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