We settled down in the corner of a local tea shop to say our goodbyes with Kattan chai after a day of visiting sacred grooves, bamboo reserves, and tribal villages of Meenanagadi Panchayat. “Pavithran Sir, you were born and spent most of your time here…. what’s your most fav place around Meenangadi?” I asked
He paused for a few seconds and said, “Ayiooo we never went to my fav place only. We should go there before the sunset” he looked at the watch and said, “madam, we should go! You will like it there.”
He quickly got up and stormed out.
Our Kattan chai went into my flask, and I followed him.
“Gear up for a small hike Madam, it’s not a very difficult one, but you should be prepared.”
“But where are we going?”
“I don’t think it has a name, but it’s my favorite place on earth; it’s the most beautiful place you will ever see.”
After driving for about 20 mins, we stopped at the end of a narrow road.
He scrambled around the place for a while, talking to himself, trying to figure out where the trail starts.
He found it and reckoned to me. There was a rough path for half a km, and after that, it was all boulders and an unmarked trail. The forest was dense. We just followed the light.
He first climbed the boulders, and then he pulled me up and helped me to climb up. I couldn’t help but wonder at his enthusiasm at that age. He must have told me about his favorite place over chai and said goodbye but no 🙂
I was already huffing and puffing. He granted me a quick 2 mins break. The wild grass was as tall as me, with onion-cloured grass flowers at the end. Never seen anything like this before. I realized I never went on an impromptu hike like this.
We started hiking again.
“There are no tigers or other wild animals here, but beware of snakes. don’t step on them.”
He looked at my baffled face, laughed, and said “they are harmless, madam. All wild animals are unless they feel threatened.”
After 20 mins of hiking which felt like an hour, we reached the top of the hill. It was Breezy with massive rocks placed on top of each other, and the views magnificent. It was literally in the center of Wayanad. Verdant valleys, tea gardens, and streams on one side and the mighty sight of Edakkal caves on the other.
“Madam, if this is not paradise on earth, I don’t know what is. Have you ever been to a more beautiful place than this?” he asked.
Spoilt with all the travel I’ve done in my life, I’ve seen/been in more beautiful places than this, but I smiled and said, “NEVER! Thank you for bringing me here.”
The grin on his face was worth saying so. This place means a lot to him, and I’m glad he shared it with me. What beauty can beat that?
We poured some Kattan chai, settled in the shade of a huge rock, and witnessed the most heartfelt sunset in a long, long time.
Meenagadi is a small village in the mountains of Wayanad, land of locals and tribal communities on a relatively lower altitude away from the tourist crowds. The roads that lead to the village are straight from poems with well-manicured vast tea gardens, passing windy streams and mountains in the distance striding away into the blue skies. This quaint tiny hamlet is not any regular village but the one on its way to becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral village.
Pavithran Mash is a retired school teacher from Menangadi, and he’s also in charge of the Meenangadi carbon neutral project. I first heard about this project from Naveen, a friend who co-founded Tyndis Heritage and is trying to put north Kerala on the tourist map. Through storytelling and responsible tourism, they are creating alternative livelihoods for locals.
Pavithran Mash was one of their storytellers and I did a day trip with them while I was in Wayanad to draw some inspiration. It was one of the most meaningful experiences so far.
When climate change became too real!
During 2015-16 locals of Meenangadi were victimized by climate change. The major crops are tea, pepper, and spices, all of which are climate-sensitive. With the rise in temperatures, they had a significant dip in the harvest. They wanted to do something about it but had no idea how to tackle the situation.
At the same time, TM Thomas Isaac, the finance minister, sent a letter to all the panchayats in Kerala asking them to express interest in a state-sponsored carbon neutral pilot project. Thomas Isaac was already instrumental in successfully implementing projects like kutambashree and gained trust in the locals. The panchayat members decided to come forward to take up this ambitious project. On June 5th, 2016, on the world environmental day, Meenangadi Panchayat in Wayanad district pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020.
And the Journey began
As part of the project, organizations like MS Swaminathan Research Foundation’s Community Agrobiodiversity Centre, Kannur University, and a local NGO, Thanal, came to Meenanagadi to flag the project. With the help of locals, they did multiple surveys to calculate their carbon footprint. Energy audit, waste audit, and survey of household trees to name a few. They then included details like common electricity for streetlights and offices from the Mysore grid, LPG, private & public transport, and even added the footprint of people traveling domestically and internationally.
