bottlegourd and that it is producing vegetables very well,” she says.
India is home to 93 million acres of infertile land. If two people can revive an eight acre forest, imagine what a billion hands can do?
“The truth is that so much of the planet looks like a monoculture of humans. It is like we have taken over the planet and it feels as though there is no space for any other species. So somewhere there is an aspiration that we need to work towards how humans can coexist with other life forms and at the same time balance our needs with that of other species. We are searching for a life that is environmentally non exploitative," says Deepika.