With only 24.56 percent of the total geographical area in India comprising forests and tree cover, conservation methods to preserve and expand on what’s left have become imperative.
“Although the construction of roads is a development, that facilitated the incoming of developers. So, that led to an increase in the clearing of green cover, and a massive increase in topsoil erosion, resulting in high silting of stream beds. In fact, some developers have also tried to encroach upon our land which we have resisted. Moreover, because forests everywhere are dying, the additional deforestation puts extra pressure on our forest land,” shares Bharat Mansata, an active member of the Vanvadi Collective.
Vanvadi is a non-profit forest collective near Neral in Maharashtra, located almost three hours away from Mumbai. The collective comprises 24 people across different professions, who have now revived a 65-acre piece of land situated in the foothills of the Sahyadris into a beautiful forest which they call Vanvadi forest.
As a member of the collective, Mansata talks to The Better India (TBI) about the journey of Vanvadi. A writer and environmentalist, Mansata has seen Vanvadi grow and flourish in front of his eyes in the past 25 years. Initially, the land was purchased with the aim to practice natural farming but the collective went beyond that.
The revived land, called Vanvadi forest, now has over 90 per cent tree cover. The regenerated forest is home to over 120+ traditionally useful plant species (including 54 forest food species) and a host of birds, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and crabs.
“We bought the land from two landowners of the region. They were clearing most of the vegetation on this land every 3-4 years to sell as firewood, and once we had control over the land, we stopped the cutting of trees,” informs the 65-year-old Mumbai resident.
Since they began, not only have they transformed the land into a thriving forest, they have also built check dams, carried out desilting of stream beds and water bodies, practiced farming, enhanced biodiversity, practiced rainwater harvesting, revived wells and impacted the lives of tribal communities living in the area.
The collective also involves the local communities in the workshops and food walks they conduct about the edible plants found in the forest and how they can be seamlessly integrated into meals.
Vanvadi: Planting One Tree at a Time
A Psychology graduate from St. Xaviers College, Mansata pursued a postgraduate degree in Sociology from Mumbai University in 1978.
It was during this time that he happened to read a book on natural farming called, ‘The One-Straw Revolution’ written by Japanese farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka. The impact of the book on him marked the beginning of his journey towards striving for ecological balance through environmental activities.
He then opted to attend a 10-day intensive permaculture course in Hyderabad and later began writing on various environmental issues like water conservation, forest regeneration, organic farming, seeds, air pollution, also highlighting solutions and alternatives, in different journals and magazines.
In the course of spreading his views about nature conservation, he connected with like-minded people and about four of them began their quest to find 10 to 15 acres of land where they could practice farming, mainly horticulture of fruit and vegetables, which came to fruition when they found a 65-acre land in 1994.
“We saw that the land – though clear-felled of trees just a year or two ago – was free from any kind of pollution and it wasn’t dug up. We envisioned regenerating the forest. So, we put the word out and within two months over two dozen people wanted to part-take in the process. Each of us pooled Rs. 30,000 per acre; and that is the beginning of it all,” recalls Bharat.
Since it was a large piece of land, it was initially difficult for them to even figure out where it started and ended. The official boundary survey was completed after three years after which they built a small hut and hand pump to meet the drinking water needs for people who planned on living on site while carrying out the regenerative activities.
In the monsoons, they planted various local trees like Mango and Jamun and hardy forest species, including hedge species like Bamboo. But due to insufficient supply of water and relative inexperience of the group members a lot of the trees did not survive initially.
Fortunately, the group had earlier been mentored by Bhaskar Save on practical ecology. Known as the “Gandhi of natural farming”, he helped them figure out the correct way to do things. They also worked towards digging out an open well with a depth of 25 ft which helped them meet their irrigation needs, which was otherwise missing.
Since, they ensured no trees were being chopped, the forest largely regenerated and prospered by itself. They also started practicing natural farming on a one-acre piece of land.
They strategically picked this land near a stream that ran across the property, and close to where they had built their open well.
