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The Auroville Forest
The 3000 acres of land of the international township of Auroville, founded in 1968 by the Mother as an experiment in human unity and unending education, are spread out in a patchwork pattern interspered with temple and village land, fields and plantations, over an area of some twenty square kilometers. Auroville is located on the Coromandel coastal plains in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. The Auroville area is on a plateau with a maximum elevation of 52 meters above sea level at Matrimandir and the adjacent Banyan tree – the geographical center of the township – from where it slopes down to the coast 5 kilometers to the east and to the heavier alluvial soils to the west.
Seasonal rainfall patterns are experienced, with the S.W. monsoon from June to September and the N.E. monsoon from mid-October to mid-December.The average yearly rainfall is 1256mm and the maximum and minimum temperatures are 37.6°C, 18.8°C.
Imagine a forest, hot and humid that maintains shade on the ground all year round, even though the rains are only present for less than six months. Imagine that the climax state of this forest is a matrix of over 200 species of trees, shrubs and lianas. Imagine the myriad of faunal species that a forest like this would sustain and need in order to function as a complete eco-system. Imagine the excitement and joy of establishing large areas of this forest to form a green belt protection for Auroville, which would act as lungs, control water perculation, protect soil run-off and create a habitable and ecologically sound environment. Imagine the challenge to do this work on land which, when Auroville was founded, was but an eroded and degraded plateau. Only occasional palm trees, mangoes, neem, cashew, thorns and a few banyans dotted the vast expanse of red earth scarred by a labyrinth of gullies and ravines caused by the run-off of years of torrential monsoon rain.
With these imagining's, you are glimpsing the vision of the Auroville forest. A forest known as the ?Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest?, which is the indigenous vegetation type of the area Auroville is located. A forest now nearly extinct with no more than 0.5% of it's original area remaining in small fragments rarely more than a few acres each. A forest in which a large percentage of its species have medicinal properties documented in the local traditional health care systems.
The regions forests and scrub jungles have slowly disappeared over the last few centuries due to:
• The clearing and allocation of forest plots for fuel wood, fodder, and cultivation
• Town and village structural development
• Overgrazing by herds domesticated animals
• Introduction of mono-culture cashew plantation
The resulting exposure and onslaught of the monsoon rains lead to the process of top-soil loss and erosion. Inevitably the formation of ravines and canyons occurred.
The first aurovillian settlers came to this eroded plateau in 1968. Most of these early pioneers had little or no experience in ecological restoration, but they had the will, determination and the openness to learn the necessary techniques. The initial tasks were clear, to stop the precious rain water from running into the ocean and to create shade. The settlers built simple huts and bored wells for water, these being powered by handpumps or windmills. Tree pits were dug , seedling nurseries started and saplings went into the ground. They were carefully protected and nurtured. At this stage the knowledge of the local flora was not established so many different types of tree species were planted, but the ones that survived and thrived were a handful of pioneer species, the main one being an exotic tree from Australia, the Acacia auriculiformis, known in Auroville as the 'Work Tree'.
Simultaneously water and soil conservation started and the local watershed patterns were observed. Many bunding grids were established, raised banks of earth following contours or field boundaries designed to contain the rain water where it falls and to control any necessary overflow. This allowed the water to perculate more easily and to stop the erosion caused by the water movement. Checkdams and gully plugs were constructed in the ravines to catch the remaining run-off, and existing catchment ponds were de-silted and enlarged.
By the mid- seventies, with the help of grants and donations the tree planting was intensified. Now alongside the pioneer species, timber, fruit, fodder, cashew, fencing and ornamental species were planted on a large scale. By the late eighties a big difference could be seen in the ecology of the land. A canopy of exotic pioneers had been established, creating shade and the environment for some indigenous plants to regenerate. Due to a ´Zero Runoff´ policy, rain water was being held and was perculating well.
Related video: Jonny talks about Afforestation
Source: A City that the Earth Needs
Introduction of the 'Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest'
By the early nineties the next stage of the work was taking form. A group of budding botanists were in the process of studying and surveying all the remnants of the indigenous flora, this mainly was in Reserve Forests and sacred temple groves. While this work was going on intense seed collection was taking place and experiments on how to germinate these rare and nearly extinct seeds. The result of this was not only a full profile of the hundreds of species which go together to form the TDEF, a herbarium which contained documents and specimen sheets of the flora, but also plant nurseries with tens of thousands of trees, shrubs and lianas of up to 150 different species. An environment had been created under which the indigenous vegetation could now be re-introduced on a large scale creating the long term forest. With the aid of grants, the planting was carried out and since, on average 40,000 indigenous seedlings are planted each year within the Auroville forests with a diversity now reaching 170 different species.
The fauna returns
A noticeable change in wildlife can be observed within the Auroville area. The birds are returning and finding a niche in the new forests and many species of butterflies are now common. Different types of lizards such as the Monitor and the Chameleon can be sighted and help support the increasing population of birds of prey and as many as 19 species of snakes are now considered common including the Indian Spectacled Cobra and the Russell's Viper. Some small mammals are also seen to be living in the Auroville forests including the Mongoose, Wild Hare, Jackel, Civet Cat and Porcupine.
The next challenges
In the new millenium this forest enhancement continues alongside the management of the exotic pioneers to allow this TDEF to establish itself. Already some mature species of shrubs and trees are now regenerating themselves either through wind dispersal or faunal distribution. Also plots of ecologically mananged forest, with the worktree producing timber and fuel wood resource for the community and surrounding villages are established. Longterm indigenous timber forests are also being created. Now the continuing task to take this knowledge outside of Auroville and into the bio-region is considered a priority. It has been some years that water conservation has taken place in the area surrounding Auroville with intense tank rehabilitation, as well as the collection of social and flora information, especially in the field of medicinal plants . Plans are now in process to set-up pockets of TDEF, indigenous medicinal gardens, shared forest management techniques and environmental educational awareness centres within the bio-regional area.