Turning a scrubland green

Agastya Innovation Foundation campus in Kuppam, once a barren patch of land, is now full of flower- and fruit-bearing trees. Systematic planning helped, says M.A. Siraj

In just around 20 years, this desolate patch of land has turned sylvan. Around the turn of the century, when Agastya Innovation Foundation chose a piece of land in Kuppam to set up its campus, it was scrubland interspersed with rocky outcrops. It had no trees and did not support any animal life. Around 310 days of annual sunblast would reduce the sparse vegetation to a mass of wickerwood.

It was in 1999 that the Foundation acquired the 172-acre land in Kuppam to set up a centre for training teachers of government schools and bring in students for experiential learning. The undulating terrain had virtually no source of water except groundwater which was available at a depth of 700 feet. The Foundation began with systematic study of the terrain, water sources and flora and fauna. The area perched at an altitude of around 3,000 feet (above sea level) used to have an annual precipitation of 85 cm. Nothing grew there. It was virtually shorn of trees. The British had denuded it of trees for timber required for use at the gold mines in nearby KGF, their bungalows and residential quarters for workers.

The Foundation, with advice from environmentalist Yellappa Reddy, several scientists from the Indian Institute of Science and botanists, began the work around the turn of the century by planting nearly one lakh saplings. It created 22 check dams, eight percolation pits and a surface tank and installed four borewells. Semi-circular saucer-shaped depressions were laid around the saplings once they had been firmly rooted. They could thus trap nearly 30 per cent of the rainwater which enabled the roots to spread laterally as well as vertically, thereby allowing more water to seep into the ground. Most roads within the premises were left unmetalled in order to maximise water percolation into the ground.

Trees of keystone species such as Neem, Peepal, Red Sanders, Jamun, Bamboo, Flame of the Forest (Butea monosperma), Honge or Indian Beech tree (Pongamia pinnata) and other endemic species were introduced to attract fructivorous (fruit-eating) birds from the region. Over the next decade the Foundation created several thematic gardens such as Gayatrivana, Pancha Valkala, Shabari Vana, Siddhavana, Ganeshavana, Panchavati, and Balavana, each planted with trees of specific properties such as ornamental, medicinal, aromatic, detoxifying and timber-yielding. Area around the ‘Saraswathikund’ has been planted with trees that cleanse air. This approach of working from the perspective of the larger ecosystem has yielded encouraging results with considerable area now being under the canopies of trees. Recollects Srinivas, who has been here since 2002, when he joined he would find no shaded space to park his vehicle.

Recalls Mr. Reddy, who took a team of Bangalore Environment Trust members on a visit prior to COVID-19 lockdown, the area was barren and supported no vegetation. Over the last two decades, efforts to regenerate nature have borne fruit and turned it green. It now hosts 600 plant species. Study finds that it has 16 species of amphibians; 21 species of reptiles; 103 species of butterflies; and, 55 species of rare spiders including the social spider which are found only in Africa and India. Of the 152 species of birds spotted across the gardens, 20% are migratory which have made it a stopover on their flight path. Honeybees and bumblebees can be found hovering all over the place.

In the drive to make the campus self-sustainable, solar panels and wind turbines have been installed which currently supplement the power needs. Water heaters draw power from renewable sources alone. Most saplings are irrigated with drip irrigation network. Dry leaves are composted to turn into manure. Dung from the cattle shed on the campus is fed into a gobargas plant which produces enough gas for the canteen. Slurry from the plant comes handy as manure for the vegetable gardens.

Latest study of the nearly two-decade effort reveals that groundwater can now be struck at a depth of 250 feet within the area whereas the water is available only at around 700 feet in areas beyond the campus. The canopies of the grown-up trees currently provide shade to nearly 29% of the area of the campus. Monsoon showers coax grass all over the place while summers herald blooming of Flame of the Forest trees. Occasionally, geckos, hares, wolves and serpents are spotted around the place.

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