“Since then, we have been growing rice, millets, legumes, pulses and oilseeds on half an acre, while another half-acre of land is used to grow fruits and vegetables. In addition to our two full-time workers on our property, we hire about five to six people depending on the sowing and harvesting season,” informs Bharat.
The harvest is mostly consumed by people who visit the property for workshops or anyone who lives on the property for a longer period. Visiting members also occasionally carry back some of the produce.
Conservation Activities and Impact on Local Communities
The collective has been actively engaged in rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge activities. One of these was building check dams on the streams. They did this by taking out loose rocks from the stream bed (using them to build the dam walls or embankments), which helps in deepening it, making more space for water especially during monsoons. They have built about six check dams — a large one which is 8ft in height and 40ft in length. The five others are about 3-4ft in height and 10 to 20 ft long.
“The presence of so many trees on the property helped the soil retain moisture. The land under the forest becomes like a sponge with open pores and helps the water percolate and recharge the groundwater aquifers,” explains Bharat.
Another important activity that they carried out along with building the check dams was the desilting of the stream bed. This was again done to make space for water but Bharat tells us something interesting about this soil.
“Because of chopping down trees around the area, a lot of the fertile topsoil gets washed away during monsoon and ends up on the stream bed. By desilting it, we not only allow more water in the streams but also use this soil for farming practices that we carry out on our property,” explains Bharat.
For these activities, the local Adivasi communities from the region are engaged and about four to 12 people are hired depending on their requirements.
Additionally, the collective started making summer firebreaks, which is basically clearing strips off dry, fallen leaf litter to prevent any kind of fires from spreading in the forest. This began about six to seven years back when a fire encroached from outside the land and damaged almost 200 trees in the forest, informs Bharat.
The impact that the Vandvadi collective has had on local communities and their lives is worth mentioning. In 2017, as a result of soil erosion, an 18ft well at the outer edge of the neighbouring Chinchwadi village had completely filled with soil till almost two feet above the rim of the well.
“Since some people from the village had engaged with us before for activities we had carried out before, they approached seeking help. They were experiencing a scarcity of water and needed water from the well for themselves and their thirsty cattle. So, we helped the villagers de-silt the well and extend the rim of the well up to 5ft,” explains Bharat.
Daulat Pardhi, a resident of the Chinchwadi village, mentions that this helped people from his village and villagers from neighbouring settlements who also fetch water from the well. He informs that although the felling of trees is not allowed at Vanvadi, it is open to villagers and they can collect dry firewood lying on the ground for free.
The 30-year-old is also the son of Ambibai and Mahadu Bua, who have been helping out the Vanvadi collective in managing the piece of land.
“I have been working with them for the past 14 years while my parents have been working for even longer. Their conservation activities have helped improve the water level in the area. Also, my parents and I have had a great experience hosting forest food walks and various environmental workshops as it gives us a great opportunity to interact with people from cities and introduce them to our food culture,” he says.
Challenges and Looking Ahead
Having carried out so many activities over the years, it would be unfair to assume that journey has been devoid of any challenges.
Bharat gives us an insight into the problems they have faced until now. He says that there aren’t too many people to work with as most of the members are busy professionals working in the city. If they had more people at disposal, perhaps they would’ve been able to do more. But, he adds that because the villagers and volunteers from the city have been so forthcoming, that has really helped them until now.
Bharat also informs that the collective now wants to scale up their conservation activities, particularly rainwater harvesting, increase farming and conduct more forest-related workshops and activities for people to come and attend. He also looks forward to adding new members to their group who can be instrumental in carrying out these activities and also provide a fresh impetus to environmental conservation.
“In the coming years (or sooner), we plan to start a forest eco-versity on our land where people can learn everything related to ecology, nature, forest, farming, habitats, and sustainable livelihoods. We want new people to come on board and teach these; and where people learn skills practically rather than just theoretically. We also want to promote culture, music, art, natural healing, and meditation. Lastly, we envision a community – an organically evolving eco-village – where people can learn from each other and grow just like the forest around us,” he says signing off.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)