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Lessons on Regeneration: The Timbaktu Collective

Ahead of the Lush Spring Prize 2018, Lush Times reporter Katie Dancey-Downs went to visit one of last year’s winners, The Timbaktu Collective. In a drought-prone area in Andhra Pradesh, Southern India, the Collective is regenerating the land, bringing back wildlife, and restructuring the social systems for the people living and working in the area. From 25 years of experience, this successful regeneration project has a lot to teach the world about the importance of wildlife, what humans can learn from nature, and why places like this need defending.

Lesson one: The importance of regenerating a landscape

“You are now entering wolf country...”

Siddharth Rao, the director of ecology and conservation at the Timbaktu Collective, is on the lookout for wildlife, as he drives through the hillside of one of the Collective’s regenerated landscapes - Kalpavalli - where some 9,000 acres of village commons have been brought back from the brink and given back to nature.

Across the whole of India, there are thought to only be around 2,500 grey wolves. In this regenerated community conservation area, almost at the southernmost extent of the species’s range, there are two breeding pairs. More traditional shepherds have learnt to live alongside wolves, and simply accept the loss of some of their flock - a relationship between humans and effective conservation which Siddharth sees as being important.

“We appreciate nature, we always have, which is why we have these large carnivores running around with one billion people. It’s because there is an inherent tolerance, there is an inherent respect for nature. That is something for which we’re lucky,” he says.

Wolves are not the only animals to call this land home. Siddharth soon spots blackbucks (Indian antelopes) hiding amongst the grassy savannah, planted using grass pelleting and seed bombs. Within a short drive around the land, he spots sparrow larks, a peacock, and a hoopoe with its distinctive crown of black and white feathers. Birds of prey circle the area, and the grassland hides yet more fauna - leopards, snakes, lizards.

Twenty-five years ago, this land was completely degraded from drought and overgrazing. The soil was white, and the few animals still here could clearly be spotted walking on bare hillside. The Timbaktu Collective set about restoring the area, with the help of local communities. Trees and grasses were planted, people learnt how to tackle forest fires, and a huge 650 hectare reservoir now holds water for agriculture.

Rosewood, Acacia and other indigenous trees stand proud in wooded coppices, some hosting enormous nests for birds of prey. Behind every tree is a story. Some were collected as seeds, and started their lives in a nursery at Timbaktu, the organisation’s central base. Trees and seeds were then taken by foot on journeys of at least five kilometers. Next came pots of water balanced on people’s heads, ready to water the saplings. Babies and children were brought along, tools were carried up and down the hills, and the marginalised people living in the region dedicated themselves to regenerating the common land.

After actively encouraging plants and wildlife to return to the land, nature is beginning to look after itself. Birds are spreading seeds, and people are understanding the importance of leaving nature to evolve for itself, or at least to use it in a sustainable manner.

Devoting so much time and energy to such a barren landscape may be unfathomable for some, but for Siddharth, protecting the natural world is a compulsion he cannot deny.

“When you spend a lot of time as a young person being observant, looking at things, looking at birds, or beetles, or swimming, or interacting with the wild - you can’t let it go. It makes the most sense, it’s the most beautiful thing to be around. When you have that, you really have no choice. You want to make sure that it’s there. I don’t have a choice really, I can’t do anything else. I don’t want to.”

Standing at the top of a regenerated hilltop, with 25 years’ worth of regeneration work stretching out into the horizon, it is easy to get swept away by the beauty of the natural world. Seeing birds I have never seen before and knowing a leopard or wolf could be lurking in the grasses nearby is moving. Even though this is so far removed from my Dorset home, it reminds me too of why I could never live in a city.

What is hard to forget, is what I witnessed on the way here. A huge area of land turned over to building work, where a new factory will soon spring into life. In Kalpavalli, wind turbines pepper the horizon. What I have always seen as graceful beacons of green energy in the UK, in this context are a threat, and something to fear. This land is not safe from development, and after all the hard work of the local people, and seeing the abundance of nature, it is heartbreaking.

Wind turbines, Timbaktu
Harvested paddy at the Timbaktu Collective

Lesson two: Learning from Nature

Mary Vattamattam and Bablu (known more formally as C.K Ganguly) are permaculture designers with a long history of development activism, working with marginalised people in this region. After years of radical activism, they decided to get to the heart of the problem, and change their practices and priorities to sustained direct efforts - which resulted in the birth of The Timbaktu Collective, a not-for-profit organisation working towards sustainable development.

Mary and Bablu decided they would devote their efforts to learning about the ecology of the area and acknowledge now that Timbaktu, in its infancy, was highly experimental - there was no blueprint for how to bring people and ecology together, and nobody had any concrete answers.

“Timbaktu was a learning ground,” admits Mary. “But this is the basis for all of life - plants, animals, bees, butterflies, water, soil - this is life itself. At first, we thought that there was no life left here, but we were wrong.”

After 25 years, Mary and Bablu say they have learned a great deal from both people and the Planet. And some of their learnings were about themselves. Mary fears they wasted too much time early on, and that she was too easily hurt when plans went awry. Bablu says: “One of the first things I learnt was that the Earth has this unbelievable capability to regenerate herself.”

