‘Magic in her hands’- The woman bringing India’s forests back to life

She has walked for miles, deep in tropical rainforests, carefully cutting healthy branches from hundreds of trees and replanting and grafting them. Her eyes lit up when she spoke of a rare seed or a plant. And when she dies, she would like to be reborn, he said, in the form of a big tree.

Tulsi Gowinda Gowda – who does not know the year of her birth but believes she is over 80 – has dedicated her life to transforming the barren land in her native state of Karnataka into dense forests.

Over the years, he has received nearly a dozen awards for his pioneering conservation work. But the most prestigious came last year when the government recognized his efforts and his vast knowledge of forest ecosystems with the Padma Shri award, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.

On a recent morning, Gowda was sitting on a plastic chair welcoming visitors to her three-room home in Honnali, a village of about 150 houses on the edge of the forest. She wore a backless sari, which was designed to ease manual labor and had six layers of pearls made of stones and natural fibers around her neck. Behind that, there was a wall-mounted display featuring images and plastic sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses and photographs of their award ceremonies.

With widespread coverage in the Indian press, Gowda garnered immense attention by winning the Padma Shri award, India’s fourth highest civilian honor. These days when villagers see him, they bow down and children stop to take selfies with him. Buses of students reach her home, where she lives with 10 members of her family including her great-grandson.

“When I see them, I feel happy,” she said in an interview, referring to the students. He said that they need to be taught how important it is to plant trees.

When India was under British rule, colonists led a massive campaign of deforestation in the mountains to build ships and lay railway tracks, eroding most of the forest cover of Uttara Kannada district, where the Gowdas live.

After India’s independence in 1947, the country’s leaders continued to exploit forest areas for large-scale industrialization and urbanization. According to government figures, between 1951 and 1980, about 4.2 million hectares of land, or about 10.4 million acres, were devoted to development projects.

Even as a child, Gowda, who never learned to read, worked to reverse the deforestation of local forests by planting trees. During day trips to the forests to collect firewood for the family, his mother taught him how to regenerate seeds from large, healthy trees. Local residents and Indian officials say that when she was a teenager, she turned into a dense forest behind her family home.

“Since childhood, she used to talk to trees like a mother talks to her newborn children,” said Rukmani, a local woman who uses only one name and has been working with Gowda for decades.

By 1983, government protection policies had changed. That year, Adugodi Nanjappa Yelappa Reddy, a top Indian forest official, arrived at a government nursery in Karnataka with a daunting task: to reclaim large tracts of land in the area.

On his first day of work, in the scorching sun, he met Gowda, who worked in the nursery. She was separating small stones from the soil and carefully planting seeds and saplings.

“He had some magic on his hands,” said 86-year-old Reddy, who is now retired. “His knowledge of identifying and carefully collecting indigenous species and nurturing trees cannot be found in a book.”

Gowda became his valuable advisor, Reddy said. And working with her attracted new attention locally, with residents calling her the “goddess of trees.”

Gowda walks barefoot to receive his medal for the Padma Shri award at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President in New Delhi. Throughout her life, Gowda said in interviews, she has walked barefoot and has never worn shoes, which is not unusual for members of her tribal community.

According to the last full census, India’s 700 or so tribal groups had a population of 104 million in 2011. Of those groups, over 600 communities are scheduled tribes, which means they receive some government benefits, including preference in educational institutions and government jobs.

But Gowda’s tribe, the Halakki-Vokaliga – a population of about 180,000 – was never given scheduled status. Members of his tribe, who have occupied the vast tropical forests of the western mountains in the state for centuries, have been agitating for such recognition since 2006.

Sridhar Gowda, a Karnataka University teacher who has studied the community for decades, said the poverty rate among Halakki-Vokkaligas is around 95%, with only 15% meeting any level of education.

The state itself is the least developed. In the district where Gowda lives, the roads are unpaved; Schools are often non-functional; And there are no emergency hospitals, even though it is one of the largest districts in the state.

“Many people die on the roads while trying to reach hospitals,” Gouda said.

Gowda worked in a government nursery for 65 years, officially retiring in 1998, though she continues to do some work in a consultant role, sharing her vast knowledge of local trees.

While she said she often felt exhausted after long conversations with visitors, strolling through rice fields, behind a billboard with a life-sized picture of her on it, and invigorating through a dense forest full of acacia trees looks like.

During walks, she stopped frequently to recite the names of trees and plants in her native Kannada language: Garcinia Indica (in the mangosteen family), Ficus Bengalis (or banyan), and tamarind, among dozens of others she could find.

He said that in recent months there has been an increase in the number of people visiting his house to see him. Often, they ask him about climate change. He said he didn’t understand what it meant. All she knows, that said, is that trees and animals have been occupied by the mass destruction of forest land and its ecosystem.

And he has noticed that the monsoon in his part of the world is more erratic and dangerous, with floods and landslides taking lives.

“Change will take a long time,” he said, referring to re-greening the land that had been taken away, but he also expressed some optimism for the future. “When I see these stuffy forests here, I think humans can prosper without cutting down trees.”

Despite the hubbub of visitors, it seems that not much has changed for Gowda personally since he became a national figure, except that the local village council built a wooden bridge outside his house so that he could have a small bridge. to cross the stream. She said she never uses it and instead passed out through the stream.

Her sons and grandsons work on a small piece of their own land and also in the fields of others. They depend on the forests around them for firewood and medicines. Her tribe is known for its knowledge of medicinal plants, which the members use to cure illnesses.

Gowda said that since she has weakened recently, she often thinks of death and dying.

“The best death would be under the shadow of a big tree with huge branches,” she said. “I like them more than anything else in my life.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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