Back in 1989, the area near Chennakothapalli village of Anantapur (the second driest area in India) in Andhra Pradesh was a wasteland.
Till C K Ganguly (Bablu) and Mary Vattamattam chanced upon it in 1991 and saw its immense potential to blossom into a green paradise. The couple, along with friend John D’Souza, then bought 32 acres of this barren land. Inspired by Japanese author Masanobu Fufuoka’s seminal book on natural farming The One-Straw Revolution, they began to plant trees regularly and help the land regenerate itself. Along with like-minded friends, they began to nurture a dream of transforming it into a green agro forest. The couple named the land Timbaktu. In Telugu it means Sarihaddu Rekha—the last horizon where the earth meets the sky.
“We adopted the approach of natural regeneration with minimal interference,” says Bablu (57), who studied commerce at Bangalore University and worked as a political and theatre activist for 12 years.
Soon they formed the Timbaktu Collective, an NGO, to empower villagers in the area. The scanty rainfall set their agenda for restoration or creation of new rainwater-harvesting structures. “We tried to solve the issue through watershed development work in 14 villages and by constructing and repairing 260 water bodies through governmental scheme Food for Work,” says Bablu, chairman of the Collective.
“We began by constructing small earthen bunds and small rock-filled check dams,” says Bablu. Water-harvesting trenches were dug in the revenue wastelands belonging to Kogira, Kambalapalli and Shyapuram villages of Roddam Mandal and Mushtikovela, Subbarayunipalli and Guvvalagovindampalli villages of Chennakothapalli mandal. This was taken up in the Kalpavalli area.
“The idea was to plug the gullies so as to reduce the run-off and get as much water as possible to stay on the land and percolate into the soil. Later, bigger check-dams and rock-filled dams were built to save as much rainwater as possible. Today, the main check dam of Timbaktu holds water almost 3-5 months after the monsoon,” says Bablu.
What initially started with 32 acres of barren land has now spread to over 2,800 hectares (covering seven villages) of wasteland that has been regenerated into a forest.
Timbaktu is also famous for its use of clean energy and organic farming. Currently, around 1,190 families grow organic food on 3,570 acres of land. “The farmers had adapted dryland technique for cultivation of millets. Slowly they realized they were taking loans for pesticides and fertilisers. After we showed them the potential of organic farming, they have started growing millets, castor, corn, red gram, green gram, pulses and groundnut with organic inputs produced locally,” says Bablu. The area relies completely on solar power supplemented by a generator for emergencies. Lanterns provide light during the night.
Timbaktu has initiated a farmers’ marketing organisation as well—the Dharani Farming and Marketing Mutually Aided Cooperative that buys the organic produce and sells it. The profits go to the farmers. Products by brand Timbaktu Organic are available at various outlets in Andhra Pradesh, Bengaluru and Chennai.
“Instead of conventional farmers receiving subsidies for applying chemicals, organic farmers need to receive incentives for safeguarding their soils. This will offset some of the costs that they bear because their product is by definition more perishable than products preserved using chemicals,” Bablu explains. “Ultimately, even increased doses of chemical fertilisers fail to compensate for a well-nourished soil. This leads to crop failure and ultimately despairing farmers. In the last decade, nearly 700 farmers in Anantapur committed suicide,” he says.
The Collective also has a retreat for visitors made of uniquely designed mud huts. Thatched huts with walls painted in cheery hues of white, blue, red and green overwhelm one with their simplicity. At mealtimes, you see young and old sit together on stone benches around a huge tree, savouring the simple fare of rice, organic dals and vegetables. After the meal is over, people wash their utensils themselves. The word organic is taken quite seriously here as even the soap used is made of alum.