Choitresh Kumar Ganguly is showing people how to carry out protection and regeneration of degraded, drought-ridden lands in South India. Using simple, natural techniques, he is helping them to improve the productivity of their land, take control of their surroundings, and improve their livelihoods.
The New Idea
C.K. Ganguly, also known as Bablu, has successfully rebuilt an agro-forest habitat on a 32-acre piece of land situated in one of the worst drought affected districts in India. It was facing desertification when he took it over in 1991. Beginning with systems to retain rainwater, collect seeds, and police tree cutting in the surrounding forests, Bablu has developed a holistic approach to regeneration which has restored the former ecosystem. Many different species of plants, birds, and animals now flourish in the area. Bablu's rationale in developing the piece of land, which he calls the Timbaktu Collective, was that there was no demonstrated alternative to the Forest Department's highly technical attempts to regenerate degraded land through heavy capital investment in the form of fertilizers and other chemicals. His experiment employed different regeneration systems appropriate to the people of the area, and mixed local knowledge and his own experience, on the one hand, with principles of natural farming and permaculture on the other. (The word "permaculture" was coined in the 1970s by Australian ecologist, Dr. Bill Mollison, as a contraction of permanent and agriculture. Permacultural land use employs the design of beneficial ecological associations that form living systems capable of regenerating and supporting themselves.)
Having achieved success on this first plot, Bablu is now translating his methods into a program that can be used on many other pieces of degraded land. He is spreading his Timbaktu approach to villages in the region through an alliance of voluntary agencies, agricultural unions, and village volunteers. The alliance is initiated by the people, and their commitment to protecting their land and making this approach work is high.
Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh in South India, where Timbaktu is situated, is one of the most arid districts in India, averaging only 540 millimeters of rainfall per year. The problem of drought has been compounded over the years by large-scale deforestation and soil erosion. Groundwater levels have dropped with a shift in cultivation to water intensive crops such as rice and cash crops such as groundnut. Uncontrolled use of community lands for grazing, firewood, and local industries, such as brick making, has resulted in the complete denuding of the forest that once served as a valuable resource base for the villagers. Consequently, soil fertility has dropped and poor, marginalized farmers who try to grow crops such as groundnut on their tiny plots of land during the rains are forced to seek employment as agricultural labor or migrate elsewhere in times of drought. The district is a microcosm of the problems facing many similar dry areas across the country. The government's attempts at reforestation have usually been to fulfill the demands for firewood and pulp for industries and urban population. This has been done by planting large-scale monocultures of fast growing trees that are alien to the lands where they are introduced. Such plantations barely meet the needs of the local population for fodder, green manure, and timber, and hence there is very little local participation in the development and protection of the forest areas.
Timbaktu was used as a grazing ground by the nearby villages and is surrounded by hills, which were once covered by Reserve Forests (forests protected by the Forest Department with use by local population strictly regulated and limited to firewood and other household needs). When Bablu first came there in 1991, it had a stunted shrub forest and the hills around were bare of cover. In his own words, "The earth had become hard packed and crusted with hundreds of gullies flowing into the two dry streams that border the land. There was not a blade of grass growing."
Bablu's first task was to deal with the challenge of reviving the dry and degraded land at Timbaktu through natural means. He terraced the undulating land, built water channels and mini earthen and stone dams to retain rainwater, and prepared the ground for planting. He built a nursery to grow indigenous seedlings and collected seeds from the nearby forests, especially those of lesser-know species that the Forest Department had not used. He also had seeds brought in from seed banks in other parts of the country to experiment with their suitability to the local terrain. Existing bush trees were trimmed to encourage growth, and though the first newly planted seedlings did not take root easily, with time, varieties such as neem and tamarind began to grow. Fire breaks were made in the surrounding hills to prevent summer forest fires, and the area was patrolled heavily to stop unauthorized tree cutting. There are now over 90 species of plants, 60 different species of birds, many varieties of snakes that keep the rat population in check, and animals such as porcupines and wild pigs in Timbaktu. Bears, foxes, and jackals also roam the area, and peacocks have returned to the hills.
As he began his work at Timbaktu, Bablu also formed a Forest Protection Committee in the nearby village of Mushtikovila with representatives of landless labor, the village head, local nongovernmental organizations, and women. The committee decided, in consultation with technical experts brought in by Bablu, to protect about 1,000 acres of wasteland. They employed two forest watchers, paid with funds raised by Bablu, and the town council began to impose severe fines on transgressors. The results of the Committee's protection efforts have been remarkable; the incidence of tree felling in the hills has fallen drastically. A similar Committee was formed in another village, Kogira, which decided to protect about 600 acres. The Committees construct regulations for protection of the common lands, decide which plants will be grown on those lands, form nurseries, build fire breaks in protected areas, and carry out a trial soil and conservation program, funded partly by private donors and partly by the land owners themselves.
The Mushtikovila Committee is financing and implementing one of Bablu's major projects, the desilting, with tractors, of a 500 acre water reservoir. Each farmer contributes towards the labor and also pays Rupees 50 (US $1.20) per tractor day used and a nominal membership fee for the Committee. Bablu was not sure if the scheme would work and received few contributions when he first announced it. However, once he began, with funds raised from an organization in Delhi, he was surprised by an immediate and overwhelming number of contributions. He realized that the farmers were waiting to participate until they saw that the work had begun in earnest and their money would not go waste. The government is also watching with interest since this is much more cost effective than implementing a scheme with outside labor. People from three neighboring hamlets that also use the reservoir have made overtures about participating in the scheme. Bablu is trying to secure government financing to hire the necessary tractors.
Bablu has developed an effective methodology of local participation, government sanction, and technical expertise to enable the regeneration of the wastelands. He is spreading the lessons learnt at Timbaktu and Mushtikovila through the Anantapur District Environment Protection Committee of which he is the founding member. The 24 members of the Committee have undertaken the funding of plant nurseries and the protection of almost 5,000 acres of land. They are also actively promoting the concept of natural regeneration to other organizations, including Action for Food Production, a national nongovernmental organization with which Bablu is conducting a survey of another 7,000 hectares of cultivated and uncultivated wastelands.
Bablu, who studied commerce at Bangalore University, worked as a political and theater activist for 12 years. His work in theater brought him into close contact with people in the rural areas. "It was through this (theater) that I began to understand that the people had their own knowledge and wisdom which we in our foolishness were undermining." During this period he began to question the validity of conventional development methods and formed the Timbaktu Collective with other like-minded activists. He then came across the book, One Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. In his own words, "From him I learnt that to try and find answers to all these complex problems I needed to go to Nature herself." He then became acquainted with Bill Mollison's philosophy of permaculture. "That is when I realized that I had to actually start working on land myself, learn from nature and only then try to define what my future work should be. That through practical work alone, could I hope to bring in greater depth, meaning, and a new dimension to the work we (as well as other groups we are in touch with) had hitherto been doing."
Bablu is now one of the joint conveners of the Jan Vikas Andolan (People's Welfare Movement), a loose federation of activists from throughout India, which monitors development policies. He is the founding member of the Andhra Pradesh Agricultural Laborers Union. He lives with his wife, Mary Vattamattom, who is an active participant in the work of the Collective and their two children at Timbaktu Collective. The project's name was derived because the remoteness of its location evokes the town of the same name in Mali, Africa.