Healing the world

Here, we look at some silent eco-warriors who have been striving to conserve the fragile ecosystem of the state.
Healing the world

KOCHI: That Earth, which ancient verses describe as clothed in oceans and with mountains and forests as her body. The one who is worshipped as the divine. The duty it is of her inhabitants to care for her so that she remains vibrant.

Ecology is a symbiotic setup. And the world is realising that no matter how great the technical advances, earth’s inhabitants are dependent on the health of ecosystems for survival.

In December 2022, the world congregated to adopt the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework aka The Biodiversity Plan – a global effort to reverse whatever we have lost to indiscriminate gnawing at the roots of nature.

May 22 is observed as the International Day for Biological Diversity and, this year, the theme is ‘Be part of the Plan’, a clarion call to local participation to work towards a healthier earth.

Here, we look at some silent eco-warriors who have been striving to conserve the fragile ecosystem of the state. They care for nature, just as it cares for us.

The tree doctor

It all started with the sight of a raintree burning as he travelled to his mentor’s place in Aluva, where he was to participate in a meeting to save Kerala’s rivers. Watching the flames scorch the tree’s trunk, he flinched as if he could feel its pain. “I asked my mentor, Prof S Seetharaman, what needed to be done.

He told me to douse the fire with water – he gave me a bucket of water with some herbs mixed in it,” recalls Binu K, a UP school teacher from Kottayam. “He then asked me to wrap the scorched part with a cloth. After some days, the tree fully healed.” Binu was fascinated by the science, and there began his journey as a Vrikshayurveda physician. “I delved into Vrikshayurveda texts. Trees and plants also are susceptible to ailments. I found the healing process to be similar to the way a human is treated,” he says. “Almost all acharyas such as Charaka, Sushruta, and even Vatsyayana have recorded this.”

Binu and his team have treated about 200 trees across Kerala. His venture in Thiruvananthapuram in reviving a tree jasmine (Indian cork tree) near Saphalyam complex was a major success, with flowers in full bloom now. His next project near Agasthyarkoodam is to help retain old trees even as construction works progress. Many laurels have come Binu’s way, and a film (‘Adachayi’) has him playing the eco-warrior he is.

A forest in her backyard

One sapling, every day, for decades. This has been Kollakkayil Devaki Amma’s routine after a car crash changed her life. During long walks around her home at Muthukulam in Alappuzha, Devaki Amma began planting trees – not only as a way to heal from the memories of the accident but also to engage in an activity she loved: farming.

Now, her 5-acre plot has transformed into a vibrant micro-forest, home to over 3,000 trees. It is also a sanctuary for various birds including Amur falcons, bluethroats, black-winged stilts, paradise flycatchers, and emerald doves. The 90-year-old’s backyard – now called Kollakal Thapovanam – is a thriving ecosystem. It’s no wonder then that this woman-made forest has been attracting a large number of students, researchers, and tourists.

“My mother continues this routine even today,” says Devaki Amma’s daughter D Thankamoney, who’s a former environment engineering professor at CET, Thiruvananthapuram. “Today, Kollakal Thapovanam stands as a reminder of how individual actions can have a profound impact on the environment.” Devaki Amma, who has difficulty speaking due to age-related ailments, has been honoured with several awards, including the Nari Shakti Puraskar and Vrikshamitra Award, among others. Recently, her life story was captured in the documentary ‘Amma Maram (Mother Tree)’, Notably, last year, a National Biodiversity Board, after a visit to Kollakal Thapovanam, recommended turning the place into a Biodiversity Heritage Site.

Sacred service

P K Ramachandran’s life has been deeply intertwined with nature. He grew up on the premises of the four-acre Ponnakkudam Kavu, a centuries-old sacred grove owned by his family at Thevakkal in Ernakulam. “Back in the day, to avoid any human disturbances, forests were given the tag of a sacred grove. Attaching religious connotation was key to conservation,” says Ramachandran, former district coordinator of Kerala State Biodiversity Board.

