Three Auroville high school students, Smiti Arpi (Last School), Maya Martens (Future School) and Shrishti Dangi (Last School) have presented Auroville at the Second International Youth Symposium on Biodiversity, which was held from July 5th - 8th 2009 in Ottawa, Canada.
The aim was to bring 100 students from around the world together to share initiatives in biodiversity they have undertaken in their own countries, and to participate in various activities held during the conference, including drafting a 'Global Youth's Accord for Biodiversity'.
A month before the symposium was held in Canada, the girls came together to combine their individual projects into an overall presentation. Working together for many weeks, they made their first public presentation in Auroville itself, on July 1st, in preparation for the event that would be held later that week in Ottawa.
Their in-depth presentation was highly appreciated both in Auroville and at the Symposium.
Transcript of the talk accompanying a powerpoint presentation by the three Auroville students in Ottawa .
Diversity – Matters!
We just need the “UNITY” in diversity.
NAMASTE, VANAKKAM, BONJOUR, GOOD MORNING… everyone!
Maya, Shrishti and I, Smiti, are from India.
We live in an international township called Auroville on the South Eastern coast in Tamil Nadu.
Auroville is situated on a plateau at the top of the watershed. Because of this topography, Auroville has several canyon systems that carry rain water run-off, some eastwards towards the sea, others to surrounding water bodies. We worked in two of these canyons: Aranya and Ravena canyon.
Aranya is a forest sanctuary located on the outskirts of Auroville.
Since the early nineties, a lot of work has been done there in reforestation and water catchment. As you can see, Aranya canyon is today green and full of life.
This is where we began our projects, each of us choosing individual topics.
Learning with specialists from Auroville including Saravanan, who stewards the Aranya forest.
But due to the distance and our difficulties with timings, we decided to continue our work in another canyon closer to the centre.
My name is Maya.
I chose to look at a small area in the Ravena canyon, one of Auroville's many canyons.
What attracted me to this particular spot was the beautiful landscape with its unique rock formations formed over time by erosion.
And the soil of different colors and textures… As soon as I saw this spot, I decided to do my field work here.
I started by plotting a 10 x 10 meter quadrant across the canyon using ropes and pegs. This was challenging as I had to climb the steep canyon walls. Then I chose to study the plant species growing in that area.
With the help of an expert botanist, I identified 34 different plant species.
On making further comparisons I saw that most of the species were either shrubs or climbers.
The dry and the heat are the major factors in determining what species live in the canyon. Thus, the climbers are well adapted to root themselves on the rough canyon walls, and the shrubs are drought and heat resistant.
I also found that most of the plants had thick waxy leaves, which further enable them to prevent water loss. Many were thorny species. The canyon is very bare and the plants are very exposed, thus they have adaptations such as thorns to protect themselves in order to survive. All the species except one were native species.
The one exception was the Acacia Auriculiformis. It was brought from Australia by Auroville's early settlers.
It was planted excessively at the beginning of Auroville in order to establish basic ground coverage, as Auroville was previously a barren plateau.
Being a nitrogen-fixer it also improved the soil fertility.
Over the years it spread widely and uncontrollably and thus was regarded as an invasive species.
However, today, the tropical dry evergreen forest is reappearing in the area, and it is causing the Acacia to die off naturally.
The period I visited the plot the most was during April-May. This also happened to be the flowering and fruiting season for many of the plants in the canyon.
This was the most beautiful time to visit the plot. I would be surrounded by colors, especially the characteristic blue purple of the Memecylon umbellatum, and various scents.
During this period I also sighted the most fauna which were attracted by the nectar and fruits which were present.
The most common faunal species in this area are the arthropods and the reptiles. The dry, rocky ground provides a perfect habitat for various creatures such as snakes, scorpions, and lizards; and also insects such as ants, bees and spiders. They shelter in small crevices and holes in the canyon walls.
The most common larger species were jackals, porcupines, civet cats, and owls.
Unfortunately I didn't sight any of these creatures, but found evidence of their presence such as droppings, needles, and paw prints.
Many are nocturnal, and are active after dark and I was not comfortable venturing alone at night in the canyon, as the area is quite remote.
These I notice are some of the practical difficulties of the lone field biologist.
I encountered many other challenges and difficulties along the way- a small one was my ropes and pegs often being taken, as the locals in the area needed the valuable ropes.
But I enjoyed this project a lot.
I was surprised to find that such a hot, dry rocky area could support so much life!
And I found it very rewarding to just sit, watch and learn about the interaction of all the different species; how the plants and animals struggle to survive and support each other.
These are many small details that one doesn't notice in daily life.
At the same time as I was doing my field work, Shristhi, several 100 meters upstream in the canyon, chose to study an individual species in its habitat.
