D. Saravanan walking through the forest that he built
Image by aupindia.org

D. Saravanan, an environmentalist from Poothurai, has transformed a 100-acre tract of barren land devoid of vegetation, into a lush green forest. These forests are now known as Aranya Forests.

In 1994, Joss Brooks, an Australian who played a role in restoring Auroville's ecology, invited Saravanan to join the Auroville Green Work Resource Centre ( AGWRC ) as a teaching assistant. Brooks learnt about his passion for the environment in a meeting. Impressed with his work, co-members of AGWRC, Rauf Ali and Nevi, who originally started Aranya, gave him the responsibility to look after the place and develop the ecology. The responsibility being handed over to him was indeed a bold commitment for the latter. The land was devoid of all sorts of vegetation, and though several individuals and experts had tried planting seeds, no one recorded any success.

What actually gave him the confidence to transform such a humongous land into forest?

Saravanan, in an interview with the Better India, told that, "It was my family which gave me that confidence." He elucidated that he had seen his family fighting against development that comes at the cost of the environment. He also revealed that when he was 14, he joined in a 100-day march to 'Save the Western Ghats'. Although, he couldn't understand much at that age but got an impression of the infrastructural development. He said that he faced failures in his project initially in these lands but those mistakes didn't deter him rather it became his learning curve. Thanks to his exemplary work and dedication, the forest has over a crore trees and some 1000 species of indigenous plants. The forest is home to six-man made water bodies and pristine ravines. Nearly 240 varieties of birds, 54 butterfly species and 20 species of snakes further enhance the biodiversity of forest. It's also a breeding place for many rare and endangered species.

Saravanan lives in a house built at the entrance of the forest, along with his wife and daughter. He is also the wildlife warden of Aranya Forest and Sanctuary.

Breathing Life into a Barren Land

He carefully chose the plant species that were rainfed especially and those which had a better adaptability to climatic patterns. The local volunteers took nearly three years to level the land as changing the health and ecology of the land is time consuming.

The water tables were also very low which meant that in no way a plant could survive without watering it daily. So to increase the water table level, they opted for rainwater harvesting. Steps to control soil erosion were also taken into account. Reservoirs and dams were built to capture every single drop of water for plantations. Presence of grass attracts birds which play a crucial role in enhancing the ecosystem. They are the best pollinators too and increase the fertility of land thereby. Saravanan was very particular about the seed collection drive for he had to ensure that the survival rate was decent. He made a seed calendar for different seasons. Initially, he took the support of largely the monsoons for the development. Later on, the funds from the government and non-governmental organizations also came in for the development of the ecology.

Educating the villagers about the plantation project and securing their cooperation is another big challenge. Initially, the villagers were upset as now the land was not open to cattle grazing. Saravanan came up with the barter system where villagers would cooperate in return, they would get fodder for their animals. Surprisingly, the villagemen nodded their heads for this new system. The poachers were restricted in this land. Saravanan can identify or differentiate the voices of animals just by their footsteps, something that only wildlife experts can achieve.

The forest now develops several species of flora and fauna. With canyons, bird nests, two-decade-old banyan trees, bonsai creations, climbers to fern and moss, the forests offer a spectacular view to tourists. The pebbles and the sandstone facade further beautify the region. Year after year, people are flocking from all over the world to see this historic revolution. Some schools and colleges plan their excursion to study the biodiversity here. The development of forests have improved the air and water quality.

D Saravanan could not be a more fitting example of Mahatama Gandhi's famous quote,

'Be the change you wish to see in the world.'

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