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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 6 Issue 3 Highlights

 

FEATURE ARTICLE 2

Save The Planet And See The World

We are very fortunate to have a growing number of contributors from across the globe who are introducing us to unique places on our planet - places that offer potential voluntourists the best of both worlds - volunteering and touristic engagement. Enhanced by incredible learning opportunities, these 'destinations' expand our awareness of subjects like sustainability and living in harmony with nature, while simultaneously encouraging us to broaden our personal capacities. Auroville is one of the places to be added to any voluntourists 'must-go-there-list' and freelance journalist Dharmalingam Vinasithamby gives us a close up that you are likely not soon to forget!

Introduction

A little town in Tamil Nadu, India, is attracting a new kind of traveller – the volunteer tourist. Instead of lazing on the beach, shopping or touring historical sites, many of the visitors to Auroville, 160km south of Chennai,  spend their time working on the earth’s environmental problems. The streets of the town are filled with people from all over the world involved in projects ranging from reforestation to sustainable farming.

Auroville was set up by the followers of the late Indian philosopher Aurobindo with the backing of Indian government. The “universal town” has a population of about 2,000 people from more than 30 nations. Despite its other-worldly aura of spirituality,  it is also involved in more practical and innovative pursuits. Prominent among them is its forestation work. The town lies in a region which was once a verdant Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF) but is now a desert ridden with gullies and ravines. Since it was founded in 1968, its residents have reforested more than 800 hectares of the township’s 2,000 hectares of land and turned them into an oasis for many TDEF species of plants and animals. They have also set up organic farms to feed their community and in the process are pioneering in sustainable farming methods.  

The projects are carried out by a loose coalition of self-supporting groups with their own sources of expertise, manpower and funding from around the world. Other similar groups are also doing innovative work related to architecture, building materials, business, culture, education, health care and waste-water treatment.

Most of the volunteers work at the forestry and farming projects, which provide lodging and meals in exchange for labour and a small financial contribution. (A bonus: as most projects have two days off a week, volunteers can do day trips to the many famous temple towns nearby.) The volunteers I met when I visited Auroville early this year were mainly young men and women from Germany, France, India, Britain and the US, as well as a few from Israel, Nepal, Taiwan and Japan. Some were back packers sojourning for a week or two, others planned to be there for as long as six months.

Sadhana Forest

The project with the most volunteers – about 150 – is Sadhana Forest. Set up by Mr Aviram Rozin, 44, a burly former medical appliance supplier from Israel, its aim is to turn 28 hectares of arid land into a forest.  When he and wife Yorit began work in 2003, nothing would grow there except the most hardy weeds. Today, 17 hectares are covered with saplings watered, weeded and cared for daily by a team of volunteers. They also dig ditches and build bunds to trap rain water and reverse the process of desertification.  As a result, the water table, which was 8 metres below ground level in 2003, has risen to 1.8m below ground level.

The scale of the project and its pioneering spirit are impressive. To get there, I took an auto-rickshaw down an unpaved road.  A long and bumpy ride later, I arrived at the project headquarters – a palatial hut on stilts, built from local materials. Granite pillars formed the legs. The walls were of bamboo and twine. Topping them all was a high and peaked double roof – the inner one of woven coconut palm leaves and the outer one of elephant grass. I climbed a bamboo ladder and entered the main hall, about 100 square metres in size. The floor felt like it was on springs. It was covered with reed mats, providing comfortable seating for about 300 people. Sunlight entered through chinks in the wall, suffusing the interior with a dim light. Ladders led up to a second level along the sides of the hut to the project office and rooms for staff children. A naked toddler swung blissfully in a hammock in a corner. The thought struck me that this would make a great prop for a Tarzan movie.

Mr Aviram showed us the residential zone - a dozen smaller huts with braided rope beds and hammocks that serve as dormitories, a community kitchen, composting toilets and arrays of solar panels that provide power for lighting, computers and a wi-fi system. We walked out to some plots where trees were being planted. Mr Aviram outlined the project’s strategies: tree planting, water conservation and environmental education. About 22,500 trees of 160 different TDEF species have been planted and 90 per cent have survived. The key has been the water conservation plan.  “If you start the project with planting, it’s actually quite useless,” said Mr Aviram. “It’s a waste of time and energy. What you need to do is to stop the water runoff; first, to enable vegetation to grow, and second, to recharge the water table.”

When the project started, the runoff was almost 100 per cent. Without top soil and vegetation, the earth was hard and could not absorb or retain water. During the monsoons, water would rush down the gullies and canyons. His team came up with a master plan using simple earthen dams to check the water flow and turn some canyons into catchment ponds. Trenches would link these to each other and to bunded areas where trees were to be planted. The plan is being implemented in stages as and when funds permit and in many areas the runoff is almost nil, he said.

Getting There

Accommodation

Sightseeing

To get villagers to support the project by not felling trees or letting cattle graze among them, the volunteers try to create awareness about the history of the land, how it became a desert and the steps taken to replant it. On some days, they go out to the villages nearby to interact with people, share ideas and take part in activities such as a village cleanup campaign. They also involve children and have a garden at Sadhana Forest planned and planted by them.

Mr Aviram said the project welcomes volunteers of all ages and physical abilities, including families with children. There are about 30 people who plan to work for three years and a floating population of about 120 others who spend two weeks to a month or more.

