Transforming the Poonga: A Note from Joss

 

Storks in the Adyar Poonga wetland park, Chennai
Storks in the Adyar Poonga wetland park, Chennai

Nine years ago when we gave the concept master plan of the Adyar Wetland Park to our client the government of Tamilnadu we didn’t  know quite what we were getting into.  All I knew was that we had been given an opportunity to nurture a change, to help protect and restore a sixty-acre patch of the planet in the middle of a huge community of ten million people.  We signed a contract and played a pretty hard game.

We have moved a few steps down the path.  There are 19 different dragon and damsel flies and a painted stork  has been seen.  Fungi of many colours and the sight of the white-bellied sea eagle is common. Let’s not kid ourselves: it was tough being chained to the Public Works Department rates and standards.  It was a battle with a system that doesn’t understand that plans can evolve, change, but it’s  also been an experience of working with many dedicated, impressive government officers as well as some  immovable monumental bureaucratic egos and thousands of citizens craving for the transformation  of the city landscape.

The Pitchandikulam team is still there helping to maintain the park and now we have extended our responsibility to another 300 acres of the Adyar estuary.

A community in harmony, well-grounded, will show tendencies in its practices of a much larger longer term plan.  It seems often these days that knee-jerk surgery is more the order of the day. It is not exactly the 100 year plan that we dream of, but we will try .

Living in the beautiful forest that we have planted in Auroville, never would I have imagined spending more than a fleeting visit to the mayhem of Chennai.  In the early morning in Chennai , it is a train or a jet plane and mostly crows that wake you and not the myriad sounds of a waking diversity that greets us in Pitchandikulam.

But this search for gold amongst the garbage is the challenge.  When you look up into the wide sky of the wetland and thousands of fruit bats fly between you and the emerging stars and because of how we have created the protected space, one only hears the frogs you  rejoice in the sink of silence that is here and hope that it helps some residents of the vast city to see and then work towards a healthier future for their environment .

It has been a hope that the people around the wetland would see it as their jewel, the place where not just the rainwater flows but they flow there also.  To know of its healthiness would be a boon while struggling with the challenges of the city.  To walk along the wetland’s peaceful paths would help heal the damage that this massive urbanization creates.  It would help to remember where we come from and guide us to work towards the day when the banks of the Adyar can watch the peaceful river flow again.

Light,

Joss

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Mangrove Interpretation Centre, Pichavaram

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Mangroves in Pichavaram, by Karthik Easvur , CC BY-SA 3.0

Home to one of India’s largest and most important mangrove ecosystems, Pichavaram in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu has long mesmerised visitors with its spectacular maze of narrow waterways and overhanging mangroves.

The art department at Pitchandikulam is delighted to have helped design and create an interpretation centre on the site, on commission from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.

The project consisted of two parts:

  1. an interpretation centre, with over a dozen artworks and a permanent exhibition on the biodiversity of the mangrove ecosystem
  2. a nature trail aimed at schoolchildren and tourists with nine carved stone pillars and seven kadappu stone slabs with oil paintings and information on local birds, marine life and distinctive botanical features such as the Rhizophora species of mangrove trees.

Over a dozen artworks were made for the mangrove interpretation centre, including a beautiful sea turtle who now takes pride of place hanging from the ceiling, and a complex five foot painted sculpture of a rhizophora mangrove tree, complete with roots.

Some of the artworks in our workshop being prepared

 

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The artworks installed in Pichavaram at the Mangrove Interpretation Centre

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If You Go Into The Woods Today… Smile!

Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville
Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville

Who exactly lives in Pitchandikulam Forest? We’ve met (we’re pretty sure) all the human inhabitants, but what about our mammal brethren? Starting in August and armed with a barrage of cameras, our research team set out to conduct the first camera trap study in our area of Tamil Nadu, in order to better understand which species are currently living here with us.

A camera trap system is especially useful for estimating populations of nocturnal, more ‘shy’ mammals. As in every forest ecosystem, the wildlife population is constantly changing from one day to the next, and so the first step in order to estimate best where to put the cameras was to conduct a sign survey – walking the forest in search of evidence like pellets, footprints and droppings. The team readily identified the presence of carnivores such as mongoose, civet cat and jungle cat, and the cameras were soon set up on trees 50cm from the ground, pointing at the most promising areas.

