THE NILGIRIS HILL DISTRICT has been described as the lungs of South India, due to its rich biodiversity and dense shola (stunted evergreen) forests. The densely-populated district is part of the Nilgiris Biosphere
Reserve and is the main source of water for the rivers of south India. Its temperate climate favours year round cultivation. Over time, tea and coffee plantations have become the dominant crops while in the remaining 25% of agricultural land, very small farms grow vegetables, spices and condiments.
In a nationwide effort to boost food production in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Green Revolution introduced chemical agriculture to the Nilgiris. Increasing and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides reduced soil fertility, leaving degraded agricultural land in its wake. Instead of growing a wide range of crops that in turn supported a varied diet, the Green Revolution encouraged fewer, mono-culture crops. In this very poor region, these changes led to a more limited local diet.
With agriculture still in decline, young people continue to leave the land for the cities, and local schools face declining enrolment. For the young people that remain in the Nilgiris area, poverty, a lack of skills and low confidence hold many back.
In 2007 in response to these trends, the non-profit Earth Trust established Eco-Clubs at 2 disadvantaged schools in the region. The success of the Club’s extra-curricular activities at these two schools, lead teachers at neighbouring schools to request that the program be expanded. As a result, the program quickly expanded to 16 schools.
With an aim of developing a green consciousness and social responsibility, Eco Clubs promote waste recycling, composting, organic gardening and the efficient use of school land. At the outset, the program introduces group-building outings to natural forests and organic model farms which also helped these 9–11 year old students appreciate the importance of both. These two outings also enabled students to observe first-hand the deterioration in their local environment and to begin to investigate what they can do to stop the deterioration.
The Shola Forest is one of the Nilgiris’ most spectacular natural features, consisting of patches of high-altitude (around 2000 meters) stunted evergreen forest separated by undulating grasslands. Since the Shola Forest is 25 kilometres away from the nearest school in a region with few private vehicles, most students have no other chance to visit this special area.
Once permission from the forest department was obtained, these day-long trips for up to 40 Eco Club members were designed to provide exposure to both indigenous Shola forests and nearby manmade eucalyptus tree plantations. During the day, students observed the diversity of species in each of these contrasting forests, and learned about the natural, soil-building processes through which a forest matures.
In the following month, each Eco Club visits a model organic farm. Back at school, during the Club’s before and
after school activities, they gain organic and biodynamic gardening skills, which they use to grow vegetables for their meals at school. They collect traditional seeds and grow older varieties of millets, amaranth and other grains. For children from desperately poor, often remote villages, it has been a passionate and mind expanding program.
One key to the success of the two outings is the way they link local forest eco-systems to a school organic garden. By observing nature, and then undertaking a variety of recycling and composting activities back at school, both students and teachers began to understand the principles and the benefits of organic farming. Confidence and self-esteem of Eco Club students has markedly improved, and an interest in environmental issues has percolated into local communities and government.
With their new understanding of how natural systems work, Eco Club students have started organic gardens at each of their schools. For the first six months, they focus on improving the health of the soil. Then the students moved on to organic gardening, experimenting with mixed cropping, crop rotation, composting, preparing growth promoters, and harvesting seeds.
Almost immediately, these gardens became lighthouses for the rural populations around them. With once a month parent-teacher association meetings, parents began to notice the organic gardens and the activities of the Eco Club at their children’s school. This encouraged many parents to create their own organic “kitchen gardens” at home. For example, at Thenali School, this lead to the creation of at least 22 organic home gardens.
Eco-Club participants are strongly encouraged to share their knowledge with others. It is fantastic to see how the self-confidence of these disadvantaged students has been enhanced by their new “life skills” and to see the enthusiasm and knowledge that they have gained. These children have become models for their peers, acting more responsibly and transferring eco-friendly practices to their villages. The schools also benefited from the program. Many visitors, including those from overseas, were attracted to the school gardens, which did a lot to further increase the self-esteem of children and teachers. The organic gardens also won praise from higher officials, the local community and neighbouring schools. Eco-Clubs make a difference in creating new life skills, and model for peer groups, social responsibility, and self esteem to both teachers and students.
Vanya Orr is the Project Director & Mohan Kumar is the Education Manager for The Earth Trust in The Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, in southern India.
Our sincere thanks to Mr. David Pople, Friends of Hope, U.K. and Mr. Phil Crook for their constant support to carry out this project
Find out more about Earth Trust at www.earthtrustnilgiris.org
Read the article and see the pictures in the online magazine of Green Teacher Page 22, at the link posted belowAttachments: