The budding forests around Timbaktu were not what they are today. There were barely any trees in Timbaktu or the hills that surround it. The soil in the area is highly degraded, calcified and compacted making it difficult for anything to grow. This combined with very low rainfall makes it a challenge and an opportunity to demonstrate, to the people in the area, what concerted conservation efforts can do. We adopted the approach of natural regeneration with minimal interference, a Permaculture philosophy. This involved protecting the area from too much human interference while allowing the ecosystem to repair itself.
The hills surrounding Timbaktu is notified as a Reserve Forest. Yet in 1991, when the first herbarium was prepared there were only 23 species of trees, grass, bushes and grasses. The spread was very sparse and plants quite unhealthy like the soil. By 1996/97, when the next herbarium was prepared, 320 species had established themselves – a tribute to Nature’s capability to regenerate herself. Today some parts have become so dense that one can barely walk through. In some places the trees have grown to 50 to 70 feet height and there is a profusion of grasses during the monsoon season. There are a variety of birds, animals, and insects as never before.
How it was done
The first step was to protect the soil and plants in Timbaktu by temporarily fencing it with thorn bushes, to keeping sheep, goats and cattle out. In the process the members of the community at Timbaktu realized that in order to make real regenerative development possible, they also had to protect the surrounding hills. These hills have been, officially, under the protection of the forest department since 1929. However, this was never seriously enforced and tree felling and grazing was rampant. The members of the Timbaktu community, therefore, started policing the hills and explained their efforts to trespassers. They were able to stop grazing to a great extent and tree cutting almost totally.
Every year, fires burn the hills of Anantapur District, causing great damage to the flora and fauna of the what remains of the forests. Most of the fires are caused by humans. Sometimes the shepherds start fires, so that with the first rains the grasses come back soon. Oftentimes it could be a still smoking cigarette / beedi butt carelessly thrown. These fires make it very difficult to regenerate the forests. In the beginning the members of the Timbaktu community used to run up the hills, whether in the middle of the night or during high noon in hot summers, to put out any fire that was seen. This was a very difficult task as the fires sometimes raged 15 to 20 feet high with the winds blowing at 20 to 30 kilometers an hour. The only way was to make fire lines i.e. deliberately burn 15 to 20 ft wide lines across the hills like a grid – so that fires would not spread all over uncontrollably. This coupled with awareness building among the villagers helped reduce the menace of fires to a great extent.
Rainwater harvesting and soil conservation
We began by constructing small earthen bunds in and small rock filled check dams all over Timbaktu. The idea was to plug the gullys so as to reduce the run-off and finally to get the water to stay on the land. The best place to store water, after all, is in the ground. Later bigger check-dams and rock-filled dams were built along the larger streams, to save as much rain and soil as possible. Today, the main check dam of Timbaktu holds water almost 3-5 months after the monsoon.
In the last couple of decades, several thousand trees have been planted. Pits are dug, natural manure is applied and better soil is added to the pits, so that the roots of the small plants can establish themselves easier. Each plant is nursed for about 8 months in the nursery in Timbaktu before it is planted. While the survival rate was only about 5 – 10% initially, it has now reached a respectable 85%.
The continued protection and non-disturbance has also enabled the existing plants and grasses to propagate themselves. Clearly, the ecosystem is becoming healthier as newer varieties of trees, shrubs and grasses are springing up on their own as also more and more varieties of birds and animals are returning.
A seed collection centre was established in Timbaktu during 1994/95. On an average about 120 species of important trees, bushes, herbs and grasses were stocked here, initially. The purpose was to store seeds for distribution during the rainy season when seed dibbling is carried out in all the Natural regeneration areas that the Collective is working in. It was also to test out the viability/suitability of various species to the area.
Seed collection is an ongoing process at the Collective and is usually a community effort involving the workers and the children of the school. Most seeds collected are from the trees on hills or nearby forests. Most of these seeds though do not have immediate economic use, contribute significantly to provide green cover for other species to grow.
At Timbaktu there is no discrimination between grasses, shrubs, plants, trees for fuel, trees or timber, exotic trees etc. The Collective believes in the principle of ecological succession in nature which has been observed and much appreciated over the years.
Kitchen gardening and bio-intensive gardening is a regular activity in Timbaktu especially by the children of the residential school. A variety of different vegetables are grown and this is a valuable contribution to the nutrition of the children. Various composting techniques that will suit the area have been followed. This has served as an excellent fertiliser for the fruit trees and vegetable plots in Timbaktu.
The collective has leased a piece of land nearby, where various natural and organic farming practices are being tried out. The Collective believes that their own experiences with alternatives ways of farming and different cropping patterns is necessary. The Collective also wants to and has learnt from the traditional knowledge of the farmers, acquired over many generations, and has developed new approaches together with them.
The results of the efforts of the past couple of decades can easily be observed when one visits Timbaktu. A large number of trees and other plants create a sharp contrast to the barren lands and hills nearby. Even in the summer much of Timbaktu and hills surrounding it retain the greenery and is full of wildlife.
The quality of the soil is slowly improving. The trees grow better now and the types of plants have changed. After an initially drastic increase in the number of different species, the variety of the plants has now stabilised at about 320 species. The groundwater level in the bore wells has risen from initially 50 to 60 feet to 20 to 25 feet presently.
The number and variety of birds has also increased sharply – from about 40 species in 1992/93 to about 240 varieties two decades later. Now there are birds such as the Indian Pitta from the Himalayas, the Paradise Flycatcher, Peacocks and even two types of bulbuls.
13 types of snakes can be found in Timbaktu – the Indian Cobra, the Wolf Snake the Russels Lokukra are quite common. Besides a number of bears, deer and wild boars have made the hills surrounding Timbaktu their home.
The villagers profit now from the ecorestoration efforts of the community at Timbaktu. As many as 400 to 600 bullock carts of grasses are carried out of the hills every year as cattle feed. This is especially important, since there is almost no grass available in other commons nearby during May and June. Plum trees have reappeared and now provide the villagers with some income. Another source of income for the surrounding villages is the broom and the thatching grasses.