Most environmental stories are so laden with doom and gloom that they tend to put you off the subject (and your breakfast) entirely — you don’t need such doomsday fare first thing on a Sunday (or worse) Monday morning. Global warming, forest fires running rampant, rivers being converted into sewers (and being worshipped), deforestation at a horrendous pace, oceans being filled with plastic, rainforests being pillaged, animals massacred — the list goes on.
“Feel good” stories in jungleland are few and far between, but are far more important: they’ve shown that things can work, and if we extrapolate, or follow the examples they provide, we can, perhaps, even draw back from teetering over the tipping point.
Take the example of Jadav “Molai” Payeng, who lives near Jorhat in Assam, better known as the “Man Who Planted a Forest” (larger than New York’s Central Park). As a 16- year-old, he was devastated by the mass deaths of snakes on a hot, barren sandbar forming Majuli island in the Brahmaputra, the largest such river island in the world. (How many hip young 16-year-old kids would spare a thought for a single dead snake? Can you imagine doing such a thing when you were of that age?)
He worked for a forestry project involving tree plantation nearby and started off by planting bamboo seedlings on the sandbar. The project was completed in five years, but Payeng stayed on, single-handedly planting other trees and nurturing them, living in a hut with his wife and three children, subsisting on the income generated by selling the milk of his cows and buffaloes. The area (which ultimately ended up being 1,360 acres or 550 ha) was soon too large for him to personally water ever day, so he devised a simple if ingenious drip irrigation system with suspended mud pots that only needed filling once a week. Over 1,000 species of plants and trees were raised, and Payeng even transferred red ants from his village to the site so that they could manage the soil.
As the forest grew, the animals looked at it and liked what they saw. So now it is home to tigers, rhinos, elephants, deer and myriad species of birds including rare vultures. The authorities, of course, only opened their eyes in 2008, and that too only after villagers complained that a gang of elephants had raided their village and run away to hide in this forest (which they wanted to cut down).
It’s taken Jadav 30 years to achieve what he has, but heck, I’ve lived in Delhi for over 30 yeas, and my garden is still, well just a garden, with neither tigers nor elephants visiting it (Monkeys do, but that’s another story). His forest was certainly not cut down and he was honoured by the Jawaharlal Nehru University and finally, this year, given the Padma Shri. Several documentaries have been made about his achievement and the forest that should be mandatory viewing in schools and colleges and corporate offices throughout the country. Hopefully, the area will be declared a “conservation reserve” and get some sort of legal protection.
So it was just one man with no massive funding or grandiose project proposals but just a bucket of seeds and determination in his heart to give meaning to his life. The case of Pamela and Anil Malhotra was different — and an example that many from the more well-off section of the society need to pay attention to. Twenty-three years ago, this NRI couple bought up 55 acres of apparently useless land in Kodagu in Karnataka, which farmers had abandoned because of — unusually — excessive rainfall. This slowly expanded to 360 acres.
Some native trees were already established in the area and many more species were introduced. Three simple rules governed the “management” of the place: no human interference, no chopping of trees and no poaching. A dense tropical rainforest was the result, inhabited once again by tigers, elephants, sambars and over 300 species of birds. This is probably the first private wildlife sanctuary in the country, and hopefully, will not be the only one.
Yet another example, which I have seen myself (and written about) is Delhi’s own, Yamuna Biodiversity Park, ostensibly different in the sense that here institutions were involved (Delhi University’s Centre for the Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems and the DDA) rather than individuals. But scratch the surface and the individuals appear — here the team of enthusiastic scientists who worked to convert what could only have been a tank- testing waste land into a rustling, bird-filled wonderland.
It must give these people a great deal of satisfaction when they see (or think about) the “before” and “after” scenarios of what they’ve achieved, though usually they are not the type who will sit back and preen. They will all have further ambitions and be working towards fulfilling them. But look at what the work’s got them — no, not money — rather, a lot of sweaty toil, dealing with plenty of unpleasant people, (whose natural habitat would be a snake pit), sometimes angry animals, but also a hugely meaningful life (with no dithering about “what should I do with my life?”). And, at the end of it all, a great rustling green jungleland all of their own making.
So yes, we have the brains all right, to convert even the most saline, devastated, hopeless, bombed-out wasteland into something akin to a natural wonderland. Now we need to realise that this is something we have to do, because very soon, we will have no choice — and that outcome will not be good.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.