The Coop Forest in Salem experiments with finding alternatives to plastic, steel and cement. Anusha Parthasarathy finds out more about this for-profit forest

Piyush Manush was looking for a way to fight consumerism. In 2004, he found one. He began Coop Forest, through which he hopes to create a for-profit forest that will not just serve the eco-friendly businesses that thrive in it (and those who consume these natural products) but also help re-establish the importance of a forest to society.

Soon Manush and his friends were experimenting with green architecture and technology. He started a bamboo manufacturing unit recently, employing 20 people who help make bamboo furniture. “Bamboo is among the strongest and most versatile material available. And it can be used for anything,” says Piyush.

He has also come up with a host of eco-friendly building alternatives that can be grown commercially in the forest. “Areca sheath plates can replace thermocol and plastic, vermicompost can replace petrochemical-based fertilisers, bamboo is a wonderful replacement for steel and cement,” he explains. Coop Forest also has stoves designed to reduce 60 per cent of firewood consumption and emissions. “Our green buildings are built from soil, stone, bamboo pillars and mats. Agave plantations give us fibre and sweet sugar syrup, and act as a live fence. Use of matka ghat, a very efficient bio-pesticide made from buttermilk and crushed neem, pongamia, and clatoporis leaves replaces chemical toxic pesticides and the cost is less than Rs. 30 rupees a litre.” he says.

The team also handles weekly workshops for schools from Salem and nearby towns on eco-friendly and sustainable living. “We teach them to make bricks so that they see the labour behind it. We take classes on how waste can be very useful,” he adds.

It all started when Manush decided that academics wasn’t his forte. Neither was carrying on the family business. So from being a student activist while in college, he went on to become a green activist in the late 1990s. He planted trees, started producing areca plates and popularised them, got involved in vermicomposting, and realised that green businesses were sustainable. He then tried his hand at farming and bought half an acre of land outside his hometown, Salem. This quickly expanded into 150 acres, as more of Manush’s friends joined him. Now, a team of 40 runs Coop Forest.

“Farmers are migrating to cities in search of better opportunities. Dharmapuri is a migration-prone area because of its undulating landscape. So we thought that if we could build a forest here, it could work anywhere.” Over the years, the Coop Forest has turned into a home for bamboo (Piyush has planted 40,000 bamboo saplings) and guava, lemon, vilvam, neem, rosewood, pungam, custard apple, jack fruit, silk cotton, Singapore cherry, chiku, mango, and other varieties of plants and trees. “The area we chose was dry and arid. Here we planted about 25 species of trees, bamboo mostly, and tried using different soil alignment techniques,” says Piyush. He worked on methods like trenching and water-harvesting for water and soil conservation.

Now he is also looking at developing aloe vera and mushrooms in the forest. “Aloe vera juice production costs us less than Rs. 20 per litre and has great potential. We have just planted 40,000 aloe vera saplings. We’re now starting to grow mushrooms using bamboo leaves as a medium. We’ve been quite successful so far,” he adds. In this way, Coop Forest continues to grow, not just in the number of trees it holds within its fold, but size-wise too, “Every year we try and add more acres to this property. We bought 20 acres last year and about six more this year.”

Through this model, Manush and his friends hope to inspire more people to cultivate forests that can regenerate the economy.

“Here, we will provide opportunities for those interested in starting green businesses. They will be given space and the finance to work on their idea. We do not seek a premium market to compete with our technology. All we are trying to do is replenish our forests and replace detrimental technology that affects humans as well as their environment. It is important because forests are our only solution and we cannot survive without them,” says this green warrior.