Bringing back our native forests

Hi Manvendra, ever since i have heard about you , jungle and your name has become a synonym . Please tell us a little about yourself? I am sure behind such a game changer like you, there has to be a story worth capturing every bit about. 

My ancestors belong to the desert of Rajasthan. I was born in Garda Village of Baran District. Our family’s roots are ingrained in farming. My father was the first person to get a government job with military services and we moved around a lot with him. In my adolescence, I loved cycling in the forests of our military campus with my friends to collect animal bones and try to arrange them back in shape. It was art for us, unfortunately not for our parents. Now looking back at the unusualness of the situation, I am happy I did not walk the beaten path of life.

My father worked hard to get out of farming and get a job. For us it was hard to imagine any other way to life, so I took science and ended at the doorsteps of an engineering college. Clearing exams at the college wasn’t my cup of tea and in the final year when I still had  2 back papers to clear, I was confronted with the BIG question – a master’s degree or a job. To be honest, neither of the options called for me. 

I started asking my friends if they knew anyone who was doing anything different from these standard choices.
A friend connected me to Anjor in Pune who was part of Kagad Kach Patra Kashtkari Panchayat (KKPKP) working with the rag pickers. He was trying to help them create a union for themselves so that they can take a stand for themselves and fight for their rights.
The idea intrigued me to the extent that I bunked college and ended up in Pune with him for 2 days. He lived in the slums in a small space without a mattress or bed. The vigor with which we worked along for 2 days and the content I felt each night for making an impact on someone’s life was priceless. I had never been this happy in my life.

When I came back to college I saw the empty soul of our education and job system – What was I even trying to achieve here? 

Thus, in my final year, I walked out of my engineering to pursue my calling. 

You left the college in the final year? That must have been a life changing decision for you. What kept you motivated to go through with it? 

I tend to start doing something but then not go through with it. The only way to pursue my calling would be for me to close all my backup options and take a leap of faith. Just like learning how to swim. Simple. Not really.

I did not tell my parents about quitting college and decided to design my own learning journey by volunteering with various organizations. My father was very angry and disappointed about my future plans. He thought I was wasting my time travelling and running away from responsibilities in life. In his generation, financial security was considered the most important aspect of life. But this also gave us the opportunity to have our first real conversation in life and share with him how I felt. 

I joined Bhoomi college, Bengaluru which was providing a 10 month course on Sustainable Living. During the course I got hooked on Organic farming and travelled all over India to meet different organic farmers. It was time to return to my ancestral village and become an organic farmer, completing the circle of life. But living in the village was not easy for me and my restless soul quit after only one season of farming.

I applied at Greenpeace as a Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner and got selected. Working with them was full of adventure and we worked on issues of Seed Sovereignty and organic farming. After 3 years, I decided to move on and work on the grassroots. Eventually I met Sheeba and we started working on Aalap where I fell in love with forests and decided to dedicate my life to them. 

How long have you been working with the forest? 

It’s been more than 4 years now with core fore work. When I initially started farming, I started with the principles of natural farming. And if you see closely, a lot of my work has been an extension of that. Looking further, since childhood I was connected with the forest. Everything I ever did eventually led me to this.

You mentioned that you have been working with corporate companies as well. Don’t you think there’s scope in forestation as an option for people who are looking for alternative choices?

All the companies these days are trying to achieve carbon neutrality. If a company sponsors a forest, they can say  that they are absorbing as much carbon as their factories are producing. Its a very good sustainability option and also good for corporate social responsibility. Miyawaki technique helps create a dense forest on a very small scale which serves the advantage of higher amount of carbon absorption. 

What has the support been like along the way? You have been to so many places, worked with so many people. Do you think what you do has influenced them to alter their way of living? In simpler words, what has the community support been like in your journey till here?

The support has been incredible throughout. One of my favourite incidents is also the reason we moved to Champawat where I currently live. The District Magistrate of Champawat invited us to work on an Urban Biodiversity Park project. We were technical consultants on the project and the resources were to be provided by the local government itself. In the beginning we would get frustrated because department officials were very inefficient and lethargic. But after the first plantation with them, there was a profound change, as if they had found something to really care for and look forward to. They will send us photographs of their family next to the growing trees. They started taking initiative on their own and this was a testament of the healing power of the forests.

One last question for you – What is your vision? Where do you want to take this moving forward? 

To be honest, I do not think so far beyond. My life is very organic. If you look at my life journey so far, I started with engineering, got into organic farming, worked for environmental organization then got into forests. So now if you think about it, every moment was eventually building to this one moment I am currently living. Might continue planting forests or I might get into a corporate for building forest awareness. In my opinion, the forest follows a philosophy that everyone is equal. A forest has no boss, everyone has a unique role to play and no one is forced to fit into one. This philosophy is a lifestyle that we can choose to live by. I do have a dream that somewhere along the way I’d like to incorporate forest among people so they start functioning on forest principle and live happy lives.
I also know that while I train 500-700 people in a year, very few of them will go ahead and start making forests. It’s not an easy path to tread and it requires discipline to follow through. You’ll have to study academic and research papers along with all the groundwork under the hot sun. These few people are enough for me. My life partner, Bombil, and I have started a community forestry project called Qaraabat where we are supporting these learners in creating forests on community spaces. She is good with people and I am good with forests, and together we will have many more people powered forests.

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