On July 26th, 2023, the Forest Act was passed in the Indian Parliament.
Predictably, with no discussion. Predictably, ignoring most of the recommendations that experts gave. Many experts are specifically pointing out to the narrow redefinition of ‘forests’ and the exemptions that can be given to construction projects inside the forests and the serious risks these carry.
Just a day later, I was in the Western Ghats, in pelting rain with the most gorgeous shade of green all around me and overhearing snippets of a story that I simply had to know more about. The very next day, over a hot cup of chai and a light drizzle providing contextual ambience, I heard a tale of conviction, determination and courage, which I feel compelled to share.
A story that can give us both hope and direction when faced with the gloom that such policies envelop you with.
About twenty odd years back, a young man happened to mention to a distant relative over an extended family meet that he had come to know that a large bit of the land in the Mehdei area was being earmarked for mining and helpfully suggested that his relative consider selling his property in that area, else he might face a drastic drop in value.
His distant relative, a Merchant Navy Captain, was curious to know more about this.
When he heard the details he decided that he was going to try to stand up against the mining company. He had experienced the distress of losing his ancestral village to mining and was determined to prevent that from recurring.
Without much fanfare, he bought land surrounding the huge tract of forest that was earmarked for the mining company, including all the approach roads, with the result that one fine morning, the mining company found their property was completely landlocked from all directions.
I am sure the predictable amount of pressure would have been applied and when none of that worked, the company realized the futility of taking the legal route – the rare hidden benefits of the speed of our legal system – and offered to sell the land to the Captain. Land that totaled upto 200 acres !
By now the Captain – Nitin Dhond - was committed and decided to take up the offer. Along with the young man – Nirmal Kulkarni – and other friends they managed to round up the funds needed to make the purchase, without really being very clear about how they will generate income from this rather imposing area of forest land. In Nirmal's words, " I didn't even know
how 200 acres of land would look like !"
A few missteps later, they started Wildernest ( https://www.wildernest-goa.com ) and the path was laid. ( On another note, it was quite heartwarming to hear how many other established hoteliers in Goa helped them in their learning curve and supported them by directing guests to their young resort. )
More importantly, they worked along with many others, to ensure that the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and the Bhimgadh Wildlife Sanctuary were declared as protected areas ensuring that a contiguous and much larger piece of forest land can stay protected. The team also planned to purchase land from village communities and block all access to the remaining forest, protecting these precious lands from the threats of deforestation and mining. Gradually, their ownership increased to cover 900 acres !
Of course, the most obvious result was the protection of precious forests. Under the mentorship of Capt Dhond, the team has ensured that the impact of their venture goes far beyond that. Poaching has reduced. Livelihood opportunities have been created for the locals. There is a lot of research that is supported ( the Mhadei Research Center has been created here ) and new species of frogs, scorpions etc have been discovered.
One morning, after a tasty breakfast, I walked up a path rich in history, past this Research Center and onto the open plains.
This was the road that connected Portugese Goa with British India
Fog and rain gave us company as we walked around peering into the mud, lifting stones to check for frogs, scorpions, snakes and often find an eel slithering away at top speed, I imagined, squawking, or whatever it is that eels do, in indignation.
Treasure hunt of a different kind
I have a fascination for trees...they can be so mesmerising!
The morning activities gave me a faint feeling of the afternoons Gerald Durrell spent in Corfu :) .
Unlike Corfu, though, often the mist descended on us as if curious to see what we were upto, swirling around us and reducing all us into ghostly apparitions, moving around in decidedly suspicious ways.
Reminded me of those gangster movies where all the mafia leaders come in pouring rain to the burial ground...well, my imagination runs away again !
I stayed at Swapnagandha ( https://swapnagandha.com ), their second resort, which too continued with their concept of minimal interference. The entire resort is designed to give a you the sense of being inside a forest environment.
You could walk down winding paths and completely ignore a twig which is in fact a tiny pit viper luxuriating in its indolence. Or miss the scorpions hidden in the crevices of the rocks that make the pathways. That slight movement in the bushes could be a vine snake changing its position. There is a possibility that you might even miss the constant croaking of the frogs simply because that is so much a part of the everyday sounds here.
But what really hits you smack on your head is the incredible beauty of nature around you.
If you walk out of your room onto the small wooden porch, the forests roll out below you and when you look straight ahead, you can see two waterfalls in the distance, swollen and exuberant in the rains, indulge in a play fight with the wind which kept swooping down to spray the water all around. You hear the whistling thrush sing its insouciant tune, providing a pleasing contrast to the incessant chattering of the cicadas, the bulbul adding
their bit to the music and the occasional squawk
of the jungle fowl in the distance.
More importantly, it’s a reassuring story that in this constant battle against the commercial interests that drive the world, there is a way that victories can be had and balance created.
Often its just determination that is required and there are many who are fighting the good fight.
And winning important wins.
In other news, of the personal kind, one of my images was displayed at the recently concluded Nature in Focus event in Bangalore. I think, one of the 27 or 30 images that got selected.
Pretty cool :)
And another one won the first prize in the Creative category at the DJ Memorial Photography Competition ( mine and other images are available at : www.djmpc.in ).
Even cooler :)
This image, taken in Hornoya, of the birds returning to the island in the morning, got displayed at the Nature in Focus event at Bangalore
This image of a mountain hare, taken at Vauldalen, Norway, won the first prize in the Creative Nature Category at the DJ Memorial Photography Competition
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