Project workers lead a disciplined life. They rise early and spend up to four hours a day planting trees, caring for them and working in the project’s vegetable garden. In the process, they learn about plant nursery, contour bunding, organic gardening, building and installing fences, composting and soil management. Then there are domestic chores: cooking, washing dishes, cleaning communal areas and so on.

The diet is vegan. “We don’t consume anything from animals – no milk, no honey, fish and meat, and non-violence is a major part of our project – between ourselves, between the people, towards nature, towards animals,”  said Mr Aviram. Producing non-vegan food requires lots of land and is  inconsistent with the group’s vision of greening the planet, he said.  Consuming drugs and alcohol is  also forbidden, even outside the project area.

The volunteers seemed enthusiastic, relishing the sense of being part of a significant mission and the camaraderie of the large and diverse group. The community life is vibrant, with yoga and Tai Chi classes for those interested and Friday night celebrations with music, food and movies at the main hut. Bicycles and mopeds are available for those who want to spend an evening out at Pondicherry, about 10 km away.

Organic Farms

Auroville’s farming projects provide an environment-friendly alternative to the approaches of large-scale commercial agriculture as well as village farms. There are 14 such projects covering around 160 hectares of land.

Among those that take in volunteers is the Buddha Garden community farm. Set up by British-born Priya Vincent in 2000, the 5-hectare farm grows vegetables, cashews and fruit and rears chickens for egg production.  It includes a Centre for Sustainable Farming, which provides information and research services for local farmers and holds courses for visitors, students and professionals.

Ms Priya, who is in her sixties, says the problem with modern agriculture is that it views the earth as a commodity.  “The connection to nature is lost and we move to a mechanical way of farming, using more and more fertilizers and pesticides, which have a negative impact on the environment and lead to the degrading and loss of soil,” she said. “In some large farms, a computer programme tells the farmer what he has to do every day. He loses his link to nature and his ability to work with nature.”

The challenge for sustainable farms is surviving in the market place. “Government subsidies have introduced distortions that make it difficult for the farmer,” she said. “For example, free electricity and free seeds mean villagers can produce vegetables and sell them for below the real cost of production, depressing prices for the farmer. Subsidies for buying cows, for example, have resulted in many villagers buying cows and sending them out to graze. The cows invade farms and eat up the produce. The villager sells its milk at low prices because he does not pay to feed it.”

Auroville farms struggle to make it financially, she said. Many diversify into related activities such as food processing, running restaurants and holding educational programmes on farming.

Buddha Garden, for example, holds tours, workshops and other educational programmes. “We have a weekly Monday morning course on sustainable agriculture for visitors. Groups will come and ask us for courses. We have schools which bring students on trips to the farm,” said Ms Priya. “We also have university interns who come to do their research at our Centre for Sustainable Farming and we supervise their activities and get some fees in the process.”

Her team consists of three other permanent staff and a few volunteers. One is an intern from Agro ParisTech doing her diploma in Agronomy. She is doing her research at Buddha Garden during her six-month stint and helps out with the farm work as well.

One advantage of volunteering at Buddha Garden is that it provides enough free time for those planning to take part in various courses and events at Auroville. Work begins at 6.15am and is finished by 10am, Monday to Friday. Volunteers are served breakfast on those days; cooking facilities are provided for them to make their own meals at other times.

The Zen Approach To Farming

Solitude Farm also takes volunteers. It produces millet, rice, lentils, oilseeds, fruit and vegetables and rears cows and chickens. British-born Krishnan McKenzie, 37, started the 2.4-ha farm in 1996. His inspiration is the late Masanova Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and author of One Straw Revolution, which advocates a natural “do nothing” way of farming. The approach is holistic, paying attention to all the complexities of plant life and to how a plant or organism can relate to another. The farmer’s role is to go with the flow of nature, letting it do as much of his work as possible and using its seasonal changes to advantage. “We believe Nature is perfect,” says Mr Krishnan.  “We try to be gentle with Nature and mimic its methods.”

While most village farmers grow just one crop per plot, he grows several different crops in the same patch either at the same time or in relays, matching plants that complement one another so that a synergy develops.

He shows a patch with a mix of long and short duration crops. “This is a banana line and we’ve also put corn,” he says. “There are also beans. We have a long-duration tree of pomelo, banana and papaya. Then you’ve got lentils climbing up the tree, snake gourd climbing up the branches and the corn. You’ve got beans growing up the bananas. You’ve got tomatoes on the side. You’ve got some sunflower, some capsicum. So there’s quite a lot of diversity.” This permaculture approach, which requires careful thought about the duration, size and the physiology of the plants, gets more out of the land, he says.

Dharmalingam Vinasithamby

The farm sells its produce to shops in Auroville or directly to residents who contract to buy a certain quantity of whatever is grown at a fixed price for a certain period. Solitude also cooks and serves some of the produce in its restaurant, which is patronised by residents and visitors to Auroville.

Mr Krishnan runs the farm with his wife Deepa and about 20 volunteers. Their daily routine involves nursery work, transplanting, planting and harvesting, as well as other tasks such as maintaining communal spaces. He is looking for more volunteers interested in sustainable farming and who would enjoy community life and would be willing to work with them for between one and six months.

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