The Women’s Centre at Nadukuppam is officially open!

Lucy, our new volunteer, from Bristol, England

Our volunteer Lucy Garrett reports on the long-awaited official opening of the Common Facilities Centre, the new hub for rural women’s enterprise in Nadukuppam.

Monday 24th April was a special day: the inauguration of the Common Facilities Centre (CFC), owned by a federation of village women in Nadukuppam. The Federation is a group of enterprises creating a range of products – herbal medicines and foods, nursery plants, spirulina products, herbal veterinary care – and with the help of the Tamil Nadu Government, Pitchandikulam and the QSA, they now own a piece of land and a building from which to run their productions, and manage all their work. The CFC is adjacent to the new forest – a 35 acre forest garden planted ten years ago, a thriving forest pharmacy that provides important raw materials for all the enterprises. What makes the space special is that the women now feel a real sense of ownership; it is up to them how they will use the building and surrounding land.

A group of us travelled out on Sunday afternoon to help with preparations for the event. When we arrived in the afternoon there was a sense of excitement in the air. We found the women’s groups sat together around a huge pile of flowers their fingers moving deftly in meditation as they thread the flowers onto strings ready for tomorrows Pooja. I spent a good 20 minutes sat with them trying to learn how they knotted the flowers but to no avail; my fingers refused to perfect the weave. Joss Brooks explained the change that he has witnessed in the past 6 months to year; previously the different groups didn’t talk much among themselves, now they do, a movement towards sharing resources, and illustrated by the collective action we witnessed in the preparations for the inauguration.

Stringing flowers for the pooja
Stringing flowers for the pooja

We filled the bus with chairs, furniture and information boards and took them over to the CFC building for unloading. The enterprise groups arrived and swept over the entire building, scrubbing away every last bit of dirt and washing the floors and shelves. Collectively we moved over the surrounding land, painstakingly removing all the large stones and raking all the leaves into neat piles.

Some local men arrived on a bullock cart carrying two banana plants bearing heavy loads of fruit. These were strung up on either side of the house porch as a symbol of prosperity and strong community. As it was explained to me, banana trees grow more banana trees so if you have many it is a good sign of healthy long lived community that will foster and grow more over time.

A beautiful shade awning arrived alongside fairy lights which were strung along the roof of the building. Preparations were nearly complete! I climbed to the roof to take in the sun setting behind the palms and rice fields. Below me I watched two ladies stuffing an oversized pair of trousers and shirt with hay. It is customary for this ‘scarecrow’ to be ignited at midnight and then carried around the full perimeter of the building whilst on fire. This ritual is to keep out bad spirits, and most importantly must be completely by a very drunk individual – the drunkenness prevents the bad spirits from entering them!

The CFC is a place where new initiatives can be incubated and the central operations hub where existing enterprises are managed. For example, for medicinal products and herbal foods, plants are collected in fields and hedgerows in the adjacent forest, and brought to the site. Once at the site they are processed; pummelled, steamed, bleached, ground, powdered and bottled until they are ready to sell at local markets by the group.

Belongings and furniture should not be moved into a house until after the opening Pooja had taken place so the building echoed as you moved around it and the enterprise products were not yet in the building. Final Pooja decorations also had to be completed after the midnight ceremony, so we were all in for a sleepless night, especially the women’s enterprise groups that spent the whole night preparing a delicious South Indian feast for breakfast.

We assembled bleary eyed for the Pooja at 6am. A beautiful mandala had been created in front of the house and flowers hung from the door. The air was thick with the smell of jasmine attached to neatly plaited hair. With no particular sense of urgency things began to happen; the priest arrived alongside more and more villagers, the women in immaculate saris and the men in white dhoti.

A complex array of fruit, incense, flowers and ritual objects were arranged in front of the priest as people piled into the house to watch the Pooja. A female cow and her calf arrived outside the house, their faces painted and strings of yellow feathers hanging from their necks. Cows are considered a symbol of prosperity. After the front and rear of each cow was blessed with a handful of flower petals the cows were both tugged up the front step and into the house. The mother was clearly more accustomed to this than the calf.

