Annamalai reforestation society was formed in 1988 by an informal group of 3 persons who dreamt of seeing the Arunachala hill green again. The three people were Apeetha Arunagiri, Dev Gogoi and J.Jayaraman.
The hill was barren at this stage except for a few trees in Skanda ashram premises. The hill mostly wore a brown look but during the monsoon was lush with the light green of the lemon grass. It was a grazing ground for the cattle and goats of the region.
The first and chief patron of the young initiative was John Seed, through the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia. He did road shows down under and conducted various fund raising programmes to generate funds for ARS.
ARS registered as a society under the Tamilnadu Society registration Act. It soon received sanction for tax benefit to the donors from the Government of India and a bit later FCRA sanction to receive foreign funds too.
ARS began by setting up a nursery in Apeetha’s home terrace. But soon it began to grow too big for the terrace and it was moved to the North west quarter of the Arunachaleswara temple’s 5 th Quadrangle.
The nursery grew and grew and at its peak there were more than 50,000 saplings in our nursery. We supplied saplings to schools, colleges and even the forest department. While at the temple the ancient flower garden of temple in the outer prakara was re-established by us.
It was around this time that the secretary of ARS was designated as the honourable tree warden of the district.
From 1987-88 the afforestation on the slopes began. The first slopes to be planted where from the Mulaippal theertam to Guhai Namashivaya. This planting failed due due to human encroachments, as it was on the town-facing slope.
From 1989-1991 the planting shifted to the Southern slopes, behind Ramana ashram along the path leading to Skanda ashram. Here the conditions were a bit more conducive. The threat here was mainly grazing and fires lit by the grazers in the summer months.
To prevent the fire from spreading rocks were used to build a 3 foot high fence around each grown sapling.
A few species were identified as pioneer species and were planted in the thousands. The three pioneer species were Aacha [ Hardwickia Binata], Sandana Vengai [Pterocarpus santalinus] and Austalian Acacia [ Acacia auriculiformis]. These three were planted in the thousands and by somehow surviving in the extremely harsh conditions of the early years, created a micro climate for the later saplings to be planted.
To plant on these slopes, often top soil was taken from the foot hills and also each tree had to be watered by forming long chains of people from the base. Trees which found a way to beat all odds and grow, would casually be broken by the grazers to feed their goats. The set backs were many, but the main ones were grazing and fires.
At this stage John Seed introduced a saviour in to the project, who breathed new life in to it with his passion knowledge and work ethic. The person is none other than John Button, the famous permaculture expert from Australia.
He completely revitalized the project by bringing new ideas and ground level work to the fore.
A friend of J.Jayaraman, Mary Lousie Baravalli, at this time bought and donated 8 acres of land to ARS in the year ——-. This land was formally a chicken farm and was located in Kananthampoondi, 6 km from the ashram. It had a beautiful view of the hill but was quite barren.
It was painstakingly built in to a model farm by John Button and the rest of the team. Swales were created to do rain water harvesting and hundreds of trees were planted. John, introduced the various perma culture aspects to the project. As the farm began to grow and flourish it became a place for offering training for farmers and many others interested in permaculture.
A few large halls were built and rooms to stay for the attendees of the training programme.
The nursery was shifted from the Arunachala temple to the farm where it continued to flourish.
Between the temple authorities handed the land around the Yama lingam to ARS to grow trees. This was successfully done between 1991-98 and handed back the reforested and secured area back to the HR&CE Temple authorities.
The forest grows back
As the town grew, the grazing pressure began to reduce and gradually stop on the slope behind the ashram. With the continuing persevering effort of planting every monsoon, the trees began to survive and slowly the forest began to stake a foot hold on the mountain.
This slope is where the forest finally began to reconquer the hill. The first streams emerged from this slope, in the early 2000’s. It was a magical sight to watch a clear stream emerge from the hill and continue running for quite a while, instead of the muddy waters which used to gush as it rained. Everyone was struck by wonder when fish were seen, swimming upstream, presumably to spawn from some water body in town. The stream hadn’t flown in possibly 80 years. How did the fish know to do this? Where was this ancient memory stored? Is it just instinct?
As the forest grew back on this slope, people could happily walk up the hill to Skandashram during the day, a task unimaginable till just a few years ago as the rocks were too hot to step on during the day.
As the forest grew and spread on the hill, it welcomed back the birds and animals to its fold. The first big species to return was the Spotted deer and the Common langur. Soon followed the civet cats, mongoose, porcupines, pangolins etc. Over the years the bird population has exponentially increased too.
The hill has changed from the brown and light green of the earlier years to a thick blanket of dark green almost through the year and now a days many streams flow from the hill recharging many water bodies around.