Living Restoration

The international community of Auroville in southern India
is repairing the Earth and planting the seeds of change

One of the articles in Global Climate Change (IC#22)
Originally published in Summer 1989 on page 48
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

It is important to realize that large-scale environmental restoration is do-able. The residents of Auroville, an international community of 700 residents from 23 nations, have been at work restoring their corner of the globe for twenty years. Don’t let statements like "we have to plant zillions of trees to absorb the CO2" scare you – relatively tiny Auroville has already planted millions. Their efforts (which extend to much more than planting trees) could serve as a model to be copied and adapted all over the globe.

Savitra (Alan Lithman) is a twenty-year resident of Auroville, author of Auroville: A Trust For the Earth, and deeply involved in its environmental restoration work. He also worked with Danaan Parry to organize "PeaceTrees India," the Earthstewards’ first multilateral tree-planting brigade, which involved youth from India, the Soviet Union, and the United States. [See "Peace and the Warrior" in IC #20.] PeaceTrees were also planted in Costa Rica, and the next step involves bringing Costa Rican, Indian, and Soviet youth to plant trees in American urban areas like Los Angeles.

For more information about Auroville, write the Auroville Secretariat, Bharat Nivas, Auroville, Tamil Nadu 605101, India; or to Auroville International, PO Box 162489, Sacramento, CA 95816. For information on the Earthstewards and the PeaceTrees program, write them at PO Box 10697, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

Alan: What was Auroville like when you first went there? How did the area around it come to be so barren and denuded, as I understand it was?

Savitra: I arrived in 1969, and Auroville had been founded in February of ’68, so I came quite early. There were about thirty people spread out over several thousands of acres on a plateau which slopes down to the Bay of Bengal. At that time it was typical of the deforestation and degradation of the environment that characterizes much of south Asia and many other regions, but now Auroville’s not typical of any place I know.

In India, as in much of the world, cattle and goats graze freely. There’s no such thing as restricted pasture land. And that created a terrible background to the decimation by colonial powers like Britain, who took all the resources they could, timber among them. That started off a cycle which then compounded itself in a downward spiral, because trees were going off the land – cut for firewood by the villagers – then the cows and goats continued to eat the seedlings that would have regeneratedtrees, as well as the ground cover.

In a monsoon climate, you have these extremes of very harsh sun through most of the year and then several months of intense rain. The Earth gets baked out by the sun, which sterilizes it, and then the monsoons come and wash off the exposed soil – and in our case, being on a plateau, it just washes it into the Bay of Bengal. The area that we came to has this stark beauty like the canyon lands of Arizona, beautiful red clay gullies which are nice for postcards but nowhere to live.

So with that background, Auroville had to face becoming a balanced, habitable region again, and that quickly took us away from our early ’60s, abstract concepts of township, with beautiful drawings of futuristic buildings. The direction that became apparent was to repair and restore the soil, and the ground cover that would protect it as well as reabsorb the water, which percolates down and recharges the water tables. Many of the wells in the local villages had already become depleted or dry.

We found that not only was this essential work for us – coming from all over the planet to make our place in Auroville – but this was an essential work for the whole of that region. It was serving everybody’s interests.

Alan: How did the project to deal with these environmental problems get started? How was it organized?

Savitra: Most people who came to Auroville were people like myself – generalists, seekers, not experts in ecology. In the late ’60s "ecology" was still a new word. It wasn’t as if some people came to Auroville with a background in environmental restoration. People came to live in Auroville – not necessarily knowing why they came, because Auroville represented a dream for them, a place where they could try to make the next step together with many other people who shared a common vision for the evolutionary challenge we’re all facing.

So people came and experienced the problem. First you have to feel that it’s real. It’s not just a textbook issue if you want to build homes and have the water to keep you and your plants and your environment alive. We started to see that immediately. We saw the irrelevance of these abstract concepts that were sort of pasted over the first Auroville. And we began to respond, at the beginning in a very groping and hesitant and not very cohesive manner.