Three camera traps were operational for 24 hours a day over a period of 37 days, and they took 137 photographs.

Below is a table of the ten species we identified. The most common species recorded was the Asian Palm Civet (40.9 %) followed by the Small Indian Civet (16.8%), Grey mongoose (10.9%), Indian Crested Porcupine (8.8%), Jungle Cat (8%), Black naped Hare (6.6 %), Chital (4.4%). The Golden Jackal and Bonnet Macaque were captured twice (1.5%).

Most excitingly, we recorded on camera a Rusty-Spotted Cat (prionailurus rubiginosus),  which is in the “Near Threatened” category on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is the first time that this mammal has been sighted on the Coromandel Coast.

Bonnet Macaque in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville
Bonnet Macaque in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville
Spotted Deer in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville
Spotted Deer in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville
Rusty Spotted Cat in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville
Rusty Spotted Cat in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville

Results of the ten species documented are as follows, with the number of recorded sightings over the survey period on the left:

Serial No. Count Common Name Scientific Name Family Order IUCN Status IWPA Schedule
1 2 Golden Jackal Canis aureus Canidae Carnivora Least Concern Schedule II Part II
2 2 Bonnet Macaque Macaca radiata Cercopithecidae Primates Least Concern Schedule II Part I
3 4 Spotted Deer Axis axis Cervidae Artiodactyla Least Concern Schedule III
4 9 Jungle Cat Felis chaus Felidae Carnivora Least Concern Schedule II Part II
5 1 Rusty- Spotted Cat Prionailurus rubiginosus Felidae Carnivora Near Threatened Schedule I Part I
6 12 Grey Mongoose Herpestes edwardsii Hespertidae Carnivora Least Concern Schedule II Part II
7 10 Indian Crested Porcupine Hystrix indica Hystricidae Carnivora Least Concern Schedule II Part I
8 7 Black Naped Hare Lepus nigricollis Leporidae Lagomorpha Least Concern Schedule IV
9 17 Asian Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus Viverridae Carnivora Least Concern Schedule II Part II
10 13 Small Indian Civet Viverricula indica Viverridae Carnivora Least Concern Schedule II Part II

We are interested to talk to interested people to help with wildlife and botanical documentation and surveying. If you would like to know more about our work or volunteer for one of our forthcoming projects, please get in touch with Dr Bubesh Guptha.

Update

The full paper is now published as:  A photographic record of the Rusty-spotted Cat Prionailurus rubiginosus (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) in a forest plantation on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, India, M. Bubesh Guptha & M. Eric Ramanujam, Journal of Threatened Taxa, 26 May 2017 | Vol. 9| No. 5 | Pp. 10242–10245

and is available for download.

Field Notes: The Violin Mantis (Gongylus gongylodes)

Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam
Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam

A striking name for a striking creature, the generic etymology has mythical roots: in the ‘Hellenica’ it is the name of one of two brothers, one lord of Gambreum, the other Palae. Another character too bears the same name, the Eretrian who entertained Xenophon, writer of the ‘Anabasis’. In the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ it is the name of a Corinthian commander. The specific name is in allusion to its gangly gait and slender form. In lay man’s terms it is also known as the Wandering Violin Mantis due to its body shape, Ornate Mantis and Indian Rose Mantis.

This is one of the most bizarre looking mantises of which there are about 2,400 species belonging to 15 families and 430 genera. All mantises, which are closely related to termites and cockroaches (not stick insects or grasshoppers which bear a superficial resemblance), have triangular heads with bulging eyes supported by flexible necks. Their forelegs are greatly enlarged and adapted for catching and gripping insect prey, though some of the larger species will feed on small lizards, tree frogs and any other prey they can overcome. Their upright posture, while remaining stationary with forearms folded, gives the impression that they are praying. Females are larger than males and often practice sexual cannibalism, eating their mates after / during copulation. In the 1962 novel ‘Island’, Aldous Huxley reflected on the philosophical observation of death watching the mating ritual of a pair of violin mantises.

Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam
Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam

The Violin Mantis is characterized by extremely slender limbs with large appendages. Unlike other mantises it is not particularly aggressive and can often be found in groups without unnecessary cannibalism. Only the smaller male can fly. After mating the female deposits its eggs in an ‘ootheca’ (a type of egg mass containing many eggs and surrounded by foam which hardens into a tough casing for protection). The incubation period varies according to temperature and humidity, though the average duration is about 50 days. The male develops into an adult after 7 moultings, while the female develops after 8. The average lifespan is about 12 months.

To say the Mantis does not confirm to norms would be an understatement – its face alone would lead the uninitiated to believe that either it is a creature from outer space or something vile. All its other behavioural patterns too tend towards this ‘branding’ and it is not surprising that one Tamil name for it is ‘Saithan Kuthirai’, meaning the Devil’s Horse which is similar I believe to parts of Latin America and Mediterranean Europe. And these superstitions are not confined to the afore mentioned countries: African Bushmen, who should know better than their civilized bretheren, are careful never to touch a mantis as they fear the insect’s magical powers. In Japan seeing a mantis can be an omen of death. There are so many more beliefs that I cannot even dream of listing them here. But there is also the flip side of the coin: as the resting posture and hand position of the Mantis superficially resembles respect for God in prayer, Christians believe that the Mantis symbolises spirituality and piety and finding a Mantis in your house means angels are watching over you; Muslims believe that the Mantis always faces the holy city of Mecca.

Eric Ramanujam

Principal Investigator (Faunistics), Pitchandikulam Forest

Let’s Build A Treehouse!

Anais, from Germany, our Weltwarts volunteer
Anais, from Germany, our Weltwarts volunteer

Pitchandikulam’s latest building rises eight meters above the forest floor, carried by the trunk and embraced by the branches of an old tree.

My name is Anaïs Schendekehl, a Weltwärts volunteer in Pitchandikulam Forest since August 2016. For me living in a tree-house is a childhood dream, one of these dreams that you have for so long that you don´t even know any more when you started having it and so far away you somehow  unconsciously assume it would always just remain like that: a dream.

Almost one year ago I had to answer the question “What do you definitely want to do in Auroville?” for my volunteering application and I remember feeling somehow ridiculous when I answered that I always wanted to built and live in a tree house. I had absolutely no idea how this could be done! However somehow I felt if it wasn’t gonna happen in Auroville, it would never happen!

Surprisingly from the moment this wish was written down things just kept falling into place – like unconsciously grabbing my climbing gear during last minute packing – a friend telling me about Auroville’s tree house community that has planned on constructing five hundred tree houses all around the world by 2026 – and finding an amazingly grown tree right next to Pitchandikulam’s newly renovated community kitchen that was literally asking for a treehouse.

What was challenging was the question of finance and ideas varied from crowdfunding over starting activities to paying it off by renting. In the end Joss’s attitude of “If you really do a project that comes from the heart the money will somehow come to you!” was the last push to get the ball rolling.

The pride of Pitchandikulam!
The pride of Pitchandikulam!

First of all the wood needed to be sourced from the forest get cut into planks and beams. Already the following week the construction could start and I was happy to leave the office and join the treehouse gang: Luke and the amazing team from the Treehouse Community, Auroville. First steps were to set up ropes to safely operate in the tree and lift up beams and trunks for the first platform and the staircase. I quickly realised that building a treehouse requires a really good team work and coordination between the “ground team” that prepares the materials and sends up whatever materials are needed for the “hanging team” to safely operate at the top. The efficient workflow these guys have is really impressive and shows their knowledge and experience. Getting the floor to be straight and fixing the wood safely without hurting the tree require a lot of know-how. Moreover, a good imagination and abstract thinking capacities are necessary to build around and integrate the natural forms.

The fearless treehouse team
The fearless treehouse team
The treehouse frame is put in place
The treehouse frame is put in place

It was amazing to see how the huge piles of planks and pillars were slowly disappearing as the first platform was step by step getting reachable via the staircase while simultaneously the second platform evolved from carrying belts to a first skeleton and then became the floor of the house. Every day we could reach higher into the tree and after an amazing three weeks of work I couldn’t believe finding myself standing on top of the roof structure already starting to cover it with the traditionally woven coconut palm leafs. I remember how I enjoyed the sun and the cooling breeze up there while joking with the guys in sheer amazement of what we had created.

