He was aged and ailing. Yet, never imagined Prof. Akira Miyawaki, (93), the legendary Japanese environmentalist, would leave his beloved earth so soon when we had spent an entire forenoon last week discussing him at a tiny village in Thiruvananthapuram. We were not just discussing the master but seeing his amazing philosophy in 'flesh and blood' at Puliyarakonam, 16 km off the city. And the man with me was M.R. Hari, the 'Malayali Missionary' of Miyawaki who made his guru's green mission a living monument. Hari had studied journalism and law but chose to be a successful ICT entrepreneur as he always followed his passion.
In 2005 Hari bought a 2 acre-hill slope with his long cherished dream to create a forest. But never did he imagine he would be rudely woken up from his dream so soon. For, the entire slope was infested with heavy rocks and too arid. No trace of water even as the river Karamanayaar-Thiruvananthapuram's lifeline- was gurgling ahead right below. A surface well he dug turned out dry even after 350 feet. Nothing grew on the parched earth except thorny shrubs.
The 1990s and 2000s in Kerala saw the post-liberalization flow of remittances from the Gulf bringing a new prosperity and kicking up ravenous consumerism among Malayalis. Kerala began to climb from the ranks of India's poorest states to the prosperous, thanks to increased growth and rising per capita income fuelled by remittances. Yet, the growth was confined to the service sector consisting of construction, tourism etc even as farming and manufacturing remained laggards. Land prices went through the roof and real estate sharks prowled around ransacking even environmentally fragile regions. The expanded Malayali middle class's obsession with 'development' led to wanton destruction of paddy lands, mining riverbeds, flattening hills, filling up water bodies etc. With no urban rural divide, the entire state's green lungs were invaded to pave way for apartment complexes, shopping malls, widened roads etc. Every nook and corner of God's Own Country turned into huge, stinking waste dumps.
Hari's rocky slope too didn't escape the eagle eyes. The construction spree led to quarrying becoming Kerala's most lucrative business as hundreds of unauthorized quarries ravaged the Western Ghats. Rock-infested and parched lands which were once seen useless became hottest in the market. Naturally, Hari also was flooded with big offers for his rock-rich slope, many times more than what he had paid to buy. Local pressures mounted to build roads through the slope to pave way for the development band wagon. But Hari didn't relent and carried on his task with hope against hope. He spent heavily to pump river water to the hill and also to head-load workers to carry truckload of cow dung all the way up. Yet, most saplings hardly survived a summer.
Year 2015 turned out to be a watershed in Hari's life. He came across Miyawaki, his philosophy and techniques of afforestation. The venerable Japanese botanist had introduced a vision and method to build up micro forests even on tiny pieces of land in urban areas with dense clusters of native trees. His goal; replenish the planet of its losing green cover and natural biodiversity. Highly impressed, Hari went into a deep dive into Miyawaki collecting and reading whatever was available on the man and his methods. In 2018 Hari rolled out the master's vision on a 4 cents-block on his barren slope. The steps were; 1. Dig up a one-meter-deep trench on the entire 4 cents 2. Fill the pit with a mixture of soil, bran, dry cow dung dust and coconut fiber 3. Divide the plot into four 1 Square meter blocks and plant four saplings of indigenous trees on each.
The results were swift and miraculous. The slope which remained barren even after decade long farming efforts, soon started looking different. The saplings were not just growing but touched 10 feet in just one year! The Blue Planet Prize winning Miyawaki who promised to recreate depleted forests on 'factory sites, parking lots, or even the Great Wall of China' was ringing true!
Totally gripped by the Miyawaki magic by now, Hari even purchased the out-of-print classic, The Healing Power of Forests, the master co-authored with Elgene O.Box, in an online auction for a mind boggling Rs 50,000 including customs duty for a single copy! In 2019, Hari set out to Tokyo to meet the master but was disappointed to hear it was impossible as the nonagenarian was convalescing after treatment for cerebral damage. But Hari patiently worked through some friends and contacts to finally secure an appointment with the master in his hospital room. Miyawaki, who had never even heard of Kerala, was soon impressed by his visitor's passion. The half an hour appointment went on for 4 hours by which Miyawaki not just accepted the Malayali as his missionary but even granted the copyright of his book to be translated. Hari purchased more than 200 copies of the original -at one tenth of the price he paid for one copy at the auction!-from Tokyo, brought them to Kerala to give them free to everyone genuinely interested and get the gospel spread.
Today, the once barren hill is a hotspot of biodiversity where more than 2000 plants belonging to 170 odd species proudly aim at the sun. With some improvisations made to the Miyawaki protocol, the slope consists of 4 forest sectors- flowering plants, fruit plants, medicinal herbs and mixed vegetables. Drilling holes, he has planted on hard rock boulders too. Hari knows each and every herb, flower and tree by name and their value. There are many rare and much forgotten indigenous varieties too. The hill is not arid any more with enough water retained by plants, the well is full, aroma of fruits and medicinal herbs fill the air, birds and butterflies have returned, fishes abound in water bodies, the once silent slope is awash with chirping crickets and white button mushrooms pop up precisely on every October 31! A forest that would normally have taken a century to grow into full adulthood is to be ready at Moonnamood in 15 years, thanks to Miyawaki and his Malayali missionary.