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Abdul Kareem: Forest-man of Kerala

We all have heard of Jadav "Molai" Payeng, a man who spent 30 years single-handedly planting a sprawling 1,360-acre forest on a sandbar in River Brahmaputra in native India. Here is another man, from Kerala in India, who transformed a 32 acre barren hillside into a lush forest. Meet Abdul Kareem from Kasargod, Kerala…

It is dark at noon. A thick, wet leaf pile squelches underfoot. Often your way is blocked and you must crawl under branches or take detours. The silence of the forest is sometimes unnerving. Every now and then you are lost and can't tell the way.

Abdul Kareem, walking ahead, wends and weaves through the thicket with a proud ease. But then he has been around here - for 30 years, in fact. He has seen the 32 acres of a lateritic hillside grow into this wild forest. And is still happening: it's a work in progress. Abdul Kareem has created and saved forever a piece of wilderness for India.

The Call of Kaavu

Abdul was born in 1947 at Nileswar, a small town on the NH7 between Kasargod and Payyanur in Kerala, to a small-time businessman, Abdullah. After passing his high school and a year in college, Kareem decided to venture out to Mumbai, where he started working in a dockyard as a labourer. But parochial riots in 1969 forced him to return to Nileshwar. Back home, he taught himself book-keeping and typing with help from the Muslim Waqf board. During the early 1970s, when every Keralite seem to be headed for the Persian Gulf boom Abdul sensed an opportunity and launched a travel and placement service for the thousands of Malayalis eager to flood the Gulf. His business flourished. Soon he got married to a girl from Puliyamkulam village, about 20km from Nileswar. It was during his frequent visits to his in-laws that he came by a barren hill.

All his childhood and youth he had hearth of Kaavu the Sacred Groves that every village once had and which were now long gone. Yielding to an inexplicable and impulsive yearning for Kaavus, he bought 5 acres of barren rock with a pathetic well. And instantly became a laughing stock.The well would yield about five litres of water in a draw after which he had to wait for it to recharge. Even during monsoons which triggered flash floods ( in one such surge he almost lost his life ), the well had no water not more the pale of water to show.

‘Crazy’ man

After about a year of futile watch over his land, Kareem once more yielded to another of his whims, and started planting mature saplings of wild trees in spaces between laterite rocks. During the summer he would fetch water in cans lashed to his motorbike from a source one kilometre away. All the earnings from his reasonably successful travel business were diverted to his dream of Kaavu. Meanwhile, owners of the nearby barren land saw in ‘crazy’ Abdul Kareem, a god send opportunity to get rid their useless lands.   As his family watched in panicky amazement, Abdul Kareem bought 32 acres of a rocky slope

For three summers, he ferried water on his motorbike for his plantation before Nature finally smiled upon him. In the third year, when the plantation was but of young adult trees, the water level in the well rose! With renewed vigour, Abdul began planting saplings over the entire holding. He chose over 800 varieties of plants plucked from the wild and let nature do the rest. He learnt that you enable nature, not direct it. Birds began to arrive and discharge all kinds of seeds. Weeds grew and amidst these grew rare herbs and medicinal plants - none chosen by Kareem. Water levels in Kaliyanam, Varranjnyur and other villages within a 10km radius rose. The once barren hill was now a water sponge.

Abdul cared for passing birds too. He put small water-filled pots around the land to attract them. They brought in more diversity to his land, discharging varied seeds through droppings.

The most important revelation for him was the impact of humus on the hard rock. The  thick carpet of fallen on the rocky surface decomposes over the years accelerating the disintegration of laterite into small gravel and slowly to fine soil which in turn helps seeds spread by the insects and birds to grow roots and germinate.

He has never weeded his acres, never lopped a tree, never swept the leaves, never hunted game, never selected a species and of course, never used a chemical of any kind. "My rewards are the highly mineralised, herbalised water, the fragrant air, the daily walks through the woods, a healthy life and an enormous peace," he says. He has for over ten years, lived in a house, built in the forest. Not a shred of plastic or paper is seen anywhere. They are a part of his long list of no- nos along with cars, noise, smoking, fire or partying.

Recognition at last

Recognition has been trickling in. Environmentalists and the media are beginning to take notice of this self taught man. Hare, fowl and other small game have colonised the forests. Beehives --the size of a sack-- are emerging. There was a dry inherited tank on the land. He says today, he can pump a 100,000 litres out of it at a go and the level will bounce back in a few minutes. "The forest is actually producing water!' he exclaims. The water is almost like a meal. The soil under a thick, wet, leaf pile crawls with soil animals that are almost angry at being disturbed.

Today, Kareem supplies drinking water to the 100-odd families from the two wells and four ponds in his forest, situated in Puliyankulam.

His children have grown and the growing family has its monetary needs but Abdul Kareem having put all his eggs in this forest has no cash. He hopes now to strike a balance between preserving his growing dream and his growing responsibilities. He talks of marketing the water for the table. With a sensitive business partner, the acreage would be a great eco-destination. Nileswar railhead is a comfortable motoring distance. It should also be possible to aid Kareem if academics with grants wished to spend time researching his forest. A small eco-school is another possibility.

"Deep inside everyone of us is a call to the wild," he says broodingly. He then adds in many simple words: "Much of the impatience, discontent or violence around us is due to a lack of opportunity to reconnect with where we came from. For sanity and generosity of spirit, we should be able to witness nature at its unceasing, rejuvenating work."

Posted On : March 11 ,2014 0 : 46
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