Clean Tech

They brought the desert back to life

Preeti Mehra | Updated on August 25, 2020 Published on August 25, 2020

Maruvan is a project in progress

The Maruvan project strives to rejuvenate an arid stretch of the Marwar region in Rajasthan

The parched earth, the cracked dry soil and jaded brown shrubbery did not deter the resolve of this bunch of youngsters to reforest the arid terrain of the Thar desert. For them, the challenge was to restore the lost native habitat of the Marwar region of Rajasthan. Part of the social enterprise, Afforestt, which has been foresting urban and rural pockets since 2011, they were keen to experiment in a region less trodden, even if it meant reclaiming the traditional vegetation of the desert “one patch at a time”. “The desert is a very misunderstood ecosystem. It is delicate, beautiful and comprises slow growing trees, several kinds of grasses, a variety of scrubs and many wild animals. But unfortunately, Rajasthan has always been considered a dry State and no one has considered foresting it,” says Gaurav Gurjar, who leads the Maruvan project in Jodhpur district, which hopes to restore the native forests by developing patches using the Miyawaki technique of rejuvenation.

Afforestt’s founder, Shubhendu Sharma, was introduced to this method by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki when he came to create a forest at the Toyota factory in Bengaluru where Sharma worked as an engineer. The technique involves creating vegetation on degraded land based on the native varieties of plants that traditionally grew in the landscape and planting them in original ratios and sequences. Miyawaki propagates the creation of multilayer forests and rewilding the organic biodiversity ecosystem of an area. This helps to mitigate the devastating impact of climate change.

Work started after Gurjar managed to identify the land that they could use for the experiment. “The land that we chose has its own symbolism. Situated close to the Luni river, it sits in Peshawas village in the same zone where in 1730 AD a conservation movement — the Chipko andolan — took place. Similar to the Chipko movement, here over 300 Bishnoi tribals laid their lives to save the Khejri trees, which are revered and considered the life force of the ecosystem,” says Gurjar who belongs to Jodhpur and firmly respects the community laws concerning the felling of trees.

In search of sweet water

The next step was to create a vital sweet water source in this essentially saline land. The team found out that this area in the flood plains had several wells and grew crops once upon a time. But flash floods in the 1970s destroyed the entire region and buried villages, animals, and water sources. Gurjar learnt that there was a well on their land, but his team was unable to locate it.

So, they used traditional methods and hand-dug a 22 ft deep and 10 ft in radius sajja ka kuan, a traditional well, plastered with lime, that stored sweet water. They also designed a network of ponds and canals and before long water bodies and a rain harvesting system was in place. It is now so full of water that it attracts migratory birds. Before planting the forest, the team removed a foreign plant prosopis juliflora, locally known as Bavaliya (meaning literally, ‘the mad one’ as its spread is unstoppable) that had been planted by the rajas (kings) of yore. Once this was done, grasses grew back on the land.

“Soon we saw the arrival of the weaver bird, and today we can see strings of their nests. The locals say the bird had disappeared for many decades,” says Gurjar.

Maruvan is a project in progress. Sharma and Gurjar hope to showcase what a natural and native forest looks like. Helped by local villagers who are the knowledge source of the desert and skilled in local customs, the team is setting up a seed bank and a functional nursery of native plants that could help others interested in rewilding the region. Maruvan has also been turned into a Section 8 not-for-profit company so that it can take on many projects of training people in the Miyawaki method and greening more and more desert patches. In fact, the first forest patch in Maruvan was planted by a 17-member team from Netherlands that came to train in the technique. The second was planted by volunteers from the Guru Nanak Sacred Forests Project that came to learn the method.

Maruvan is a personal and internal project of Afforestt, which at last count has created 138 urban forests in 44 cities in 10 countries. The philosophy of the company is to share its learnings and remain an integrated open source model. “The goal is not only to create a forest and restore biodiversity but also to build a research centre for reforestation,” concludes Sharma.

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Published on August 25, 2020
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