Since the treehouse is finished it has turned into a highly requested accommodation. Most of the participants of the ecovillage design education course (EDE) spent a night there. Experiences varied from deep and restorative sleep with dreams of being Peter Pan in Wonderland to adventurous encounters with local wildlife.

Now that the course is finished it will be my accommodation until coming August. Finally, I get to spend a night in the house of my dreams.

Read more: a blogpost on the technical aspects of building the treehouse from the wonder architect craftsmen themselves, Luke and the Treehouse Community.

Blessing the treehouse in an early morning pooja
Blessing the treehouse in an early morning pooja

Reflections on an Eco-Village Design Education course

EDE team in Auroville, 2016-17
EDE team in Auroville, 2016-17

The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) Auroville desk based in Pitchandikulam Forest has just successfully hosted a 5 week Ecovillage Design Education Course running from 4th December 2016 to 7th January 2017!

With 35 participants coming from Auroville, its bioregional villages, from SriLanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, South Africa and many countries in Europe, the group was incredible diverse and rich in age, culture, history and knowledge.

Recognised by UNESCO,  Ecovillage Design Education was specifically designed to enable people and communities coming together to reclaim responsibility for their living situations – at local and regional levels. The EDE is a comprehensive course in the fundamentals of Sustainability Design. It is organised as a mandala that we call the sustainability wheel, encompassing what we perceive to be the four primary interweaving dimensions of human experience – Worldview, Ecological, Social and Economic aspects.

We started the course with the Social week, exploring social dimensions of community building looking at partly the complexity of the Auroville social landscape, its history and current layers. We also explored conflict resolution, governance and decision-making models, leadership in both a general and Auroville context. This week we also touched on Tamil social structures, rituals and art forms though kolams and stick dances. All through the 5 weeks we regularly had ‘council’, a powerful method of connecting a group, getting to know each other, and truly listening.

The second week, the Ecology dimension was very much a site visit week where we visited many different spaces focusing on local, organic food and farming, through Solitude Farm and Auro Orchard, green building particularly with Earth and Bamboo Technology visiting Sacred Groves, Earth Institute and Bamboo Centre, exploring solar energy, a visit to the bioregion looking at remnants of ancient forests and temples and the immense challenges of rampant development in the modern world, and really engaging with possibilities of restorative ecology through the work of Pebble Garden, Sadhana Forest and Pitchandikulam.

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In the third week, the economy dimension, we engaged with the complexities of world economy, looked critically at Auroville’s local economy with site visits to the local cooperative – PTDC and Nandhini, Auroville Paper Factory and Aquadyn, dabbled in local Indian economy with site visits to the Sustainable Livelihood Institute, Auroville Village Action and surveyed a few local village enterprises, looked at the social enterprises (later on a visit to Nadukuppam) and explored gift economy and other alternative economic systems in other ecovillages.

The fourth dimension we explored was ‘worldview’ looking at various structures and beliefs that shape our world views, our consciousness, our actions and the way we address reality. This was done thorugh an afternoon exploring ‘invisible architectures’, by regular body practices such as Awareness Through the Body and Kalaripayattu (a traditional Kerelan martial arts practice), through an introduction to Ayurveda – an ancient Hindu system of medicine, by exploring the Aurobindo ashram and school, a retreat to Nadukuppam for two nights where the group engaged with shadow work, deep ecology and the culture of a traditional south indian village. We experienced music, dance, men’s/women’s circles and fire rituals as well along the 5 weeks.

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The final week, the design week, saw the formation of smaller groups working on various personal projects exploring in particular the tools of dragon dreaming. Projects included designing a role play game exploring interconnectedness in ecology, designing ‘The Hive’ a real Auroville-based project-  a youth learning and experimenting space,  starting a community exploring the ‘Joy of Impermanence’ in Auroville and creating a center inspired by Pitchandikulam’s work. The week culminated in a final presentation to the Auroville community at Unity Pavillion, giving the group a time to reflect on the 5 weeks of this course and to share it with the people present.

