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September 2005

 

Co-evolution: Palmyra’s work in the bioregion

- Emmanuelle

Jürgen Pütz talks of his work in the bioregion and shares his views on various matters.

Jürgen Pütz has been in Auroville since its early years. He arrived in 1973 and started work at the Matrimandir Nursery. He then established a new community with some others in the green belt, and that was Dicipline. After a few years, he started to work in the Aurogreen area with Charlie, Jean, and some others, who had been working at Auro-orchard and had learned tropical agriculture from a specialist. Slowly, they started to build up the farm, where they planted trees, practiced agriculture, horticulture, and later kept cows. “In the beginning,” remembers Jürgen, “I often drove a tractor to the Matrimandir and back, to get the water necessary for the farm. Later we dug our own well.” Then, as an offshoot of Aurogreen, there was the community of Nilatangam, where Jürgen worked from the late 1970s, and where his two children, Ancolie and Miles (Yashasa), were born.
Rehabilitation work going on in the Thenkodipakam tank
In the beginning of 1990, Jürgen, together with his wife, Sabine, moved to Aurobrindavan. When they arrived, the land was almost barren, with the exception of some trees which had been planted as part of an earlier afforestation project. “There was not a blade of grass,” he remembers. “It was at this time that the first of a number of larger afforestation projects was sanctioned, and we used this place as a base. We planted trees, worked on water retention, and slowly and gradually transformed it into what it is today. It certainly needed a lot of hard work, but it paid off.” “We are considered by quite a lot of people to be somewhat outside of Auroville,” he says, “but that is not how we see it. In fact it was in this area that the first land had originally been bought by the Mother to develop Auroville.”

From there on, slowly and progressively, the Palmyra Centre for Ecological Land Use, Water Management and Rural Development, which was founded in 1990 by Jürgen and Sabine, developed. They started working in the bioregion on land reclamation and health related projects, as Sabine is a nurse by profession and had been working at the Auroville Health Centre for many years. Nowadays, taking all aspects of their work into consideration, Palmyra works in 62 villages in the Kalivelli watershed area, in the Vanur and Marakanam blocks of the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu, an area of 800 square kilometers.
Palmyra 's objectives are to promote ecological concepts of land use as well as rural development programes. Palmyra 's work in the bioregion extends to many different fields: land reclamation, afforestation, tank rehabilitation, water conservation and management, as well as women's empowerment, education and sports.
The Nanakalmedu channel after rehabilitationIn 1998, Palmyra started getting involved in larger scale projects. One of the most important ones till date has been the ICEF (India Canada Environmental Facility) funded Tank Rehabilitation Project, which has been implemented by Palmyra in twenty five villages in the Kalivelli watershed area and is now in its last year. With the assistance of Palmyra , farmers, especially those depending on those tanks for irrigation, formed Water Users' Associations. They have been in charge, assisted by engineers from Palmyra , of identifying the problems that have to be dealt with (such as the necessity of desilting a tank, or the clearance of the inlay or distribution channels) as well as carrying out the work. The farmers have also been asked to contribute 30% of the costs incurred, while Palmyra contributes the remaining 70%. As part of this project, a lot of different training camps and activities have also been initiated by Palmyra , as well as the formation of different women groups (see accompanying article). “Our objective is really to strengthen the village-based organizations, so that they can become self-sustainable and develop on their own in the future,” stresses Jürgen.

Another project Palmyra has been implementing is the Integrated Wasteland Development Programme, a project which was originally sanctioned by the Central Government. The work involves tree planting and the erection of water-retention structures, such as small earth or concrete check-dams, as well as awareness creation and community mobilization. “For this project, we are an official implementing agency,” explains Jürgen, “In most instances, the government agencies themselves implement these projects, and in the whole of India , there are very few NGOs like us doing so. According to a survey which has been made in Tamil Nadu, out of the fifty implementing agencies involved in this work, we are one of the top two. We have been very efficient and our work is like a showcase. We are often being asked to conduct training and exposure visits for other departments in our line of work.”

In the field of Education, Palmyra has been supporting, amongst others, the Kuilapalayam Higher Secondary School (Kuilapalayam School Trust) for more then ten years now. It has helped build up the infrastructure of the School and is today responsible for about 90% of its financing and maintenance. The funds for this project, which are channeled through Palmyra , have mostly been donated by the German and Austrian Indian Children's Fund. Today, there are one thousand students from the surrounding villages attending the school, which provides government recognized education up to the 12th standard in Tamil medium. The subjects being taught are varied, the teachers qualified and efficient and each year, the 10th and 12th standard students have passed their exams with very good results. “The quality of education the school provides is very high,” says Jürgen, “We are dealing here not only with one thousand children, who attend the school, but also with their parents, we want them to be involved and conscious of the educational needs and development of the children.”

