Over the last few years, Wayanad in North Kerala has seen the country’s highest number of farmer suicides, along with Vidharbha in Maharashtra and Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. An alarming depletion in ground water, extreme deforestation and erratic rains have brought severe drought to a hill district whose annual rainfall was once second only to Cherrapunji.

Fifteen years ago, MP Chandranath, who owns a 45-acre coffee estate near Kalpetta, the Wayanad headquarters, never imagined that he might be the first in the country to set an example by setting aside part of his land for a small forest. Located on a hilltop, his estate did not have enough water to service more than a couple of acres.

It was during a drought in 1992 that Chandranath chanced upon an article on Abdul Kareem, who has grown a natural forest over 32 acres of denuded country in Kasaragod district, considerably augmenting the area’s water sources. Inspired by the story, Chandranath started planting trees on his own estate. The forest he has cultivated began yielding wonders within a few years. Fountainheads of water that started appearing nine years ago are now helping him meet his plantation’s requirements round the year.

“Most of the land here is rocky with very thin top soil,” says Chandrakanth. “I would irrigate the forest once a week from January to April; I used cow dung fertiliser at planting time, and small doses of chemical fertiliser once a year over the next two years. With just this much care, the forest grows on its own.”

Chandranath also started rain water harvesting on his estate and took steps to prevent soil erosion. He also took special care in selecting plants for his forest. “Most of the trees I have planted are of low timber value. In future, nobody should be ever tempted to cut down this painstakingly developed forest for its timber value,” he says.

Chandranath says Wayanad never had a water problem till about 60 years ago. In the 1950s began an incursion of plantation cultivators in Pulpally, Mullankolly, Kenichira and nearby belts. The first thing they did was shave off the thick forests of the region. Tapioca cultivation let all the topsoil slip away. Then dadop trees were cultivated for pepper plantations; the pepper vine would be trained on the trees. Says Chandranath, “A hundred dadop trees can’t equal a natural forest tree in the way it works to conserve soil, water and coolness. Rampant deforestation is the main reason behind today’s drought in Wayanad. The second reason is banana cultivation. All the water that was earlier checked by the paddy fields is now drained out to cultivate bananas.”

“Everybody talks about water, but nobody does any serious work. I have shared my experience in developing forests and their subsequent benefits. Ideally, we should conserve or develop one acre of forest for every 10 acres of coffee plantation. But nobody seems to be taking it seriously.”

Inspired by the success of the first experiment, Chandranath has developed ‘mini-forests’ at four other spots in his property. One of these is just by the Kalpetta–Mananthavady highway. “I developed this one just as a demonstration for people travelling on the road. Let them see and learn that it’s only by preserving trees you can have water.”

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