He says that protecting nature and giving it space, while offering a little helping hand, has led to the kind of rapid regeneration that he has witnessed via the work of The Timbaktu Collective. Starting with only 21 species of flora, for example, there are now over 400 different plants established and thriving on the regenerated land.

As the land flourishes, so too do opportunities for livelihoods. People collect fruits in a sustainable way; date palm fronds are used to weave baskets and mats, and more biodiverse farmland has been carved out: millet, groundnuts, and rice are all harvested to support the farmers, and feed the community. The pollination services of butterflies, and the pest control activities of birds are also benefiting local people. The links between nature and society have become obvious.

Alongside regenerating the land, cultural systems are being remoulded too. Bablu says: “You have religion, you have caste, you have class, you have all these factors. So when you start dabbling with that, you start to see how people have been segregated. And we’re trying to pull them together.”

One person whose life has changed through the Timbaktu collective is Neelakanta. He started doing accounts for the Collective in 2001. Sitting in meetings, he was hearing about the organic farming happening all around him. Inspired, he wanted to become more immersed in nature himself. Now, he looks after plants and soil, experimenting with practices and seeing the rewards before his eyes, rather than hearing about them in meetings. Just last week, he harvested a paddy in an organic demonstration plot and led the creation of an enormous compost heap back at the experimental farm at the base of the group’s eco-restoration work.

“From hour to hour the work changes, and you’re seeing the benefits. It’s very dynamic,” he says in his native Telugu, which Mary and Bablu’s daughter Molly (who is also Siddharth’s partner) translates into English.

“If we don’t all see that regeneration is imperative, then everything is going to suffer.”

Neelakanta’s dream is to push the boundaries of who The Timbaktu Collective works with, bringing more people into the fold of regeneration. While Timbaktu currently works with the most marginalised people, he would like to see the Collective working with everybody, whether they are local marginalised people, or wealthy landowners.

For Siddharth, the work of local people like Neelakanta on regenerating the land is another thing of which to be proud: “It’s not the Government, it’s not an organisation, it’s actual rural, marginalised people who are protecting this region. And that is a huge achievement, because there’s no incentive for most people to protect any common property.”

Lesson three: Fighting to protect and preserve the land

Along the highway near Kalpavalli, a factory spanning 600 acres - an area the size of Monaco - is being built. Red flags mark out other areas of common land which will soon be turned over to industry. It is unclear whether the land protected by the Timbaktu Collective will always be safe from development, or how industrial development will affect the delicate balance of water in a drought-prone region. As India sets a course to become one of the largest manufacturing countries in the world, with it will come economic benefits and much needed jobs. However, the environmental pressures of such growth will likely be enormous.

Fighting for the land has not been easy, and the Collective has faced pressure from numerous industries, including mining. And whilst all at Timbaktu see the benefit of bringing nature back into the barren landscape, this is not always the view of those who see the value of the land in economic terms.

Despite the challenges facing the Collective, local people continue to defend the land. Siddharth says fighting for nature is something they have no choice but to do: “Why do anything you know is right? You do it whether you are winning or losing. Rationally, many times I know we might be on the losing side, but you do it. This land is important to thousands of people and it’s the lifeline of all these natural communities. You have to fight for it.”

Mary, Bablu and their colleagues have now spent 25 years fine-tuning the work of the Timbaktu Collective, from agricultural and ecological regeneration to the creation of both a farmers’ and women’s cooperative. What works here in terms of the landscape, the organisation admits, will not necessarily work everywhere. However, there are still plenty of lessons the world can learn when it comes to living in harmony with nature.

At its most basic, there is one thing that Bablu believes anyone can learn: “It’s so easy to live simply.”

He describes the early days of the Collective, when there was no electricity, so they used lanterns. He had very few clothes, so did not need cupboards. When material items are gradually eliminated, your needs become fewer and fewer, he says.

The next lesson comes from the dedication of the community. There are no fences or barbed wires anywhere across the regenerated landscape, and the only thing protecting the land is the people themselves.

“That is something people can be inspired to do,” Bablu says.

While humans are learning and benefiting from nature at the Timbaktu Collective, Siddharth has one final lesson to impart: “There’s also an intrinsic value in wildlife. It’s not just that it has to have a use to human beings, it has an equal right to be here. Diversity is beautiful, it’s not just that it has to be valuable to us.”

Back in “wolf country,” Siddharth points out places where he sometimes gets a glimpse of these large carnivores. Thanks to a regenerated landscape, the animals have a new habitat, and it comes as a benefit to both man and wolf. Once prone to attacking herds in the fields, wolves now have their own place to explore, hunt, and live. The animals are given their right to be there, and there is a mutual respect between humans and nature.

The Timbaktu Collective was a Lush Spring Prize 2017 winner, receiving £25,000 in the Established Project Award category. Applications for the Lush Spring Prize 2018, coordinated by the Ethical Consumer Cooperative, close on 10th December 2017.

Photos from top: The regenerated landscape at Kalpavalli; wind turbines near the regenerated land; a recently harvested paddy.

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