On the occasion of World Forestry Day, Tanya Balcar and Robert W.Stewart spell their vision for an ecologically prosperous future.

When you love something, you have the urge to protect it. When Londoners Tanya Balcar as a 17-year-old and Robert W.Stewart then 21 arrived in Kodaikanal 28 years ago, they were enchanted by the green cover of the Palani Hills.

“We were in a trance seeing forests all around. Exploring the hinterlands and discovering for the first time the ancient remnant forests known as sholas was magical. Tourism had not really taken off in the sleepy hill town then.”

But there was something that disturbed them. The locals were chopping down trees to meet their needs for firewood. And the mode of cutting was inimical to self-regeneration. Tanya and Bob could not be mute spectators to this tragic loss.

They believe, “Preserving the forests is a moral necessity.”

The decimation of the botanical treasure, Bob and Tanya realised long ago, would mean an unrecognised loss of the habitat, the wildlife, the indigenous cultures. Was there something that they could do to counter the indiscriminate ripping of the forest cover? They started collecting, growing and distributing seeds and saplings of fruit-bearing and firewood trees among the people and drawing the locals into voluntary plantation.

It wasn't long before their project grew beyond its origin. What began as a simple nursery to provide the locals with useful trees, today the change is witnessed by all. The quality of shola has improved, a fact acknowledged by the forest deparment too. Bob and Tanya’s year’s of hard work is incredible. They grow a forest inside the nursery and then put it back in the denuded areas.

“Outsiders may think it is a natural forest, but it is actually a transplanted one,” laughs Tanya. “We are working towards tilting the balance towards regeneration as against depletion,” she says. “And to achieve that”, adds Bob, “it is crucial to take the locals along with us on the greening journey.”

Over the years they have been organising tree-planting expeditions into the wastelands involving the kids, youths and adults. It didn’t take long for the villagers to understand that the degraded sholas could deeply affect their lives in the future. Tree planting became a regular and enjoyable social activity and the locals started showing active interest in the sights, sounds and smells of forest flora and fauna.

“It was important to create this sense of connect to ensure that villagers did no further harm to the trees and instead contributed to covering the gaps in vegetation,” says Bob.

Even after the villagers took to the tree-hugging culture and the principle of conserving the sholas had been won, Bob and Tanya’s work was far from over. They wanted to protect the Palani forests, the native plants of the hills, the endangered species such as the Nilgiri Tahrs. “Two decades ago we even dreamt of getting the sambar deers and giant squirrels from the Coimbatore zoo. We wanted to restore the balance back to nature. It is better if tigers come on their own and keep the poachers away,” points out Tanya.

The duo chalked out a community programme involving the locals in not only planting and growing trees, shrubs and herbs but also engaging them in collecting data about the region’s flora and fauna. But what took years was persuading the forest department for permission to enter the ‘forbidden territory’. It finally came in 2001, when Bob and Tanya established the Vattakanal Conservation Trust with the aim of to retain and revegetate the unique, composite ecosystem of Shola forests and grasslands.

They regularly involved themselves in conservation activities such as hacking the weeds, planting and watering saplings in the degraded patches. While they set up two nurseries as the focal point for routine distribution of shola saplings, they also established three green houses where they raise rare, endemic and threatened low elevation species and ornamental exotics that include more than 200 varieties of cacti. These they sell to hotels or use for landscaping and commercial purpose to generate some income.

Says Bob, the shola today is twice as big as it used to be. The nilgiri langurs are coming back due to the fantastic regeneration of the sholas. “The key to restoration is the involvement of the local people with support from the forest department now,” he adds.

Is their model replicable? Tanya says restoration work is case-specific. For instance, the wattle known for its deep, water-guzzling roots acted as nursing cover for the natural spread of Shola forest species in Palani Hills and young shola saplings can be seen thriving among wattle. “While Acacia species may be the best nurse for Shola, Eucalyptus and even dense Pine plantations will eventually give way to Shola,” she adds.

While a big shola forest in the end is good, Bob and Tanya also realise the importance of saving the pristine grasslands, which are being encroached upon by the shola species. “We have to save the remaining grasslands,” they assert.

Both have long-term visions and want to expand their work, which includes restoring the semi-urban ‘Bombay shola' in Kodaikanal, establishing conservation gardens, restoring habitats to ensure the survival of specific species and developing the horticultural skills of the local people.

They want to create awareness of the intrinsic value of nature in all its forms to prevent the ongoing crime against nature and future humanity. “And this is possible’, they assert, “when the spirit of voluntarism shifts from ‘yes we can’ to ‘yes we must’ goals.”