When Auroville began, the area was a barren, eroding plateau with the odd scattered tree and a rapidly expanding network of canyons and ravines. Today the forests and farms in the greenbelt are a testament to the self-healing power of Nature when she is given the right assistance from willing and concerned people. The greening of its landscape is one of the big success stories of Auroville, for which it has received international acclaim.
Brought to this arid land by enthusiasm and faith, the first Aurovilian settlers arrived in 1968. With hot sun and no shade, the initial tasks were clear – to create shade by growing trees and take measures to stop precious rainwater from washing away the top soil and creating gullies, as it ran into the ocean staining the water red during the heavy monsoon rains.
Many of these young pioneers had little or no knowledge or experience of ecological restoration, but they had the will, determination and openness to learn the necessary skills. Holes were dug for trees, seedlings raised in nurseries and, when the rains arrived, saplings planted, to be carefully protected and nurtured through the long, hot dry season.
Many different types of tree species were planted, but not all survived. The ones that did were mainly pioneer species, particularly the Neem tree and an exotic tree from Australia, Acacia auriculiformis, known in Auroville as the “Work Tree”, named as such by Auroville’s founder, the Mother.
Simultaneously, water and soil conservation work started. The local watershed patterns were observed, and bunding grids were established, raised banks of earth following contours or field boundaries.
These were designed to contain the rainwater where it fell, allowing the water to percolate more easily into the ground. Check-dams and gully plugs were constructed in the ravines to catch the remaining run-off, and existing, traditional catchment ponds – the so-called kolams and larger eris – were de-silted and enlarged.
All of these measures helped to stop the erosion previously caused by water movement and, as the vegetation grew, helped Auroville achieve its goal of “zero run-off” of rainwater from the plateau. (This has proven invaluable during the recent floods that affected vast stretches of the Coromandel Coast, while Auroville was able to retain and absorb practically all of the torrential rains.)
By the 1980s, a big difference could be seen in the ecology of the land. A canopy of pioneer species had been established, creating shade and the needed environment for various indigenous plants to be re-established, and rainwater was being held and percolating into the aquifers.
During this time, individuals who were interested in farming in Auroville took into their care whatever land was available (some of it quite unpromising), and started to grow food. They were entirely responsible both for the development of the farm and for supporting themselves from it, using a variety of organic techniques that enabled food to be grown in the generally poor soil and difficult climate of Auroville.
Bringing back the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest
By the early 1990s, the next stage of forest work was taking shape. A group of enthusiastic Aurovilians were studying the botany of the local plants and surveying the rare remnants of this indigenous flora, mostly in Reserved Forests and temple groves. Plants were identified, seeds collected and germination techniques determined, gradually establishing a database for some 300 woody plant species of the almost-vanished local forest type.
On the basis of previously published literature, this forest was recognised as the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF). The result of this work is not only a full profile of the species which together form the TDEF, including their ethno-botanical information, but also a herbarium which contains documents and specimen sheets of the flora, and plant nurseries with tens of thousands of young trees, shrubs and lianas for planting out in the forests every year. Many of these species, some of which are extremely rare, are now well established in the Auroville Green Belt, and some have even begun to produce seeds, ensuring their survival for future generations.
Sustainable Farming takes roots
In the 1990’s, farmers got together to form the Farmgroup which takes collective responsibility for all the participating farms in Auroville. The group serves as a mouthpiece for farmers to the community and a source of support for its members. In 2004, the first farm assessment was undertaken in which farms were documented, and a vision and mission for the future were clarified. This led to the expansion of ‘Foodlink’ as a centre for collection, distribution andpromotion of Auroville farm produce, with some five farms becoming organically certified.
In 2009, in collaboration with the FAMC, the Farmgroup started to examine food security issues in Auroville, and was asked to come up with a five-year Auroville Sustainable Agriculture Plan (ASAP).
This has been a challenge, as a plan for Auroville must not only take into account possible future realities (such as climate change and increasing population pressures) but must function in a way that protects the inner and outer freedoms from which the new spiritual consciousness will arise.
The aim of this five-year plan was to provide a strategy for what needs to be done to create a sustainable food system to increase Auroville’s food security in the next five years and beyond. Since then the number of Auroville farms has risen to over twenty, and the problems with water have become more pressing.
Present Manifestation: What has been achieved
Biodiversity: As the forests have grown and become more diverse, wildlife has returned. The number of species of birds has increased from around 30 in the early years to over a hundred today. Butterflies, moths and other insects are taking advantage of the newly-introduced plants as sources of food, and so their diversity has also increased. Many different types of reptile can be sighted, including the Monitor Lizard, Chameleon, Starbacked Turtle and Star Tortoise. As many as 19 species of snake are now considered common, including the Indian Spectacled Cobra and Russell’s Viper. Mammals have also prospered, with increased populations of Mongoose, Black-naped Hare, Civet Cat, Porcupine, and even the shy Spotted Deer has been sighted in the Auroville Forests.
Food sustainability: In addition modest quantities of milk, dairy products (like curd, cheese, paneer, butter and ghee) and freerange eggs, Auroville farms today are producing over 40 types of fruits, various types of dried fruit, 45 different vegetables, and a good variety of other food items such as rice, different millets and grams (lentils), corn, cashews, peanuts, sesame, 3 vegetable oils, chili, dill, mustard, and more. Although this list is quite impressive, the amount of most products falls short of Auroville’s actual needs. In fact, it is estimated that Auroville is still only able to meet around 15-20% of its total food needs, while the rest is the purchased in outside markets. One of the reasons for this is that the majority of Aurovilians prefer to eat what cannot be grown here – vegetables like onions, carrots, potatoes, broccoli and cabbage which don’t grow in its climate and soil, and others such as tomatoes and lettuce that only grow in the cool season.
Safeguarding the Greenbelt for the Future
In the last two decades the greenbelt has come under increasing pressure from outside influences such as the spreading urbanisation from nearby Puducherry and Kalapet. With a low population density in the greenbelt, there has been an increasing amount of land encroachment, especially on small and unconnected plots. Land is also increasingly being bought up by speculating developers who turn the plots into housing estates, using the greening of Auroville as a unique selling point for potential customers.
With the land in the greenbelt being very variable, the potential for different plots in terms of its use for farming, forest, water percolation and other functions is not always clearly known. A new vision for the greenbelt is presently being developed, which will show more clearly which of its parts are most vital for protecting the natural resources like water and soil, crucial to the future development of Auroville and its bioregion.
Protecting the greenbelt and safeguarding its natural resources on which we all depend, is today one of Auroville’s most urgent priorities. A range of possible ways of achieving this are currently under discussion. A good collaboration with the villages within and near the greenbelt, a jointly developed, far-seeing land-use plan, and Auroville’s ownership of ecologically important parts of the land in the greenbelt are key elements for its sustainable future!