The Pooja continued until a fire was lit inside the house and smoke began to fill every crevasse of the building. I have no idea how so many people could stand to stay in the smoke for so long, but the priest assured us that it was good for our lungs.

The Pooja was finished with the final traditional act; the boiling of a pan of milk inside the house. If the milk boils over then it is a good omen that will bring prosperity. We crowded around to watch the milk boil over the wood fire together. As soon as it had boiled it was time to tuck into a delicious South Indian breakfast.

Now the Pooja has been completed, the CFC is fully ready for the groups, who will begin by moving all their stock and equipment into the building. The next chapter will be the planting of the garden; thousands of medicinal plants will be grown in this area, mostly sourced from the plant nursery enterprise, and ready to grow when the rains come.

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

Pitchandikulam People: Bubesh (Wildlife Biologist)

Bubesh Guptha in action

One of the most popular activities at Pitchandikulam Forest is our weekly nature and birdwatching walk, on Fridays at 4pm. The man pointing our attention upwards through the forest canopy the trees as we walk along is wildlife biologist Dr. Bubesh Guptha, and to celebrate his receiving the Smt.S.P. Sarojini Memorial Young Scientist Award (2017), we decided to interview him to find out more about the man in the tiger top.

 

“  I can’t exactly say that I always knew that I wanted to be a biologist. I did my BSc in Botany, but I didn’t have an ambition to be a scientist or a botanist. During my degree, I was more interested in folk dancing – back in 2001 I got the state level second prize for Tamil folk dance! So after my degree, I wasn’t planning to continue on a postgraduate degree, but to get a job of some kind. Suddenly one of my teachers approached me about a place on a Masters in Wildlife Biology. When I joined, I didn’t even have any basic knowledge about wildlife.

We had to take theory papers, follow seminars – the theory was very difficult for me. Playing cricket always took priority, even during exam times. Exams were about finishing as soon as possible so I could watch the cricket.

In my MSc we had to compete a project. I told my supervisor I wanted to do my dissertation on snakes. I don’t know why I liked snakes so much, but I wanted to be a snake catcher, I thought it was crazy, something different in the field. I live in a rural area, and noone in my area is doing this kind of thing. I didn’t like birds – and my supervisor was a bird specialist. But it made sense to go with his area of expertise, and he suggested that I focus on the wetland birds in Pichavaram, and that we go on a three-week field trip. Research trips like this are very expensive – taking buses for 150km, going out on boats, food, accommodation. One day in Pichavaram, I was looking under a bridge for nests, and I fell on the molluscs in the water, scratching up my entire body. The shells in the water are like knives there. My supervisor started laughing. He said, “Bubesh, this is fieldwork. Only when you are full of blood, can you say that you are really doing fieldwork!”

I needed some financial support, and my supervisor helped me to find some work in an animal research institute in Coimbatore as a project assistant in a wetland and wetland birds study. The institute, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, specialised in ornithology and biodiversity. I went to the interview, reading up on common water birds on the way down as I really didn’t know much about birds at all – only what I’d learnt in my three week field trip. Somehow I got the job.

The project was to go to all the wetlands in Tamil Nadu and to study the status of the wetlands and the status of the birds. I went there, took photographs, and in total covered 77 wetlands in 8 districts of Tamil Nadu. After finishing that project, I knew a lot more about water birds. It was only then that I realised the importance of biodiversity, because before that project I had no money and no equipment, and in this project, I got a very good camera, good binoculars, GPS, travelling allowance, daily allowance, unlimited food, accommodation, vehicle hire, and a fellowship. I thought to myself – why are the government spending so much money on one person? What is this biodiversity? After that I started reading books, watching seminars, attending conferences. This opened my eyes to what biodiversity is. For the first time, I could see that this was the future – the way to do real work, without worrying about travel expenses or anything like that. Also, I got the opportunity to take photographs, and I was given credit when it was published – I got publicity, credit, good salary – this was a great opportunity.