In this time of post-course reflection, we are quietly going to be looking at what the new year brings for the Auroville GEN and NextGEN (the youth-led branch) desk . With the support and guidance of Pitchandikulam Forest and YouthLink we aim to follow up on the seeds that are emerging from this journey and help guide the manifestation of some of these design projects in the local landscape.  We would like to humble express our immense gratitude to: the Pitchandikulam/Nadukuppam forest, community and team, the members of YouthLink, our partner in enabling the participation of local youth, to Auroville for sharing its wisdom, to all the volunteers, mentors and donors in and outside Auroville for their generous support to help realize this journey.

This short video by Serena Aurora is a little taster on what we did, a longer documentary will come soon…keep your eyes peeled! https://youtu.be/OqIPd2oa5V0

Nikethana Venkatesan, GEN Desk Coordinator

With thanks to Eugenie Dumont for the photographs

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The Greater Death’s Head Hawk Moth – Acherontia lachesis

THE GREATER DEATH’S HEAD HAWK MOTH Acherontia lachesis
THE GREATER DEATH’S HEAD HAWK MOTH (Acherontia lachesis) by Eric Ramanujam

This is a large moth with a wingspan of 13cm. It is found over much of South and Southeast Asia and quite often seen in Pitchandikulam at certain times of the year (there is a preserved specimen in the reference collection). It is a member of the family Sphingidae (hawkmoths, which are distinguished by their ability to hover) and one of three species of Death’s Head hawkmoths – A. lachesis is the largest member of the genus, hence the name ‘Greater’.

Acherontia moths are also known as ‘bee robbers’ because they feed on honey. Their proboscis is very stout and strong, enabling them to pierce wax cells and suck out honey. In addition, they are adapted to their unique way of life as they can mimic the scent of bees so that they can enter a hive unharmed to get at the honey.

The epithet ‘death’s head’ is because of the vaguely human skull-shaped marking on the thorax. Its defense behaviour is unique – if disturbed while resting, it raises its body from the surface and partially opening and raising its wings emits a startling squeak.

Eggs are laid on a variety of host plants of the families Solanaceae, Verbenaceae, Fabaceae, Olearaceae and Bignoniaceae among others. Mature larvae (caterpillars) attain a length of 12cm and occur in green, yellow and brownish grey forms with oblique body stripes and a tail horn. It is said that the tail horn is venomous but this still has to be verified. When molested the caterpillar throws its head from side to side and produces a repeated clicking noise – it doesn’t seem to use its tail horn in defense. The larvae are predated upon by parasitoids like the Ichneumon wasps and Tachnidae flies which lay their eggs in / on them and their young once they emerge begin feeding on the living host, keeping them alive until they complete their metamorphosis.

Parasitoidy is one of the six major types of parasitism and a very complex phenomena that ranges from a living animal having organisms gradually destroying particular body functions (primarily reproductive and intellectual), through anaesthesia induced creatures being slowly eaten alive to near overt predatorism, but not exactly being so. If one is so inquisitive about the phenomena one can google it, but there is much more to it than meets the eye – in fact the most interesting facts have been hidden away from prying eyes (by whom?) as it does not benefit human / animal rights. Self exploration will benefit those inquisitive enough to delve deeper into the phenomenon and bound to be illuminative at the very least.

Eric Ramanujam,
Principal Investigator (Faunistics)

Let’s green Tamil Nadu with nurseries

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Date: 31st Oct 2016
Location: Chinnarampatti panchayat, Tirupathur block, Vellore district, Tamil Nadu

Background

How can good ecology practices be the root of social and economic development? This is a key question for all of us in Auroville, and we at Pitchandikulam Forest are happy to be part of an initiative in an exciting project to manifest one such idea at a large scale.

Tamil Nadu, a state with 60m people, separates out the complex business of local  government into five levels: habitat, villages, panchayats, blocks, districts and at the state level. One panchayat consists of a few villages (as low as 2), one block is 15 or so panchayats, one district has 10-15 blocks, and the state overall has 32 districts.