The Palmyra team is also involved in organizing sports activities, mostly cricket-related, for the local youth. They encourage the young players, provide them with equipment and organize matches on the Palmyra cricket ground. They are also working together with the different cricket clubs in Pondicherry . “For the past few years, we've organized some very high level cricket matches on our field. And recently we held a training camp with the Indian Cricket Association. According to some of the international Indian players who were here, some of the local youth performed extremely well. It has shown them that hard work and dedication really pay off, and that they can become good sportsmen if they put their energy into it.”

Sabine treating a patient at the Kilkoothapakkam village health centre.Palmyra is also very much involved in providing health services in the villages. Sabine and Michael, who joined Palmyra some years ago, offer their health services in the Kilkoothapakkam village near Kilianur. Presently there are between 30 to 35 patients treated at the centre per day. Serious cases are referred to the major hospitals.
Some eighty children, as well as ailing patients who come to the centre for treatment, also benefit from Palmyra 's nutrition programme on a daily basis. The food consists mostly of indigenous nutritious grains such as ragi and kambu, dried fruits, palm sugar and ayurvedic food supplements. “This goes a long way in supporting the healing and general health of the people who need it most,” says Jürgen.

Jatropha nursery
Another of the many projects Palmyra is presently engaged in, in collaboration with the Pondicherry Government, is an Energy Plantation Project (for the “Promotion of Bio-Energy Plantation and Bio-fuel Extraction”). Fifteen villages were selected to implement this project on common lands, and seedlings of Jatropha, Neem and other oil-giving plants were produced in nurseries by the local self help groups.
“The oil extracted from these plants can be used to run engines,” explains Jürgen. “Through this project, we are trying to produce a maximum of plants, in various locations. We are also exploring the possibility of getting an oil producing plant, so the oil can be extracted. There's a huge potential in alternative sources of fuel, and every time the international oil prices go up, there's more justification to increase the plantation of such oil giving plants. Of course, to grow the plant is relatively easy, but we have to find ways of making the whole process of producing oil and bio-fuel economically feasible.”
Jürgen strongly believes that the co-evolution of Auroville and the surrounding villages of the bio-region is of utmost importance. “Co-evolution means that two things exist separate from each other, but they are going to evolve, simultaneously, into something that in the end will be a combined evolutionary factor,” he explains. “Since we are in the same area, the same natural phenomena affect us and are there for us to deal with. If it rains, it rains for everybody, and if it doesn't rain, it is the same. And there are a lot of other factors which also have to be dealt with and tackled from the inside and from the outside, whether social, economic, or political. And so the challenge that we are faced with is how we undertake this together. I think that's the real meaning of the whole future that we have, that we find ways and means of evolving together, not only with the different Aurovilians who are there, which is already difficult enough, but also with the people from the different villages. For that we also have to become more aware of the ground realities and of the differences prevailing in the various villages.”
“I have thought a lot about the recent land acquisition controversy,” he continues, “If you look at Auroville's growth rate, from its initial stages until today, the figure is between 2.4 and 2.6%. However we don't have a critical mass to sustain our growth and make it meaningful in the next few decades. And we are talking of buying a few hundred acres more of land. Of course there are certain land developments going on, which we would like to prevent. But we also have to be aware of the growth rate of the surrounding villages, like Edayanchavady, for example, which has a greater number of inhabitants then Auroville. Their population is growing and they also have the need to develop further. So if we don't take those ground realities into consideration and plan together with them, we are never going to get anywhere, there will always be a conflict situation. This is something that one doesn't see reflected in the Auroville Master Plan, and it is a pretty serious matter according to me.”
In response to criticism from some members of the community that Jürgen is not inclined to work together with other Auroville groups or individuals, he explains: “The thing is that if you want to realize something in Auroville, you have to be a strong-willed person and really know what you want to do. I have an excellent working relationship with certain Aurovilians, who are also strong individuals, and at times they are also being criticized in the same way. We have had difficulty with certain members of groups like the FAMC, for example, who have tried to interfere in our work without actually even knowing what we're doing, how we're doing it, why we're doing it, and the successes we've had.” Palmyra has never received any funding from Auroville for the work they do. Since the beginning, they have been funded by the activities they run, and the funding agencies they work with. Those funding agencies are very strict in their financial management, and ask for regular, detailed expenditure reports, as well as sending independent observers in the villages themselves to evaluate the work which has been done and report on it. It is the same with Government-funded projects. “If we wouldn't have been so successful in the work we do, we wouldn't have received all these grants,” he says. “With time, I've gotten pretty disillusioned with certain processes in the community, so I decided to focus and concentrate on my work. But if something interesting comes up that would be beneficial to Auroville and this area in general, I'll always be open to work on it with others.
“All the work which we are doing at Palmyra right now and the work which we plan to do in the future is entirely to support and sustain the very foundations of Auroville,” he concludes. “It is for the larger benefit of the entire community and also for the people of the surrounding villages who are living with us.”

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