4 farmers, 10 acres, 1 Solanki, countless workhours and infinite passion - these are the ingredients that make up the 1000-Tree Project.
This is a project conceived by Swayyam, a not-for-profit organisation founded by Malvikaa Solanki at Yelachatti Village, Karnataka. This is a place in south India where a quiet transformation is taking place; farmers are coming together, land is being reclaimed, water is being put back into the soil..... Let’s hear all about this transformation from Malvikaa Solanki, whose brainchild this project is:
Tell us, how did the 1000 Tree Project idea originate?
“Well, the drought in 2016 was a wake-up call for me… During this time I saw so many cattle die that the carcasses would lie on the road, people did not even have the energy to take the effort to bury them, because there were too many… This is an area with a lot of wildlife, and wild dogs would come and get them at night… Nagappa, my neighbour, hadn’t even told me that eight out of his ten cows had died… This happened in the third year I was working on the land, creating a little
oasis - a food forest and a self-sufficient system on a piece of hetherto unyielding land… But witnessing these scenes of drought raised the question - What about the people around me? How is my experience changing anything? So I asked: What could have avoided this situation?
“The idea is to provide food, fodder and livelihood security for farmers...”
What if we had a tree system?
Trees are more reliable, they can survive drought, they’re useful for fodder too. When there is no rain, farmers lose their field crops, they do not have food, do not have anything to sell.But this is not so for trees. This was the thought behind this project - helping farmers create a tree-based agro-forestry system thus ensuring food, fodder, and livelihood security for them. Once farmers become self-reliant in terms of food, fodder, and livelihood, the stress on the fragile forest ecosystem which is adjacent to this area also reduces.We were looking at a holistic, regenerative design, at diversity, native drought-tolerant species, and species that provide for the nutrition of the family while also ensuring income generation."
How did the farmers react to this idea?
“It took a while to convince them. We said you can still continue to have your crops, but at the same time, keep putting in tree systems to ensure security for yourself. We cannot talk about climate change or chemical run-off or ecological balance to farmers suffering from lack of basics, so we said, right now you have a bore-well - but what if tomorrow it runs dry? If you go for a tree-based agro-forestry system, designed in such a way that you have different fruit trees and crops and timber, giving you income throughout the year, tomorrow even if your bore-well dries, you still have your trees, and they will sustain you. And your bore-well will also be maintained, because when you have your tree systems, you are recharging the water-table... So in this way we tried to speak in the language that makes more sense to them. Slowly, people were convinced and the project started to take shape…
“This is a tree-based holistic agro-forestry system”
So what are the exact mechanics of the project?
“We work with marginal farmers, holding less than 5 acres of land. A minimum of 4 such farmers, at least 1 of whom is a woman, with a minimum of 10 acres between them, need to form a collective to take part in the project. The acreage has to be continuous between them. What we do is, we bear 75% of the cost of fencing the land with solar-powered electric fencing (which does not kill any animals, just deters them), and the farmers of the collective bear 25%. Initially some people thought it was a fencing project. I said no, its a trees project - in every acre, farmers have to agree to sow 100 trees. We have a clear application form that states all this. We work with the farmers to choose the saplings, use better methods, to plough on contour, to follow organic principles. We support them in making trenches and swales according to the contour of the land. They are individual farmers within the same fence, but the water harvesting design is done for the entire collective. The farmers focus on crops that are primarily for food and fodder, not cash crops, and sell the surplus after saving seeds. And we support them in all of this.
“We started in 2017. 12 acres connected to the Open Shell Farm* formed the 1st collective called Vasudha. They pitched in with labour, and we got the fencing erected. For the first time in a decade, everyone ploughed their fields and grew a bumper horse-gram crop. Everyone took home a good amount of produce, they sold it and made some money. We are working on a second collective called Suvarna of 12 farmer families and 48 acres of land. We are just about to get the fencing going for them…”
The story of the 1000 Trees project is a living story that grows each day towards its goal of ecologically balanced self-sustenance for the farmers, and a happy abundance for the land… Thank you very much Malvikaa Solanki Ma’am, for taking the time to speak to us...!
*Open Shell Farm is a learning and a demonstration site for regenerative design, using permaculture and agroecology principles. This is the piece of land Solanki started out with, and it now abounds in biodiversity, in native as well as pioneer species, with its own water harvesting and waste management systems, a seed-bank, a nursery and dwelling spaces. The story of Open Shell Farm and Malvikaa’s challenging journey of discovery, both within and without, can be viewed at https://swayyam.org/