An engineer uses ancient Indian paintings to create an 18-acre oasis in the Thar Desert

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Khejri tree, also known as ghaf, was once found in abundance in Khejarli village and surrounding areas of Rajasthan. The tree has historical significance as it led to the birth of the famous Chipko movement, in which the Bishnoi community fought to stop cutting them.

Despite their efforts, the landscape has changed for multiple reasons, and today the area looks dry and barren with the absence of local tree species that once thrived. The striking difference is evident in ancient folk literature and paintings, which depict the region thriving with local flora and biodiversity. The art even depicts leopards hunting animals like deer and wild boar, among other bird species.

But in 2017, when Gaurav Gurjar and his boss Shubhendu Sharma visited the area, all they could see were vast empty swathes of arid land with minimal shrubs and vegetation. “All we could see was a pair of foxes running past us towards their den. We found the land very saline and the area was infested with invasive Prosopis juliflora species,” he says.

Gaurav Gurjar

However, Gaurav is trying to change the canvas for the better by re-rescuing and restoring the ecosystem to its original glory by planting khejri and other local species.

Create an oasis

The 32-year-old Jodhpur native is an engineer who has chosen to devote his life to environmental causes. “I chose electronic engineering for my specialization, but I quickly realized that it was not my cup of tea. The cause of environmental protection appealed to me more,” he says. The best India.

During his graduation years, between 2009 and 2012, he explored options for working on environmental conservation with NGOs and organizations as a volunteer.

Over the years he has worked to create forests, conserve biodiversity and save snakes. “What was supposed to be a 10 day visit with an NGO in Chennai turned out to be a month and a half stay. During my stay, I also helped research students in their work,” he says.

After graduating, Gaurav fully immersed himself in the environmental sector, traveling across India and learning aspects of natural agriculture and sustainable architecture while working on several projects with experts. in their respective fields.

“I traveled as a backpacker, traded my skills and labor for food and shelter. I lived with the tribals, learning how they followed a sustainable lifestyle using local resources, took courses in building eco-friendly and earthquake-proof houses and restoring forts. I spent months with farmers in Maharashtra, Gujarat and South India who taught me natural and organic farming methods,” he says. .

Gaurav then worked as a consultant for NDTV’s reality show – Godrej Green Champion, focusing on organic farming, mulching and other modern techniques.

Later, he worked with the NGO Swechha, which helped the Delhi government and the US Embassy plant eight mini urban forests.

In 2017, he joined Afforestt Pvt Ltd, based in Bengaluru, which has worked in several areas, such as the establishment of the Miyawaki forest, coordination with the forest department during the census of leopards and tigers and the conservation of rare tree species on the verge of extinction.

Coincidentally, the organization had adopted projects concerning research and development of arid lands and saline lands from Anantapur in Karnataka and from Peshawas to Jodhpur in Rajasthan, respectively.

He then moved from Bengaluru to Jodhpur to begin his land restoration work in Peshawas under the non-profit Maruvan Project. “Dr. Sunil Nahar, who owned the 18 acres of saline land and wanted it to be dedicated to environmental conservation. He wanted to revive the land and dedicate it to creating a safe habitat for deer and other wildlife in the area,” he says.

He inspected the site with Shubhendu and found it a daunting task to revive the land.

“The flash floods and droughts facing the floodplains of the Luni River have eroded the topsoil, rendering it infertile. The arid region had lost cover of native tree species due to erratic monsoons, prolonged droughts, flash floods and excessive sand extraction. Plants could barely survive and animals could not feed on the plains,” he explains.

Adding to their woes, they had no roadmap for understanding the biodiversity that once existed and what steps needed to be taken for restoration.

Maruvan Afforestt Environmental NGO
Pond created at Maruvan.

“Growing a forest on fertile land is doable, but doing the same on arid land requires an innovative approach,” he notes.

Gaurav says his organization decided to take on the challenge as an experimental laboratory to revive the landscape.

“We decided to research and investigate to understand the original native forest and natural vegetation in the area. Planting non-native plant species would not survive and would be dangerous for the environment. It was therefore imperative to identify and restore local biodiversity,” explains the ecologist.

He began to converse with the villagers, taking notes on the sacred groves that once existed in the area. The locals also introduced him to traditional painting and art forms. “

He says: “It was evident that certain species of trees described in ancient art and literature had disappeared. The description of the fauna in pictures proved that the area had dense vegetation allowing the animals to feed and hunt in the bushes.

Based on his observations, he sourced native tree species such as khejri, ingot, khair, kummat, khabar, kankera, peelu, arna, daabi and others.

Later, Gaurav was inspired to source water from traditional water sources such as ponds, wells and lakes. “We created a shallow pond 3 acres wide and 24 feet deep to store rainwater and dug shadow wells adjacent to it. Shallow wells function as a source of fresh water flowing from the pond. But if it is dug deeper, the pond water mixes with saline groundwater, making it redundant,” he says.

After meeting irrigation needs, he and his team members planted native species and used mulching methods to maintain moisture levels in the scorching desert sun. “We implemented natural farming techniques and used jeevamrut, a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, chickpea flour, jaggery and organic matter to improve soil fertility,” says- he.

Today, the 18-acre lot is an oasis with green patches of vegetation ranging from shrubs, grasses, trees and the like. “They hold together without hand watering,” he says.

The earth attracted reptiles and snakes like vipers, cobra and animals like desert cats, leopards, white-footed desert fox, nilgai, wolves and hares. “We also have sightings of pheasants, poultry and weaver birds,” he says.

“Nature is resilient”

Maruvan Afforestt Environmental NGO
Weaver bird in Maruvan.

The first indications of ecosystem restoration are already visible. Citing an example, he says, “When we eliminated the invasive plant species, Dabda grass started to grow naturally on the land. Weaver birds use it to build nests, and since then the bird population has increased in the surrounding area. In addition, the population of foxes and wild boars has also increased.

In 2020, Maruvan separated from Afforestt to become an independent entity. Gaurav and his wife Varsha live on the land and build a sustainable eco-friendly house using lime, mud, indigo and traditional local materials used by locals. The project receives funds from CSR, private donations and help from a network of forest creators.

It follows an open-source philosophy to share knowledge and has no copyrights to its environmental conservation practices. Furthermore, he has helped other social entities to develop such forests in Punjab and the Netherlands.

Pavneet Singh of Eco Sikh Network, a Punjab-based NGO, says, “In 2019, we were inspired by Maruvan and contacted Afforestt for technical advice to create a mini-forest of 550 plants using the Miyawaki technique at Bhatinda. We have seen a 95% survival rate and the forest is thriving. »

Gaurav says overcoming multiple challenges and living in harmony with nature helped him change his outlook on conservation. “I learned that nature can restore itself and is resilient. This was evident with small interventions we put in place, and later nature took its course to develop. Although Peshawa is an arid desert, there is plenty and people have lived for hundreds of years adapting to the environment. Humans should stop destroying biodiversity and live in harmony with nature,” he concludes.

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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