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Auroville Adventure


November 2003

An environmental community?

Carel

Two areas are critical for Auroville's environment: afforestation and farming.

Building dams to prevent water run-off and to recharge the aquifers has been a successful aspect of Auroville's reforestation work. In picture: a check dam in the Utility canyon provides for a nice swimming pool for local youth after torrential monsoon rains.

For many years, Auroville's credentials rested primarily upon its environmental achievements. These are considerable. Over two million trees have been planted to stabilize and refertilize the soil, canyons have been dammed and hundreds of fields bunded to prevent water run-off, there has been much experimentation in developing environmentally-friendly building techniques and recycling waste water, while solar power is widely used for pumping, heating water and providing electricity. During the last decade, Auroville's eco-service has ensured that much of Auroville's waste is recycled, and ground-breaking work is being undertaken to develop non-polluting biofuel and to expand the uses of effective micro-organisms (EM) which work with rather than against nature.
Nor has the bioregion been neglected. Aurovilians have worked with villagers to desilt rainwater catchment tanks, afforest wasteland, find safe alternatives to toxic pesticides, develop organic farming and vegetable cultivation techniques, and to clean up the villages.
This is the plus side. Yet there are plenty of areas in which the environmental consciousness of the community as a whole remains underdeveloped or dormant. Take water. In spite of a massive reafforestation programme, underground water levels are falling. Much of this is beyond our control - local farmers pump enormous quantities onto their fields while the main monsoon has failed three years in a row - yet rather than providing a good example of responsible water management, Aurovilians' per capita water usage is way above the average of India (and of many Western countries!), partly because of wasteful irrigation techniques and inefficient storage and supply systems. Or take architecture. There are plenty of houses in the community which, rather than taking advantage of materials which release heat quickly, use large amounts of energy-intensive materials like cement and function as oversized solar cookers. Then there is the lack of public transport which results in large numbers of motorcycles (and, increasingly, four-wheelers) clogging up our roads and lungs. Finally there is the matter of Aurovilians' changing tastes in food and entertainment which sees the growth of a more consumeristic, less environmentally-sensitive lifestyle than was the case in the early days.

Tree seedlings at one of the Auroville nurseries

Afforestation

In the beginning was...not very much, actually. A few palmyra, neem and scrubby thorn bushes and, for the rest, acres and acres of eroded laterite unshaded from the fierce south Indian sun. Out of necessity, greenworkers in the early years of Auroville concentrated upon building bunds and planting trees. A few were already interested in exploring indigenous species, but the majority of greenworkers were happy to plant anything which was fast-growing, drought-resistant and shade-providing - including exotic pioneer species like Eucalyptus and Acacia auriculiformis, otherwise known as the 'work' tree.

The first tree nurseries date from the early 1970s. However, afforestation in Auroville received a huge boost in the 1980s when the Department of the Environment funded a project to explore the species that could be successfully grown under these conditions. Many of the largest tree-planting programmes - like the one at Aurobrindavan - date from this period and, once again, many of the trees planted were non-native species, like Acacias and Khaya senegaliensis. Meanwhile, Walter from Shakti had begun a seed-exchange programme with botanical gardens and seed banks from many countries, particularly those with climates similar to ours, with the object of introducing new species to Auroville and the bioregion: Acacia holosericea was one of the most promising varieties. He was also interested in finding out what had grown in this area before, but "in those days it was easier getting seeds from the Amazonian basin than to get the seeds of the former indigenous species here."

Vegetable nursery


Why? At one time an almost unique ecosystem - an evergreen forest - had stretched along the coastline from Madras in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. Over the years, however, most of it had been cut and cleared for farming, settlement and firewood; at the time of Auroville's inauguration, less than 1% of it remained in scattered pockets which were under continual threat.

Finding these pockets, identifying the different species and understanding their relationships was no easy task. By the late 1980s some Auroville greenworkers were beginning to have doubts about the wisdom of planting so many non-indigenous species. While exotics like Work and Transformation were providing valuable shade for less hardy species, they were also spreading like weeds, crowding out many other trees. It was also noticed that some, like the eucalyptus, tended to crash down in high winds.

The turning-point came in 1993 when the Foundation for the Revitalization of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) which is based in Bangalore set up two centres in Auroville - in Shakti and Pitchan-dikulam - to propagate local medicinal plants. A spin-off from this was a new interest in recreating the original ecosystem of the area, which was now referred to as Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF). Dr. Meher-Homji of the French Institute compiled a list of 266 plant species which he considered belonged to the TDEF and greenworkers like Joss, Jaap and Walter, who already had considerable knowledge of local species, made frequent visits to remnant indigenous groves to collect seeds to propagate in Auroville nurseries.

Today, all tree-planting by Aurovilians involves almost exclusively TDEF species. Many foresters are retrofitting the areas they steward by underplanting with TDEF species and then slowly removing regenerating exotics (particularly work tree saplings), so allowing a new type of forest to gradually emerge over the next ten years.