The state government implements programmes through several departments with as many as 52 schemes and policies  in rural economic development and ecology, for example:

  1. the 100 Days programme, which guarantees local women a hundred days paid work a year
  2. the Green Villages programme, which supports tree-planting on the local level

Both are promising, but in practice can face the following challenges:

  1. 100 days work a year at a minimum wage is not enough for a sustainable livelihood  (although it is worth noting that this scheme is not meant to provide permanent livelihood support and only supplements income during the non-agricultural period of the year, hence the 100 days)
  2. Local villages often do not have access to good seedlings and the traditional knowledge about what to plant and how to ensure that the plants thrive has been lost in the ‘modern’ ways of life

In September, as part of our needs-based training for social enterprises, we were asked to help out in Chinnarampatti, a panchayat at the foot of the Jawadhu Hills in the Eastern Ghats, in northern Tamil Nadu.

The Chinnarampatti Nursery

Twenty ladies created a small nursery in their village with their own local knowledge and understanding.

The panchayat secretary, Mr Madesh, initiated this nursery scheme through the 100 Days programme, which pays a salary to local women for 100 days a year, and is administered by the Department of Rural Development in the Tamil Nadu state government. He was looking for help from Auroville: technical training in running a nursery for the women’s groups.

The local women came to Auroville, stayed for three days in September, and received technical training through the Sustainable Livelihood Institute, sponsored by the State Government. Pitchandikulam Forest provide training in seed collection, plant identification, germination techniques, nursery maintenance, compost making and how to plant properly. We used our young forest and education centre at Nadukuppam as a host location for training with the team of experts from Pitchandikulam (Aramugham, Kesavan, Bubesh, Joss, Lourdes). They also did a planning exercise in resource mapping for the village, to see how the future of the nursery fits in with the village’s economic and social development.

After the training, they requested a follow up visit by Pitchandikulam Forest to assess their progress and help them carry out and fine tune their plan.

We were pleased to see that the women’s cooperative have successfully germinated 40,000 seedlings there – it is well-maintained and managed. Afterwards, we visited the village, including the lakes and ponds, sacred groves, poramboke lands with the local elected leader, village elder, and local officials. Each panchayat falls within a block, and local government assigns a block development officer (BDO) to each block and panchayat engineers (PE) to give technical support. The BDO and PE came to the site to meet and discuss how to develop the nursery further. They promised to assist with funding for a proper toilet/bathroom and sheltered restroom for the nursery.

The Big idea

Tamil Nadu currently has  a scheme to develop nurseries at every Panchayat in the State (details here).

Together with local government leaders, we will work to make the nursery in Chinnarampatti into a model that can be extended and replicated across the 400+ blocks in Tamil Nadu. In exchange for local government supporting the salaries and capital costs of the nursery, all the villages throughout the block receives seedlings and training for free.

Within this programme, a nursery will:

  • provide a real sustainable livelihood for the women’s groups who runs it, beyond the 100 Days programme
  • upskill the women by enabling them not only to run a nursery, but also to train other women’s groups as to how to run nurseries across the State
  • lie at the heart of local policy, bringing together economic development, water management, agriculture, environment, health, education, livelihood as part of a local masterplan
  • show local government officials how ecology can play a key role in effective, joined-up policy making
  • supply plants and seedlings to the group of panchayats that it represents for their Greening Villages scheme
  • ensure that the villages in the panchayat get the right plants for the bio-region, and are educated by the nursery staff in their planting and maintenance

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Next Steps

The panchayat president has requested our help in creating a coherent masterplan for the panchayat’s development. He has already cleared out all the encroachments on local tanks and ponds, and there is a real opportunity to green this area. Their immediate need is that their groundwater is 900 ft down, so bore wells are very expensive. Most of their water goes directly into rivers and flows away: their long term strategy is that they would like bunds or dams, to strengthen lakes and ponds in order to hold more water to support development.

Pitchandikulam Forest team will conduct a survey to establish detailed information about this area for the watershed masterplan. Together with the Sustainable Livelihoods Institute, and other experts from Auroville, we will help local government to create a masterplan that includes economic development, water management, agriculture, environment, health, education.

Wetland Observation: data gathering in the Kazhuveli Lake

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Wetland Observation – Kazhuveli Lake, Saturday, November 26th 2016.

Our senior biologist Dr Bubesh Guptha led a group of 24 students (7th and 8th standards (13-14 years old) and 2 teachers from Vandipallayam school to observe the Kazhuveli lake.

