The Forest Way

Our primary aim for which we have been working is to bring the forests back on the sacred Arunachala hill and its surrounds which, records show, were once covered in dense forests and were home to elephants, bears and leopards. We have been doing this work since 2003. We have planted more than 250,000 trees over these years and the fruit of our work is for everyone to see – a lush young forest growing back on the hill, return of wildlife – more than 230 species of birds, spotted deer, porcupines, jungle cats, primates and many other species. We have been recording all the biodiversity found here on various forums like – ebird, inaturalist, India biodiversity portal.
We have created and have been running a children’s park and a nature park for people to engage and learn about nature. This is located on land owned by the Government at the foot of the hill but fully maintained by us. This too was begun in 2003. This Park is spread over 25 acres.
We are now in the process of creating two more parks for the public on Government land.
In addition, we run an alternative school called Marudam farm school which is located about 10 kms from Thiruvannamalai town, on a 12-acre organic farm.

Children, parents and teachers often participate in the afforestation efforts

The school is primarily meant for underprivileged children of the neighbourhood though we are open to taking other students who are happy to embrace an ecologically centered curriculum. We have 120 students in our school and 30 teachers/volunteers.

We provide the children with nutritious food which is grown organically on the land – such as rice, millets, vegetables of various kinds. Children participate in the farming and afforesting activities.

We provide support for over 100 families through work generated through afforesting, farming, running the school, creating the parks etc. The people employed are mostly marginalised people.
The afforestation work is divided into a few distinct parts.
1. Planting trees
This is the most obvious part of the afforestation. Every year we start digging pits in spots decided in advance by the team. This happens in a phased manner and is done manually by people, often with over 50 people working on the hill.

Going up the Arunachala Hill with saplings for planting. Several trips are made each day to plant,in order to take advantage of the moisture in the soil
At least 15,000 saplings are planted every year during and after the rains  
The work starts in June with the first rains and can go on for months alternating between pitting and planting. In addition to planting on the hill and surrounds we have also been planting at the higher
ends of traditional waterbodies and on their bunds as well as on village owned community lands wherever the village is ready for such an endeavour. As mentioned earlier around 15000 trees are planted.
The pitting and planting work provides jobs for men and women for a few months and costs approximately 12 lakhs (1.2 million rupees) annually.
2. Fire lines work
Creating and maintaining fire lines is not the obvious part of afforestation but plays a very critical role. Every year we remove grass and other flammable plants at the ground level. We don’t remove woody trees and bushes which are not susceptible to fire.

Removing lemon grass to prevent fires from spreading

These fire lines are 10 metres wide and they criss-cross the hill. We have a few horizontal lines starting from the base of the hill and going right up to the top while the others are vertical lines.
The idea is to contain a fire within a limited area and prevent it from spreading all over. We maintain around 25 kms of firelines annually. These firelines have been critical in safeguarding the young trees and helping to bring the forests back to the hill.
All the work is done manually. The work is done after the last rains of the monsoon and has to be finished before the onset of winter. The grass and plants need to be removed before the soil gets too hard too. This work is very difficult but critical.

A fire-line being made
This work provides employment for about 50 people and costs about 12 lakhs (1.2 million) annually.

3. Fire-fighting work

This is the emergency response to fires which have started either accidentally or intentionally through acts of vandalism or carelessness.
Fires can be caused deliberately or due to very hot and dry weather

We have 4 fire watchers in strategic locations whose job is to intimate us at the earliest signs of a fire. They are paid through the summer months. Obviously the earlier we put out the fire, the easier it is and less the damage.
Beating out the fire

We have fire-fighting teams ever ready to rush to the spot of fire and beat it out. This is a highly skilled operation. There is no fancy fire-fighting equipment, just some cutting tools and tree branches to beat the fire out. In the best cases the fires will be put out within an hour and in the worst cases the fire - fighting can take many, many hours.
Our firefighters are the real heroes who readily take up the work even after a full day’s manual work. In drier years, there can be as many as thirty to forty fires in a single summer.
The approximate firefighting cost per year is 1 – 2 lakhs
4. Seed collection
The nicest part of our afforestation work is the seed collection. This is done on a fortnightly basis all through the year from the nearby forests.
While there are people who are responsible for this activity, many of us join in and take students too as it is a great experience to visit these forests.
  Seed collection  
5. Nursery

Starting from seeds we raise around 30,000 to 40,000 saplings every year. Out of this, 15000 are for planting on the hill and its surrounds. We also provide saplings to other afforestation and tree projects in the rest of the state. We raise saplings of around 180 native species. Some of these are endangered and some even critically endangered. Others are found only in such biomes and are barely propagated by anyone else. There are only a few nurseries who are propagating these native species. We have also been working with other conservation organizations to promote the planting of native species as they create niches to support many other species of fauna.
Drying and processing the seeds in the nursery The nursery has many aspects – to begin with, there is the seed processing and preparation. We have honed our skills in this area through experience and learning from others. The processes are varied and quite species specific.   
Then there is the propagation in the mother bed followed by transferring to packets at the two-leaf stage. From here the saplings are periodically shifted to larger packets and moved around to prevent roots growing into the ground.  
Daily care and careful tending of the more than 20,000 saplings in the nursery
There is a lot of maintenance work in the nursery stage and for this there is a dedicated team of workers employed through the year. The approximate cost incurred in the nursery annually is 11 lakhs (1.1 million) annually.
Check Dams and Water harvesting ponds have been created and maintained to conserve rain water and improve the water table.
Slowing down the flow of water from the Hill  
Existing ponds have been deepened and new ones dug to maximise storage and prevent wastage
Tree planting has enabled percolation of rain water on the Hill. Excess water fills our several large pond. A recent picture of a section of the Arunachala Hill Return of the forest is resulting in the return of some of the once abundant fauna ... Streams continue to flow for months after the rains have gone
The total cost of afforestation with all the above aspects together is around 50 lakhs (5 million rupees).
We have regular supporters who meet about 50 % of this amount. The rest is raised annually through appeals.
Another way of looking at this is that it costs around Rs. 333 to plant a tree on the hill. People can contribute in units of ten trees, one hundred, one thousand, or more trees based on this figure.
Any support for us to continue our work and bring the forests back will be appreciated.