At the end of ’71 I came back to the states to try to establish some type of support network between the United States and Auroville, and I met with various people and just presented the idea to them, because there wasn’t much to show. I had the good fortune to meet with Huey Johnson, who was then with the Whole Earth-Point Foundation in the Bay Area. He was, and still is, one of the more dynamic people in the environmental movement, and he sort of took me under his wing and said "Look kid, if you want to get some help, you first have to be able to tell people that you’re doing something relevant. What are you actually doing there?" So I described the situation and mentioned that there were some people starting to look at the environment, and he said "Well, trees are something India needs, and the world needs that lesson of the energy being put back into the system, so why don’t you consider that as a project?"

So I went back to Auroville and I said "Listen, why don’t we focus on something that the rest of the world is going to acknowledge? We already know it’s something we need. Let’s try to reverse the situation and make a demonstration project here."

At that time there wasn’t a large collective structure. I spoke to a couple of people who said "Okay, see what you can do," so I went back to the States. And again under Huey’s tutelage I drafted off a proposal for the first reforestation program in Auroville, and Point (which was, and is still, a foundation that gets its assets from the profits from the Whole Earth Catalog) gave a grant.

Starting from that point in 1972 until now, we have planted over two million trees. And we have transformed what was written off the books – even by the Indians in that area – as wasteland into fertile, productive forest and agricultural land.

Alan: How did you do it?

Savitra: Well, hard work is always the essential ingredient, as well as people who are willing to put themselves on the line. The kind of person that Auroville attracts is a pioneering type, a person who is not going to quit easily. It wouldn’t appeal to persons who are only interested in conferences or discussions. Auroville is a place where you put yourself and your security on the line in the middle of rural south India, where most of us are as far away from the homes we came from as one could imagine on every level – culturally, technologically, linguistically.

The whole thing was an experiment, which meant that even the governance system had to evolve, so in the beginning much of the decision-making was decentralized and personal. There we were out on this barren spread of land with no one telling us what to do. The needs had to become apparent, and then people would respond to the real needs. That, for me, is still what I feel to be the relevant principle in decision-making. Auroville has been, and continues to be, a place which stays alive and awake to the real needs that continue to emerge. Nothing is sacrosanct, nothing is immune from change.

So this afforestation work was clearly a make-or- break situation. Either we mean what we say and do what needs to be done, or we all go home and say this was just a nice idea. And we did what needed to be done. We make mistakes – it’s not that we came with the solutions ready-made. We try, and sometimes we trip, but we pick ourselves up and learn from that.

Part of the challenge has also been that we are situated in an area where there are a dozen Tamil villages. That’s a culture thousands of years old, living in an extremely "other" situation from what most Westerners are familiar with, and with a consciousness quite unfamiliar to the Western one.

Alan: Let’s get into the nitty-gritty. What trees did you plant? What irrigation did you have to do? What had to be done to put trees on this land?

Savitra: We built up a strategy. We started by planting trees that were the fastest growing and the hardiest, and we also protected the area with natural fences or watchmen to allow the grasses to come back. In tropical conditions forests can be destroyed very quickly, but they come back much faster than in temperate zones. Providing protection to the area is like making an energy system more efficient – it allows the Earth to begin coming back very quickly.

We didn’t have extensive irrigation facilities, so in the very beginning people would go around with bullock carts carrying 50-gallon drums and water each tree individually. We watered hundreds of thousands of trees that way. We still do not have some sophisticated sprinkler system, but we do have the common sense to plant just prior to the heavy monsoon rains. The trees get a very potent soaking for a couple of months, then we’ve got a couple of months leeway. We have to water them through the first summer, but these drought resistant, hardy varieties can send their taproot down to the water table fast. Then once you build up these initial forests, you can start introducing slower growing trees like teak and rosewood which take longer to grow and have much more value.

And we have started to create, in a sense, a zone for endangered species. Varieties of trees that are dying out in that region are coming back in Auroville, and this is also true for the wildlife. Wherever you go through most of India the concept of "jungle" is becoming myth. You don’t find the jungles and you don’t find the wildlife and it’s very, very sad. But in Auroville not only can you walk into forest, but there are hundreds of species of birds that are coming back that had not been sighted in that region for decades.

Alan: How does Auroville relate with its neighbors? What do the local Tamil villagers think of what you’re doing?