An estimated 33,375 tons of co2 was produced, and 21962 tons was absorbed within the existing ecosystem. A 3-year-old tree that absorbs about 25 kilos of co2 per year. By that calculation, they will have to plant lakhs of trees. Now the aim is not only to offset the gap of 11,413 tons but also to reduce the emissions along with organizing plantation drives.
They planted 2 lakh saplings, swore to protect 54 mini forests and sacred grooves, and dug 456 ponds to conserve water, and took measures to reduce the carbon footprint.
Earlier that day, we started by visiting the school that preserves 50 varieties of bamboo and grows its own food. The headmaster dug up some tapioca for us to munch on as he gave a tour of the bamboo reserve.
The school was surrounded by bamboo trees that penciled to the sky with a cobblestone walkway in between. It was at least 5-6 degrees colder when compared to outside.
“Bamboo forests function as carbon sinks. They capture huge amounts of carbon and generate oxygen. They are known to hold groundwater and control soil erosion. It also acts as a natural sewage treatment system and gives organic material back. They have a purifying effect on nature,” He said.
“Also beautifies the landscape dramatically,” I added
“Yes, our kids spend a lot of time around this reserve and passionately take care of the trees. sometimes we even have classes here in the open.”
How Awesome, I thought. This school received a national award for its work, and the government categorized this as one of the country’s Biodiversity projects.
Protecting Mini forests with a religious twist!
Next up, we visited a few sacred grooves. The first groove we visited was called Punya Vanam. Sacred grooves are nothing but mini forests with a Kaav in the center. We had to hike through fruit orchards with so many monkeys feasting on the harvest to reach the center. Kaav is a temple but without a dome. The top of the temple is supposed to be covered by the trees, and hence they leave it open.
Every tree and a branch and a leaf inside this forest becomes scared because of the Kaav; hence locals & the politicians protect it with utmost sincerity.
Each sacred groove is unique to the other. Each had a different set of endangered, native trees and had diverse landscapes.
I had to hold my shoes and cross a cold stream to enter one of the grooves we visited that day. Another one was down the hill, a flat valley surrounded by the mighty mountains of the western ghats. I tried to breathe and take in as much oxygen as possible to cleanse my metropolitan, pollution-breathing lungs.
There are 54 protected sacred groves in Meenangadi that play a vital role in this project.
Becoming self-sustained and eco-friendly
“Before starting this project, we never heard about the word sustainability and never knew how fulfilling and life-changing it could be. Here we are trying to make it a way of living,” Pavithran mash says.
The Panchayat has since shifted to solar energy to power the government offices, street lights, and other public entities. An LED manufacturing plant was set up to supply energy-efficient lights to households.
They also focused on food sustainability. Awareness drives were conducted to start home/community vegetable gardens. Booklets and free seeds were supplied to every household. They also identified about 70 acres of land which is now used for growing vegetables.
By 2017 February, they worked with merchants and vendors, educated them about plastic pollution, and started promoting cloth bags. By the end of the year, they banned single-use plastic in the Panchayat.
Every household was given training on segregating and composting the waste. Since 2016, regular sabhas are being held at the community hall every month to raise awareness and innovate new solutions to problems.
They say change is never easy, but it’s possible. We have to fight to hold on to new changes and also fight to let go of old habits. It’s years of resilience by 34600 people who call this village home.
They held on to this cause, braving people with power who tried to stop them because it was causing obstacles for their mining and timber businesses which made the local political parties include conservation agendas in their election manifestos.
The villagers now grow a variety of crops that grow in the shade of large trees, including rare varieties of coffees and cocoa. Pavithran mash says that since their yield will now have a carbon-neutral tag, they hope to get a better price in the markets.
Today Meenangadi is not only carbon neutral but also witnessed many positive changes that came along. Last year three elephants came and stayed in one of the protected forests. Many varieties of birds returned. The locals say that it feels much colder during summers with all the breeze coming from the mini forests.
Meenanagadi reminds the world to have more projects like this. We metro dwellers can contribute to the change in multiple ways by visiting projects like these and encouraging them to continue doing more. By donating to carbon offsetting projects. By planting more trees in your colony, apartment, community. By being conscious of food and lifestyle choices.
Let’s do our part while we still can!
My heartfelt thanks to organizations like Tyndis Heritage for organizing meaningful and responsible experiences like these in Kerala and beyond!
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Also read: CHANGING THE WAY WE TRAVEL POST LOCKDOWN!
Category: Sustainable travel in Kerala, Meaningful experiences in Kerala, offbeat Kerala, Responsible travel in Kerala.