The 70-year-old, who has been a guiding force behind the grove’s conservation, reminisces about his childhood connect with nature, which eventually inspired him to become a botanist. “As kids, we used to play with monkeys near the grove, and rush back to our homes once the mooted wood owl arrived on the scene. We were terrified by the bird,” he smiles. Currently, the grove is home to 398 plant and 63 bird species. Ramachandran’s conservation activities have also managed to sustain around 19 of the IUCN red-listed plants, including vella pine and cherumaram (Holigarna grahamil).

Researchers and students visit the grove for academic purposes, and workshops and seminars are held to impart knowledge on biodiversity. “Not everyone who comes here leads conservation efforts. But I believe it’s great if we can inspire others. Even small changes can make a big difference,” he says.

Sea saviour

His wait has all the elements that an expectant mother has towards her to-be-born child. “I haven’t slept for the last 41 days since the turtles came ashore to hatch their eggs. We have made a nest for them and they may come out any time soon,” says fisherman Ajith Shankhukham about the olive ridley sea turtles that have been cared for by him on the Shankhumukham beach in Thiruvananthapuram.

He laments that these turtles do not receive sufficient attention in Kerala, considering the stardom they have in the ecology world. “Elsewhere, they are treated with much care. So, this time, we took up the case. We are caring for them and once the eggs hatch, we will personally take them to the sea,” he gushes with anxiety-laced excitement. Ajith’s trust with marine ecology has not been this alone; his work for whale sharks has been commendable, having saved about 22 of those titans from washing ashore and perishing.

“I started off with the whale shark during my fishing expeditions, when the mammals used to get entangled in our nets. At times, the rescue efforts have gone as long as 18 hours in mid-sea,” he says. “My efforts are for the health of the sea, for posterity as well as for Mother Nature who has given us so much. I am grateful that my work is backed by the Wildlife Trust of India.”

Urban crusader

Study the trees of Kochi. That one wish of Aswathi Jerome became a small – but important – green movement. It was Covid time, and people were indoors, when she decided to study the trees around her.“And I didn’t want all the information I collected to remain in my notebook,” says Aswathi, a research scholar. So, she started the Insta page Trees of Cochin, which details the familiar trees around the city, their location, characteristics, flowering season, fruit season, and the squirrels who live there…. She details them through pictures and tidbits of text.

Within a year, the idea grew to tree walks, nature workshops and more. “When you get to know someone, you start caring about them. It is the same principle. The trees and the ecology around them are always like background elements for us. But when you pay attention, and get to know the trees, you will start loving them,” Aswathi smiles. ‘A Walk in the Neighbourhood’ is one of her pet projects, which was also part of the previous edition of the Kochi Biennale.

In these walks, she takes small groups to places like the Children’s Park, where they discuss the local biodiversity and the nature of human interaction with it. “I am not an activist,” she asserts, and requests TNIE that this article be more about Trees of Cochin than her. She just wants to make people, especially children, care about nature. “Let’s hope we will have a generation that would think twice before axing a tree down,” she says.

Welded to nature

His silhouette emerges as the sun rises in the backdrop of the Vellayani lake in Thiruvananthapuram every morning. On his jugaad hand-pedalled boat, Binu Punchakkari would traverse the length of the second largest freshwater lake in the state, collecting plastic and the wastes dumped indiscriminately over the lake. “I started this daily routine during the Covid lockdown times. So far, I have scooped out over 1,400kg of plastic and other waste from the lake,” says Binu, who is a welder by profession.

“It hurts to see how people are so little for the very nature that sustains them.” Cruising on his self-made boat, Binu has also been striving to clear the lake of the invasive species Salvinia auriculata aka ‘African payal’, which, actually, has American origins. Binu wishes that he be given the full-time work of being able to take care of the lake. “The authorities employ contractors for cleaning up the African payal.

The team will only discard the plants on the banks of the lake, rather than curb its spread. If given the responsibility and support, I will launch myself into caring for the lake all through my life. I grew up here, this is my land. It hurts to see the lake turn into a dumping yard,” he says. “The quantity of coliform bacteria and microplastics has crossed the limits, and soon the Vellayani will be another Parvathy Puthanar, a drain.”

Compiled by Aparna Nair with inputs from Krishna P S, Ronnie Kuriakose and Mahima Anna Jacob

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