Savitra: At first they were very skeptical, with so many westerners in their area and with their memories of colonial times. This is not to say that Auroville is only people from the west – there are 23 nations represented, and actually the largest single culture in Auroville are Indians – though overall there are more westerners than Indians. But there are 15,000 local villagers in the area around Auroville. That’s interesting to reflect on, because most of the world lives in villages. Auroville’s mixture of people in the context of village India is really a good testing ground for acting on the challenges that face the entire Earth.

These villagers were not giving us carte blanche. They did not know what we were doing there, it didn’t make sense to them. And most of us didn’t have backgrounds as social workers. So we started off from where we were, with our prejudices and our misconceptions of each other. We found early on that trying to convince villagers verbally of what was in their best interests was a total failure. We’d go to the local people and say "Listen, don’t cut down your trees for firewood. You’re going to have no land left." But how do you stop that with words? They need to cook their food, and "afforestation" has no meaning for them. We went through a couple of awkward years while they watched us planting trees and digging these earth mounds all around our fields, and they went on doing what they were doing, cutting down trees and using what land they had for monsoon agriculture.

But in time, as our forests grew (and that’s a very big "our", because the forests are theirs, too) the effects started to show. And then they understood. When the wells in their villages began to have water again, and when the soil was not running off into the ocean, they understood that this was not just some crazy concept, that it would actually make their fields more productive.

It’s a longer term thing, but it’s the only effective way to save that region. That’s why living there – not just being a one-shot project or an aid program – has made all the difference, because we have lived through our own impatience, and they have lived to see the results with us. Now villagers are coming and working with us and learning techniques and going off into their own fields and applying them. And it’s gone further afield, because the Indian government has seen the value of this type of thing. India is seriously threatened by desertification. And we have now gone out into other states at the government’s invitation.

Alan: What is Auroville’s relationship to the Indian government?

Savitra: Well, for the Indian government to have an international community like Auroville on its soil is unique. There were bad feelings left over from former enclaves of foreigners, so we did have to establish a track record to show that we weren’t just here to do our little trip or to impose something on that culture. One of the most visible ways was through this environment and land work, but we’ve moved on into many other areas now – energy, education, architecture, computers – so we’re not a one-issue community.

The Indian government has been aware and appreciative of Auroville from its inception, and in September of 1988 they passed an Act of Parliament giving special status to Auroville. It’s called "The Auroville Foundation Act," and it says that the assets and properties of Auroville and its development are encouraged and promoted, so that it can more freely and more truly grow in accordance with its charter. This is quite an unusual statement for a government, because the charter’s very first line states that Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. So that’s now enshrined in an act of the Indian Parliament. This also makes a remarkable statement about India. What other country could formally host such a global venture on its soil?

Alan: The PeaceTrees project that you recently worked on with the Earthstewards Network seems to me an excellent example of the role Auroville is dedicated to. How did that project get going?

Savitra: I was back in the States in 1985, and I met Danaan Parry and Diana Glasgow. When I found out what they were doing in citizen diplomacy with Soviets and Americans, I just threw our hat into the ring and said "Would you like to try something like that in Auroville? Because that’s what we’re there for." And Danaan said "Yeah, sure. Let’s try."

For over three years we honed it down to a clear focus: the Earthstewards would provide the expertise in team building and conflict resolution, and we would provide a fieldwork experience – planting trees – so that it was an active event rather than just a passive coming together. We would bring together Soviet, American, and Indian youth, 15 from each country, aged 17 to 22. It would be doing something relevant for the whole planet, and doing it in the context of southern India, which is very different from either the Soviet Union or America.

It took a lot of time and effort to arrange things formally with the respective governments. When the event actually happened for those two weeks at the end of December ’88, it exceeded all of our expectations, including the kids’. Because not only did they really come together in their own ways, but they did something that they knew was going to make a difference. They planted more than 2,200 trees in four different locations, one of which was in a local village, where the whole village came out to welcome them. The arrangement was that that village, through its youth club, would look after those trees while Auroville took responsibility for the other three sites.