I chose to look at a particular genus of grass, the Bamboo. What got me first attracted to bamboo was the sounds it produces when it sways the wind. ( the Soundscape )
I was, then, lucky to find a dense thicket of Bamboo in Ravena canyon not far from Maya's plot.
It looked like the perfect habitat: it was protected and isolated, and undisturbed by human activity. The bamboo habitat in Ravena…
On its one end was a check-dam 4 m high, which prevents rainwater runoff during the monsoon.
The bamboo species, Bambusa arundinacae, was abundantly found in the habitat. It is a drought tolerant species which is a key factor for survival in this area. It had been planted 20 years ago as part of the afforestation work.
Being a runner, it had spread naturally down the canyon, continuing to sprout and regenerate with every rain.
Its roots penetrate the hard sandstone making it porous holding the soil together, preventing erosion and runoff.
Belonging to the Poaceae family or the ``grass`` family Bamboo, paradoxically, is the tallest woody perennial known.
It is also the fastest growing and it occupies most of the canopy cover lowering the temperature in the habitat by 3-5 degree Celsius. As you see here, the species are competing for sunlight.
The undergrowth appears in little clusters, all looking for a spot in the light. Such is the struggle that the undergrowth occupies only a 14% of the area.
The thick layer of leaf litter which covered the forest floor to which to retain moisture in the soil.
Termites play a crucial role in this habitat. Degrading the mulch and the dead bamboo which is very liable to fire, the termites recycle nutrient to the earth.
This habitat provides home for various other invertebrates and vertebrates.
Some of which, I didn't see but saw the traces that they left behind.
But others I did!
I was also fortunate enough to witness a rather rare phenomenon: a flowering Bamboo. The same species, Bambusa arundincae, was flowering in another part of Auroville. The entire clump transformed into a huge inflorescence…
...was a great attraction for beetles, birds and squirrels and even horses from the near by riding school.
I found it most fascinating to observe how so many numerous threads could be connected to just one species binding us all in the web of life.
Bamboo plays an important role in the lives of humans and is a part of various cultures and livelihoods.
In Auroville, it is used in the craft industry – for basketry, musical instruments, weaving curtains and in construction.
Auroville's Bamboo Research Centre also promotes bamboo plantation and its sustainable harvesting and uses.
An interesting point about bamboo has been recently reported: It absorbs 35% more CO2 than other trees and may have a significant role to play in global warming.
While Maya and I made our own discoveries in the canyons of Auroville, Smiti was travelling across India on a biodiversity adventure of her own.
I went for a Landscapes and Lifeskills course at the beginning of March
that took us through three different biomes of India .
From Auroville's Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest to Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala, a Tropical Rain Forest ecosystem, then to Pachmarhi, a highland ecosystem in Central India, and finally to Munsiari, an Alpine and temperate forest zone in the foothills of the Himalayas, near the border of Tibet and Nepal.
Our first stop – Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in the Western Ghats . It is a lush, tropical rain forest that is home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna. The area has been labelled a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot' – and hosts many exotic and endangered species.
Next we travelled to Pachmarhi in the Satpura mountain range.
The place is characterized by rocky cliffs dropping into wide valleys with rivers meandering through them, as well as grasslands and meadows, with dry deciduous forests and scrub jungles.
And… finally the Himalayas !
There I lived with a local family in a small mountain village near Munsiari (surrounded by pristine peaks and the pure atmosphere of the Himalayas ).
We not only learned about the environment, such as the varied 6 altitudinal belts that could be found within our valley, ranging from subtropical to Montane and to alpine and above.
But also about the socio-cultural aspects: the people, their livelihoods, their folklore, culture and the traditional arts.
I specifically looked at the cycle of wool, a precious commodity that has nurtured a people and culture for generations, which reflects the delicate balance between us and the environment.
Climate change seemed much closer with water becoming a scarcity for the first time in the area, less snows in winter and observations like: It is not so cold any more, we don't wear our wools! What came home to me the most was the simplicity and reality of life in those unforgiving conditions in which interactions with nature are first hand and every action you take or idea you stand for is tested and thrown back at you, being faced with yourself that much sooner…
Returning again to Auroville after my three month voyage– there is still so much to assimilate, so much to understand... We have each mentioned that a lot of reforestation work has been done in Auroville.
This is what Auroville looked like in the late sixties. A dry barren desert land, totally unsuitable for habitation – human or otherwise.
Who would believe that adventurers coming from all across the world would transform the place in just four decades…
THIS is Auroville today! A thriving forest with green cover, plant and animal species reappearing; soil erosion controlled; water table rising;
Research in sustainable practices – renewable energies, organic farming and alternative building techniques…
But Auroville is not just a place for environmental work. It is much more…
"Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity."