Maharashtra village takes afforestation up a notch
Written By News Root | Published on Updated: Sep 13, 2022, 19:22 IST | 1663077175144By digging contour trenches and planting native tree species on their bunds, a joint team of people of Hirpodi and NGO volunteers retain rainwater and make progress in establishing a biodiverse ecosystem.The young trees will need care and monitoring over the next few years, a task that many volunteers in the village have taken up for the greater good (Photo courtesy FORREST)
Pune, Maharashtra: The villagers of Hirpodi in Velhe taluka of Pune district are making steady progress in turning a barren hill into a forest with the help of contour trenches and drought-tolerant trees.
Janabai Laxman Kuditkar (70) points to the hill behind her newly-built pucca house while explaining how barren it was when they started off. “There were only a few scattered trees on the top. Until about 10 years ago, we were cultivating ragi and sesame. But long summers and water scarcity made everything difficult,” she says. Consequently, she sold that piece of land to an NRI couple.
The hill covering about five acres along the slope now belongs to Ravindra and Sadhana Swar, who approached FORREST (Forest Regeneration and Environment Sustainability Trust) — an NGO dealing in biodiversity — to restore it in a way that would benefit the village that sits along its lower reaches.
Responding to 101Reporters by email, the Swars said that they bought the land, sight unseen, to help the owner who was deep in debt. "The original purpose was to build an old age home. But when we finally visited the site ourselves, we found there was no proper access road or any facilities nearby. It was just a barren hill." And Sadhana Swar, having something of a green finger herself, decided to spend some money to develop this into a green zone, even a sanctuary for birds.
“This land is located half a km from the village, at an elevation of 760m from the mean sea level. Except for some non-native Eucalyptus trees planted near the peak by the forest department, the slopes were denuded of any vegetation. There was just some seasonal grass and a few shrubs,” says Neha Singh, the founder and director of FORREST.
Located 60 km from Pune, Hirpodi is home to about 900 people. Singh and her team decided to work on two fronts — water and forestry. “We planned to dig contour trenches and plant drought-tolerant native species on their bunds. The first step of marking trenches all over the hill began in July 2019,” she tells 101Reporters.
Trenching is one of the major environmental engineering measures for conserving water and controlling soil erosion in non-arable lands. Areas with steep slopes are more prone to soil erosion, particularly if they lack vegetative cover.
“Velha gets good rainfall, but the water drains out very quickly due to the slope. Almost no water percolates in the soil. Contour trenching solves this problem,” explains Singh. “We found a part on the slope where soil erosion was much more pronounced. Hillsides are more prone to gullying (the process by which deep channels or gullies are created by flowing water) when they are cleared of vegetation through deforestation, overgrazing or forest fires. To arrest soil erosion, we covered a small patch with dense plantations.”
The restoration plans began when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak. Holding meetings with villagers was not even a possibility then. So, her team tried different methods to increase local participation.
“We decided to involve villagers by appointing a local project coordinator for the work, and Vitthal Rajiwade was keen on helping us when he realised how much the village will benefit,” says Prachi Pawar, assistant director, FORREST. Anything related to water usually piques the interest of people here. The promise of improvement in groundwater levels, prevention of flooding during monsoons, and the prospect of income from minor non-timber forest produce was enough to convince them to join hands.
“The NGO provided us with trenching tools and we got the bamboo supplied from the village,” adds Reshma Sonawane, Rajiwade’s neighbour.
The locals were paid in cash for all the materials and the strenuous work of walking uphill with tools, plants, compost, soil nutrients and bamboo. “We had to make several trips along with the NGO volunteers, and they offered us money that helped us get through those pandemic-weary days,” Sonawane gratefully remembers.
The joint team of volunteers and villagers built around 250 contour trenches and planted 530 trees over their bunds.
“We felt that native forest trees are stronger and they adapt easily to adverse climatic conditions. Most of them have medicinal properties and are fruit-bearing, like say Reetha (soapnut), Baheda (Terminalia bellerica) and Harad (Termialia chebula),” informs Pawar.
The trees coming under the ficus genus were chosen to enhance the green cover, as their fruits cater to both birds and mammals even during drought. “About 200 ficus trees have been planted to this end,” Pawar says.
Once the trenching and planting were done, 40 villagers collected thorny bushes from nearby hills and carried them to the site to build a fence that would protect the plants from free-grazing cattle. Only 300 of the total 530 trees remain, with the rest lost in forest fires.
Rajiwade, a wrestler and rice cultivator, understands the importance of maintaining sources of irrigation. “When we started planting trees, I did not realise how important it was. But now, we have pits filled with enough water for our crops,” he beams.
The Rajiwades have assumed the role of overseeing the maintenance of the young trees, which includes watering them at least four times a month during non-monsoon months with the help of the community. “The trees are still small and need at least three years to grow. Once they grow tall, I hope there will be even more rainfall in the area,” Rajiwade says.
He and his family — comprising his wife and three college-going children — had motivated many to join the project in its early days. Sonawane, on her part, exhorted women to lend a helping hand.
Singh believes her NGO is no longer needed here. “The point of conservation is that it should be self-sustaining. Even in the absence of any monetary benefit, the community should take care of their environment. And I think this has already happened here,” she concludes.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)