When we told these young people at the beginning how many trees they were going to plant, you could see that as an abstract figure it was intimidating. But once they got involved in doing it, they felt that they could actually change a part of the Earth in India which would never be the same because of them. That was a wonderful thing.

And they just had a great time. They created their own cultural activities, and we also brought in some of the best classical performers and artists in India. Our community went all out. I’ve never seen Auroville more self-giving, which was important for Auroville, because these type of programs remind us why we’re there. The timing was wonderful, because this act of parliament had just passed and Gorbachev had just had a summit with Rajiv Gandhi. All-India Radio, which is a national radio broadcast, covered our opening ceremony, and later we presented a petition, signed by all of the youth, to Prime Minister Gandhi encouraging him to see Auroville as a host-site for youth in the future.

Alan: How do you see the programs that you’ve done at Auroville translating to other places?

Savitra: Auroville’s effectiveness, for me, is as a demonstration project. It’s a model that people can actually see, so it gives courage to try. It’s not a place which just generates ideas which are helpful, but it also shows that people can act on those ideas: "If these people can do it, so can we." In this case it was planting trees, but it could have been anything. These young people left behind something which will be there as long as our community is there for the planet – they know that now – and they’re going back to their own villages and cities and speaking to their friends. They carry with them the conviction that they did it. And they can continue to build on that as individuals: If they did this, they can do something more courageous. That attitude is contagious, you know. You start to plant these little seeds of "I can do" and "I have done" and "I will do."

Alan: Is there much awareness in India of the problem of global climate change? Is there an understanding of the need for programs such as the ones you’ve been describing to be done on a wider scale?

Savitra: If you speak about India in general, not yet. With the exception of those scientists and environmentalists and leaders like Rajiv Gandhi who are keeping a close eye on it, the general population of India has no idea about global warming. It’s an extremely abstract concept.

Alan: Does it get media coverage?

Savitra: Yes, but it’s not making an impact on the population the way it would here, because you’re dealing with a different kind of communication culture. America has access to media. Everybody’s got a television set, newspapers are everywhere, and people read. It’s difficult for the simple villagers and pavement dwellers in India – who are concerned with survival, where their next meal is coming from – to consider the implications of global warming. India is a culture that has dealt with climatic disasters continuously, droughts and floods and so on, and for them getting through to the next day is their global disaster.

Alan: Their concerns are much more immediate.

Savitra: Everything is more immediate. The energy problem here in the U.S. is something that gets translated into more expensive gasoline or oil spills. Over there we don’t have to talk about energy shortages. Four hours out of the day or more you may not have any current at all because there’s a power cut. If the energy is cut, then the water for irrigating the crops is not available. So there’s this direct interconnection that goes all the way down the line daily to the person on the street.

And of course, climate change issues take on a very strong political aspect because India is a developing nation having to suffer the karma of a few over-developed western countries, in particular the United States. They are facing restrictions when they would like to be catching up with industrialization. Suddenly we have to come up with global policies that apply to all of us. That creates a dilemma for countries like India, because they need more basic goods – not the luxuries of a consumer society.

Through over-usage of natural resources that belong to the whole planet, we westerners have now forced certain countries – who actually constitute the majority of the world’s population – into restrictions on their own future. It’s an interesting issue, and one which will challenge India to find new and appropriate solutions. It may not have to go through this greed-driven industrial process and all of its clumsiness. It will probably catapult itself into something much closer to the solution that we’re going to be looking for ourselves.

Alan: That’s certainly a hope shared by many, that we’ll be able to leap-frog everybody up to a post-industrial level. But it seems to me that programs like PeaceTrees and other similar projects are a crucial part of getting there. They do so much more than just plant trees.

Savitra: You know, it took us three and a half years to create an event that happened in two weeks. Having gone to all that effort to bring Soviets and Americans and Indians together, at the end nobody wanted to go home. I asked a young Soviet, Maris, what this meant for him, and he said "You know, these two weeks, I’ll remember them all my life." And finally he said, "I have no words."

That’s how it was for them. I think these young people knew that they had another home now – that "home" is not just a place where they were born, but "home" is the Earth. Auroville is a reminder of that, because it’s a place which stands for all of us, where everybody’s at home. And one day the whole Earth will be that way.

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