Restoring Arunachala the sacred hill in Tamil Nadu - India
The sacred Arunachala Hill in Tamil Nadu rises alone from the surrounding plains to a height of 860m. The hill is one of five main shaivite holy places in South India and is a site of pilgrimage. Geologically, the hill is an outlier of the Eastern Ghats, a broken line of ancient granitic hills that run the length of the India's eastern side, and passes less than 30km to the west of Thiruvannamalai. Arunachala was once covered in forests that supported tigers and other wildlife as ancient Tamil poems attest. But years of wood-cutting and man-made fires left only pockets of stunted trees.
In 1988 the Rainforest Information Centre was invited to support the restoration of the forest on Arunachala and a local movement began to support the ambitious task. The Rainforest Information Centre have provided funding for the past 25 years to plant and nurture trees from a selection of more than 70 indigenous species. An impressive 1,500,000 trees have been established so far supporting a variety of forest types and providing habitat to innumerable plant and animal species.
For over 25 years the project has provided employment for local people from surrounding villages who are otherwise severely economically disadvantaged. At all times about 30 families are supported through full time employment in seed collection and tree propagation in the nursery, planting trees in the monsoon season, fire regime management involving removal of all inflammable material after each monsoon season, except trees.
The Rainforest Information Centre is registered with the Australian government as a Deductible Gift Recipient. Donations are tax-deductible for Australian residents.
Forest Way Project: April 2020 Update
Some uplifting news for once! Thanks to some recent donor action we’ve been able to send funds to support them to continue their amazing work during India’s intense corona lockdown period.
“About Forest Way Community Relief work during Lockdown.
Implementation of Corona Virus Lockdown in India left a large number of migrant workers stranded in cities, often hundreds of kilometres from their homes. As these people were no longer able to work, and in the absence of social security in their temporary residences, they were left with no option but to attempt to return home by whatever means necessarry. As all public transport had ceased, for many this meant undertaking the journey on foot in summer heat. During the initial days of the lockdown, Forest Way volunteers were going each day to the highways and arranging food and water for these people as they passed through Thiruvannamalai, and also co-ordinating with the Distict administration to arrange reflief supplies and transport.
Over the past six weeks we have also been providing back up support to vulnerable families in various villages surrounding our work areas. This has been co-ordinated by the reforestation staff, who have identified those in their communities most in need. While there is govenment distribution of basic staples, sometimes this doesn't reach everyone. There are also large numbers of people who do not have ration cards and therefore cannot access the dole even when it is available. Typically such people are already the most vulnerable and least equipped to negotiate the beaurocracy. Under this initiative, more than three-hundred families have had their basic food needs met or supplemented through our team, in the form of rice, pulses, cooking oil and staple spices.
None of the Forest Way team have been laid off at this time. The greening team have obtained passes from the local administration that allow them to continue to come to work on the hill and in the nursery. Agricultural work is allowed to continue. Any staff not able to come to work under lockdown conditions are being supported to remain at home.
To date, roughly 400,000 indian rupees have been spent on relief provisions to those in need, covering people from 5 different villages and one slum area of Thiruvannamalai town.”
June 2019: An update for RIC by Leela from The Forest Way
The Forest Way Trust has been working in and around Thiruvannamalai since 2008, formalising work that began on restoring the ecology of the Arunachala hill in 2003. We work primarily in the areas of ecological regeneration, holistic education, organic farming and the reclaiming and creation of public space. You can read more about our background, approach and philosophy on our website www.theforestway.org and the website of our school marudamfarmschool.org.
Both of these sites are somewhat out of date, but do give a sense of our history and approach. For a shorter overview of the current range of work that we are engaged in, and the areas where we will be focussing or expanding into in the coming years, please see below.
At the foot of Arunachala hill we have a nursery of trees, shrubs, bushes and lianas, growing more than 100 species native to this bio-region. Each year up to twenty thousand plants from our nursery are planted by our team on the slopes of the hill. Follow up care is then taken to increase survival rates, and later in the year, nearly 20km of fire breaks are cut and maintained on the slopes to control forest fire.
The reforestation work on Arunachala hill is an unfolding success story, with a tremendous amount of returning wildlife coming with the increased protection and green cover. We are in discussions with the local Forest Department about replicating the model in other local forest ranges, particularly those where we already have relationships with the village stakeholders. We are hoping to begin new areas of planting and regeneration with this coming monsoon.
We run a small school of around 130 students, based on an organic farm. The students come from all backgrounds, but the majority are from poorer households and their schooling with us is sponsored. We have a curriculum that focusses heavily on building healthy relationships with each other, with the land and with the communities surrounding us, with the non-human, living world and with ourselves. This means that beside conventional academics we give substantial amount of time and importance to subjects such as gardening, theatre, arts, physical education and spending time in the natural world.
Reclaiming and Creating Public Space:
At the foot of mount Arunachal, we take care of almost 30 acres of government revenue land. Formerly almost totally degraded, with large areas used as dumping grounds, the place is now a thriving and ecologically diverse public space. Around four acres are given over to a children’s playground that we maintain free to the public. This is the only such space in Thiruvannamalai town and is greatly appreciated and used by all ages.
Closer to the hill, we have been regenerating the land and providing trails, interpretive material and other infrastructure to provide access to the outdoors and high quality environmental education to local school groups. As part of this we recently opened our nature interpretation centre and continue to develop facilities it with the aim of helping people to make friends with the forest.
Our newest public space venture is the restoration of the largest water body within the confines of the town, Tamarai Kolam. This 20 acre lake was once fed from mountain streams, but is now kept full by the grey-water of surrounding housing blocks. The water is thus heavily polluted. Nevertheless, it supports fish and other aquatic life, and numerous water birds, and is a haven of open land in a town that is developing fast and without planning.
The Municipality have asked us to take up the restoration of this historic water body and to create a park surrounding it. Work began just over a year back and is continuing apace, but the complete transformation of the lake will take some years and large funding. We envision a lake with clean water that supports even greater aquatic and other life, with a surrounding path for walks, contemplation, exercise and play. There will be theatre spaces, ecological engagement and education, and a lot of public art.
Weaving and Craft Centre:
Over the years we begun to recognise the power of traditional craft as a medium of growth for children and adults, as well as consider the many challenges facing traditional craftspeople in today’s world of mass production.
We’ve recently opened a weaving and craft centre which will aim to provide livelihood for local craftspeople, training and empowerment for local women and disadvantage groups, and a space where people can explore using their hands. We will also be growing cotton organically, working through all the processes from seed to cloth.
Our work is funded by generous individuals and is benefiting scores of people and the natural world. Our sincere advance gratefulness for helping us to continue the same!