Bubesh gave a small introduction about biodiversity and importance of wetlands, which are a critical habitat of wetland birds.

This is an annual programme for the school group, who started the observation last year, so part of the task this time was to notice any differences and try to understand how the ecology of the Kazhuveli is changing over time.

The students gathered data about:

  • what living things can be observed there (birds, fish, plants etc)
  • what is the depth of the lake
  • salinity levels and what this means
  • human impact
  • any other ecological observations

Their finding were as follows:

Last year:

  • Depth:  6-7 ft
  • Wetland bird count: high (15-20000 counted in seasonal census)
  • Salinity: low
  • Human disturbance: average

This year:

  • Depth:  2-3 ft
  • Wetland bird count: very low ( < 500 counted in seasonal census)
  • Salinity: high
  • Human disturbance: high

One good sign that the students noticed is that there were many young fish, snails, prawns and crabs in the lake.

Bubesh explained how the lack of rainfall this year has affected the wetlands in many different ways.

When the rains do not come, the lake depth is much reduced, making it far easier for humans to fish in the lake. This increase in human disturbance and the human competition for fish keeps the birds away.

With the lack of rain, salinity increases as the water flow is reversed, entering the lake from the sea, rather than flowing out to the sea as is normal for this time of year.

The students also noticed an increase in the amount of plastic rubbish thrown into the lake. They resolved to write to the Forest Department to ask them to put a noticeboard reminding people that their rubbish is harmful to wildlife.

Sacred Groves & Wetland Possibilities: Notes from a Field Trip

A team from Pitchandikulam (Joss, Bubesh, Sneh, Daniel and Jonathan) spent a day visiting sacred groves and wetlands in the Auroville bio-region.

1) Puthupet Sacred Grove

Puthupet was our first stop to see best and worst practices in looking after sacred groves, the areas of indigenous forest cared for by temple administration and the people who worship there.

Sacred grove outside Puthupet temple, Tamil Nadu
Sacred grove outside Puthupet temple, Tamil Nadu

Joss and the Pitchandikulam team have been working at Puthupet on and off for over forty years. For years in the early days, Auroville botanists did phenological studies here, coming each week to take measurements of patterns of plant flowering, fruiting and growth of the many indigenous species. This gave us our first database of detailed botanical life cycles, which was invaluable for our early coastal forest replanting initiatives.

The study of that grove led to our documenting another 200 groves from Sriharikota to Point Calimere.

In the early 2000s Pitchandikulam initiated programmes of conservation and protection with the communities adjacent to the sacred grove, with watchmen in the forest for several years helping to protect it, clean it and help local people understand how and why to look after it. It was a beautiful example of a thriving sacred grove.

After a few years, government interventions all over Tamil Nadu saw them take control of many forests, including this one. This resulted in what we see today: the severing of the link between the community and the forest, and the resulting garbage catastrophe. The temples were leased out to private organisations who proceeded to develop them commercially, and thousands of pilgrims from outside were encouraged to come in; the community was removed from its stewardship, roads were built to facilitate mass tourism and rubbish started to pile up in the sacred grove. Today the grove is a beautiful, mature forest filled with a heartbreaking amount of plastic trash.

2) Seaside plantation in Kunimedu Kuppam

Our next stop, the seaside plantation, down by the sea at Kunimedu Kuppam (Tamil: kuppam fishing community) is extraordinary. The forest runs right down to the tideline on the beach in soil that is extremely inhospitable – almost 100% sand.

kunimedu-kuppam-beach-3
Forest in the sand, Kunimedu, Tamil Nadu

The facts of badly-planned planting in this soil are self-evident, with black corpses of dead trees planted by local government lying on the ground on the opposite side of the road.

Pitchandikulam Forest have planted two areas there – a project collaboration with the Forest Department to plant four acres in two stages, where, with the participation of the local fishing village, we protected and then cared for the seedlings for four years, working with local women’s cooperatives to grow and water the plants from a hand pump. Now, with no fencing at all, the growth is outstanding – 80% of the species planted have survived and thrived in the years since, with no watering, cultivation or intervention of any sort.

