A man-made forest in the heart of Aluva is the effort of a group of environmentalists headed by Professor S. Sitaraman.

A man-made forest in the heart of a growing city is a wonder and a matter of great pride. How did a mini forest come about in a jungle of concrete? ‘Harithavanam’ on the banks of the Mangalapuzha near Sivarathri Manappuram, Aluva was born when a sensitive bureaucrat with a love for plants and a group of nature lovers with a drive to green the city got together. Twenty years after it was planted ‘Harithavanam’, a unique experiment, has expanded in area and supports a thriving eco-system. This green lung is the fruit of dedicated work done by Professor S. Sitaraman and his team. But the creation of the forest was not easy. It was a constant struggle against a capricious river and negotiations with a judgemental public.

Strengthening the embankment

The banks of the Mangalapuzha, a tributary of the Periyar, faced continual erosion by the flood waters each year leading to loss of soil and land. Embankment done, using rubble masonry, was invariably lost to the rising waters. A more permanent solution was required. It was then that Sitaraman suggested planting a forest.

Sitaraman retired as professor of Chemistry from Sree Sankara College, Kalady, after 32 years of service. Recalling the beginning of the project he says, “In 1987, then District Collector the late K.R. Rajan, was interested in environmental projects for the city. This project was initiated by him under a scheme called Integrated Development of Kochi. The initial funding, a small amount, was sanctioned by the Science and Technology Department. This was an experimental project to protect river banks by planting trees. I had suggested afforestation on an experimental basis,” recounts Sitaraman for whom ‘tree is life’.

In the first year (1992) Sitaraman, assisted by his former colleague Prof. Gopalakrishna Moorthy, planted 850 trees in 20,000 square kilometre of land.

The two faced many challenges, social and technical. The presence of clayey soil did not permit the planting of trees with deep roots. That year the flood waters destroyed 50 per cent of the young trees forcing the two environmentalists to rethink their strategy. They opted for species that could survive the deluge and came up with 63 varieties of hardy plants. “Clayey soil is high on nutrients and helped in the growth of the plants, once they stabilised,” says Sitaraman.

In the second round of planting they doubled the number of trees raising it to 1,600 plants. Importance was given to plants such as poomaruthu, erul and the like, which have hard trunks. It was planted along with a mix of yellow and green bamboos. The two ecologists noticed that as the plants began to stabilise there was collection of silt and the soil was enriched. Simultaneously, they had to tackle social hurdles like the rush of devotees to the nearby temple which almost always brought many into the cordoned off precincts of the young forest. Curiosity led the public to break fences and enter. After the forest began to grow in form and shape it began getting noticed. Birds began roosting and suddenly a new habitat supported by the trees came about. “It was the birth of life itself,” says Sitaraman who takes a daily morning walk in the forest.

The initial five years

“It took more than five years to stabilise. We had a lot of problems initially. People were speculative about our efforts. But we both strived hard. There was a paid assistant to help us. Today, things have changed, people are appreciative and accept this as unique work,” says Gopalakrishna.

With the success of the first phase the two environmentalists began receiving support from all quarters. During the second stage it became part of People’s Plan campaign, Janakeeya Asoothranam.

M.K. Thampi, a teacher of Rama Varma Union High School, Cherai, became the convener of the group carrying out the planting. The Association for Environmental Protection, Aluva, joined in the second phase. The second forest, adjacent to the first, planted in 1997, is over one-and-a-half square kilometre of land. There are roughly about 250 mahogany trees besides other different species. The river, even when in spate, is now unable to draw the soil out. The banks are firm and the experiment is a success.

Chinnan Pynadath, General Secretary, Association for Environment Protection, Aluva, says: “This is a man made forest, a first of its kind. There is a walkway inside and school children are brought here to study a model of a forest.” As secretary of the association he is now busy warding off attempts by various bodies to commercialise the project and throw it open to public, a move that Sitaraman strongly opposes. “There is a walkway and walkers can have a good 45-minute walk. But the forest is not open for other activities.”

As the group of environmentalists reflects on this green venture Gopalakrishna says, “it is a pleasant sight to see different species of birds, to hear the chorus. The man-made forest renders almost all the functions of a natural forest except that there are no wild animals. But we human beings are sometimes more dangerous to the environment.”