In the last 15 years, the new emphasis upon the recreation of the original TDEF has been accompanied by an increasingly scientific approach to ecosystem restoration. The earlier "if it will grow, plant it" approach has given way to more sophisticated scientific studies of symbiotic relationships, of the water uptake and transpiration rate of selected tree species, and of the rate at which soil forms under different conditions. The FRLHT project has resulted in valuable research into the medicinal properties of local plants and trees based largely upon the wisdom and experience of traditional healers, who are themselves an endangered species. This illustrates the third main component of afforestation over the last 15 years - outreach. Actually, Auroville landworkers have been sharing their skills outside of Auroville for many years. In the early 1980s greenworkers began bunding the fields of local farmers and offering them saplings. Later, the Auroville forest was visited by Tibetans from refugee settlements and tribals from Rajasthan (enthused by our achievement they proceeded to plant hundreds of thousands of trees in their drought-stricken region), and Aurovilians helped reafforest the Palani Hills where the traditional shola was threatened with extinction. But the last 15 years has seen an increase in outreach activities as some Aurovilians realized that the environmental and social health of Auroville cannot be separated from the health and vibrancy of the bioregion of which it is an integral part. Auroville landworkers, in conjunction with Village Action, have run courses for local farmers in organic agriculture and have introduced kitchen gardens into the villages, Palmyra has been involved in large wasteland reclamation projects in the region while the same organization and Harvest have done extensive tank restoration and set up water-users organizations in many surrounding villages. The Pitchandikulam seed museum has become a centre for botanical research and environmental education, visited by conservationists, healers, government officials and schoolchildren, while the Botanical Gardens will soon provide a living experience of the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest biotope.

Auroville's environmental reputation continues to grow. Recently, funding has come from the European Commission to promote the concept of shared forest management in the Kaluveli bioregion. This has given some Aurovilians the opportunity to get involved in developing practical steps towards the sustainable development of an area vital for our water resources to the north of Auroville. It's a huge task that will take many years to complete, but it is one which can be achieved in small manageable steps. One of these is promoting environmental education in schools - this has just received a funding boost from the Australian Government - while another is working with the Forestry Department to develop management plans for the reserve forests of the area.

 

Rice fields at Annapurna

 

Farming

Dry land agriculture had been practiced in this region for many years, but poor cropping practices had depleted the soil and accelerated the drift of the local people away from the land. The first Auroville farmers toiled under the tropical sun, employing organic methods to grow local grains - ragi, varagu, kumbu, samai - but when the rains failed, so did the crops. There was little or no support from the community. Unsurprisingly, few Aurovilian landworkers stuck at it: many turned to afforesting the land as an easier option.

Papaya trees at Discipline farmThe few who continued to practice agriculture were inspired by Mother's statement that Auroville should strive for self-sufficiency in food. Gradually they learned to adapt, to draw the most out of the limited resources available. The watchword was diversification. Bernard experimented with traditional varieties of rice and millet which were more drought-resistant than hybrid crops, and with no-till agriculture based on Fukuoka's experience in Japan. Other farmers interplanted leguminous hedges and beneficial trees among their crops to stabilize and improve the soil and provide shade. Most planted out fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, a few developed dairies and raised poultry.

By 1988 there were still only four major farms in Auroville, covering less than 300 acres. A number of farmers were managing, precariously, to cover their immediate needs, but the larger community was still far from being self-sufficient in food. While our farmers were meeting the demand for milk and eggs and of seasonal vegetables and fruits in season, they were growing less than 2% of the community's requirement of rice and other grains. Most of the food eaten in Auroville was purchased from Pondicherry market: it was grown using artificial fertilizers and pesticides. By now, the challenges facing our farmers were formidable. They were no longer simply battling the climate, water shortages and local soil conditions (Annapurna, designated to be the rice-basket of Auroville, has some of the most intractable and depleted soil in the area), or the lack of adequate financial input from the community. There was also a serious lack of manpower - fewer and fewer Aurovilians were attracted to landwork and our farmers couldn't afford to pay wages which would attract Indian farm managers - a lack of technical expertise (none of our farmers had professional training), a lack of storage and processing facilities, and poor coordination between the farms and consumers. Meanwhile Aurovilians' eating habits were changing. More and more were eating processed food or fruit and vegetables - like apples and potatoes - which couldn't be grown in this locality. Moreover, Auroville farm produce was expensive compared to that available in local markets: often the chemical products also looked better than the organically-grown fare. No wonder that one of Auroville Today's first articles about farming in Auroville was sub-titled "A downhill business". That was February 1992.

Geese parade in front of the solar pump panels at Siddharta farm


However, in 1994 a Farm Group was constituted, consisting of almost all our farmers, with the aim of sharing resources, coordinating production and agreeing upon prices. It also facilitated problem-solving and common funding appeals. In some ways it was the beginnings of a turnaround in the farms' fortunes. The Farm Group persuaded the Economy Group to classify farming as part of the service sector of Auroville, and this led to farmers receiving a maintenance (albeit a very low one) from the Central Fund and some security against financial losses. Other funding for infrastructure improvements came from the Foundation for World Education and Stichting de Zaaier, while the Auroville incense unit, Maroma, has provided substantial support over the past few years to Annapurna and Siddhartha farms. Meanwhile the Solar Kitchen provided a valuable new outlet for a large part of the farms' output while introducing Aurovilians to the delights of little-known local vegetables.

A few years ago, however, came another serious blow. The Auroville farms were reclassified by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board and forced to pay premium rates for electricity. This led to large fruit farms like Aurogreen cutting back heavily on production, but it also encouraged a switch to more efficient use of water - like drip-irrigation and the bio-intensive method of vegetable growing - and to the widespread use of solar pumps.

Seed collection at Annadana

Today there are 13 farms in Auroville covering over 350 acres. Production is increasing, partly as a result of improved financing but also because of new techniques introduced by professionals who have taken up the challenge of farming here. Meanwhile a comprehensive assessment of our farms is presently underway to ascertain, among other things, the farmers' needs and to plan, for the first time, an overall strategy for farming in Auroville. Major questions remain, however. Is it realistic to strive for self-sufficiency in food? If so, does the community really want it? If the answer to each question is 'yes', the implications are immense. It would imply that many more people be involved in farm work, that Auroville purchases much more premium farm land - some of it outside the Auroville area in the hills - and that the community be willing to heavily subsidize the production of organic food as a service to the health of the community and the environment.

 

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