After the project finished, I found another job in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu at the Central Soil and Water Conversation Research and Training Institute in Ooty. The job was to undertake a fied survey on the afforested shola (South Indian grassland forest) and swamps in the Nilgiri district, as a junior research fellow. Because I already knew about the technical aspects of fieldwork, like collecting samples and using GPS, I got the job. Thanks to my previous job, I was the only one who had experience of this type of advanced technology.

Royal Bengal Tiger, photo: Bubesh Guptha

I worked there for a year, and then I was called for a vacancy in forest-related biodiversity studies in Andhra Pradesh. At that time, I knew very little about forests. I knew about wetlands, and about swamps, but not forests. The job was as a biologist working in a biodiversity inventory in the Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve, the largest tiger reserve in India. That was my first forest job – a real forest, a tiger reserve. A big difference to working wiht water birds around villages or concentrating on plants, soil testing and so on in the shola. It was a big jump straight to tigers! I didn’t know much about wildlife then.

I worked there for two and a half years, but it was two days travel from my family, so I got homesick. Also I didn’t know how to speak Telugu. So I wanted to move nearer. Luckily I was called by the Nellapattu and Pulicat Bird Sanctuaries, for a job as wetlands bird specialist, much closer to home on the border between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – only an hour from Chennai. That was a happy time, easy for me to come home for family festivals like Deepavali or Pongal. I could enjoy my wildlife and my family life, it was perfect.

We conducted awareness camps and surveys. I learned enough Telugu to communicate with the forest staff and local children. The sanctuaries are controlled by the Conservator of Forests in Tirupati, part of the Andhra Pradesh Department of Forests, and soon I was being asked to help in other locations like the Sri Venkadeshwara National Park.
I spent two and a half years working there, in the different sanctuaries and national parks. Then the Forest Department had some financial issues, so although I was happy, I needed to do find some more work. I joined the Wildlife Institue of India, the biggest in the country, in Uttarkhand in the Himalayas, as research personnel in the All India Tiger Monitoring Project. I’d already worked with tigers, so I felt very comfortable working there, and they were happy with me.

And that time, I started to publish in some journals. The first two or three papers were a difficult experience: I didn’t know how to do analyses, how to write in that academic style. The papers were full of reviews and comments: the first one I got back from the journal was fully red with comments! So I asked for help from scientists I knew, and eventually my first paper was published in 2010, then the next paper and then the next. To date, I have  65 papers published, and 7 books.

Metallic tarantula – poecilotheria metallica (photo: Soren Ravn, CC BY-SA 3.0)

After that project finished, again I joined the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department and used what I’d learnt in the Wildlife Institue of India. The government of India had declared the area of the national park as a biosphere reserve. I was a wildlife biologist there, working with snakes, reptiles, amphibians and different mammals. We found so many new records – new species sighted for the first time in India, like the Sri Lankan flying snake.. We also sighted a metallic tarantula, which was only the second sighting in India since its discovery in 1899.

I started my PhD in Zoology in Sri Venkateshwara University there (on the wetland birds of Nellapattu and Pulicat sanctuaries), and got married in Pondicherry, so I wanted to find some wildlife work nearby. That is when I joined Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville. I came here to work with snakes, and was brought in for Pitchandikulam’s snake venom extraction project in the area around Marakkanam. In addition to that, my work here involves butterfly studies, bird studies, and working in biodiversity educations.

We train teachers, students, government civil servants and we have carried out surveys on snakes, birds and mammals. We have published five papers in journals and conferences using research in Pitchandikulam Forest.

I have full research freedom here – this is not at all a nine to five job. Whatever I want to do – research, education, awareness camps, I can do.

Receiving the Smt.S.P. Sarojini memorial Young Scientist award, March 2017

I have received awards for my work – in photography, wildlife research, biodiversity, and was nominated for the Rajiv Gandhi Wildlife Conservation Award in Delhi. This month I have received the national Young Scientist of the Year award, and 2014 I received Best Presentation Award at the Indian Biodiversity Congress.

My dream is to become one of top biodiversity experts in India, that whatever happens in India, they should call me first! I need to do more research, publish more, so that everyone will know who I am!    

Bubesh receiving Indian Biodiversity Award, 2014