Our plans for this area are to plant ten more acres, involve four local women’s groups in growing the seedlings, planting and caring for them – establishing a locally-run nursery in the process.

3) Sacred grove in Urani

Sacred grove, Urani, Tamil Nadu
Sacred grove, Urani, Tamil Nadu

This is an example of a beautiful village-managed sacred grove: Pitchandikulam started working with the village twenty five years ago to document the forest. It is a wonderful counter-example to the horror at Puthupet of how a forest can be managed and protected by a local community who take pride in its upkeep.

The old stone temple has now been supplemented by a new, much bigger temple, paid for by a neighbouring private landowner, but the sacred grove is still protected by the local community, and as such, it is free of rubbish.

It is one of the best examples of climax coastal forest, also in relatively sandy soil, similar to Puthupet, and both Puthupet and Urani are used by Pondichery University School of Environmental Studies for fieldwork and research.

4) Medicinal Plants Forest in Kurumburam

An in-situ conservation medicinal plants forest.

The only reserve forest in the area – approximately 500 acres of diverse, regenerating forest. Half of it was recently declared again as having reserved status, and it is currently protected and regenerating well.

In-site medicinal conservation forest, Kurumburam, Tamil Nadu
In-site medicinal conservation forest, Kurumburam, Tamil Nadu

Possible interventions are working with the Forest Department to introduce well thought-out species. We suggest to conduct a supplementary botanical survey of both places, in order to complement the detailed botanical survey of this site that exists. Previously we have done transects in the forest, and we would hope that these markers can be used again for a comparative survey.

This site has huge potential, perhaps for an interpretation centre, but it would need to be looked after well.

5) Kurumburam Yeri

A local man-made traditional water management system: a traditional tank (yeri) that was constructed to increase the productivity of Tamil Nadu, modelling knowledge from Chola times as to how to conserve and distribute water.

The site itself is three hundred acres at least, flat and relatively empty at this point of the dry season, attracting cormorants, egrets, sandpipers, lapwings and many other wetland birds, as well as being as a watering hole for local cattle and other wildlife. There is also the occasional barringtonia acutangula tree and cane.

There is an exciting idea to create a protected bird sanctuary here: planting at least 150 species in and around the tank, especially species that live in water, like Barringtonia and acacia nilotica, that provide superb habitats for birds.

Many migratory birds come from abroad, to nurture themselves from the Kazhuveli wetlands and to restore this nearby Yeri is a superb opportunity to create another migratory habitat for wetland birds.

Already 50,000 birds visit each year during migration, but with the proliferation of prawn farms in the wetlands, roosting areas are under threat.

6) Munnur tank and pottery

One of the best examples of tank bund plantation with palmyras. A lot of big trees have been removed, and it is a wonderful example of a palmyra-studded bund (the earthen dam built to hold and control water distributuion over 500 years ago, with sluice gate and manually operated gates to supply surrounding rice fields).

Historically this was a complex and efficient way for farmers to work together and bring about community consciousness and cooperation – sadly a rare phenomenon today.

Bund tank, Munnur, Tamil Nadu
Bund tank, Munnur, Tamil Nadu

Munnur has three hundred temples, as the name indicates – (Munnur – three hundred in Tamil), but our next destination was to visit a potter. His workshop was an Aladdin’s cave of water jugs, cooking pots, lamps, chattis (flower pots) and dishtis (statues you put in front of your house). Having helped to set up his workshop under SEDAB, we went to help him fix his broken potting wheel.

7) The palm leaf medicine man at Olagapuram

Jonathan holding an antique Tamil medical manuscript
Jonathan holding an antique Tamil medical manuscript

Sri Nagaraj Mudliya and his wife, the parents of Dr. Logonathan, an 11th generation healer who helped Joss create the Pitchandikulam ethnomedicial forest, under the FRLHT programme (Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions) in 2000. Sri Nagaraj is a traditional eye-doctor. In his back room is a treasure trove archive of palm leaf manuscripts, written in Telugu and Tamil, detailing Siddha knowledge passed down over the generations. Some of his medicines are also over a hundred years old, as in Siddha tradition, medicines improve over time, like fine wine. It was a real pleasure to see this invaluable archive, and hold these priceless manuscripts in our hands.