‘Magic in Her Hands.’ The Woman Bringing India’s Forests Back to Life

HONNALI, India — She has walked for miles, deep into tropical rainforests, carefully cutting healthy branches from hundreds of trees and replanting and grafting them. Her eyes light up when she talks about rare seeds or a sapling. And when she dies, she would like to be reborn, she says, as a big tree.

Tulsi Gowind Gowda — who doesn’t know the year of her birth but believes she is more than 80 — has devoted her life to transforming vast swaths of barren land in her native state of Karnataka, in southern India, into dense forests.

Over the years, she has received around a dozen prizes for her pioneering conservation work. But the most prestigious came last year, when the government recognized her efforts and her vast knowledge of forest ecosystems with the Padma Shri award, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.

On a recent morning, Ms. Gowda sat in a plastic chair welcoming visitors to her three-room home in Honnali, a village of about 150 houses at the edge of a forest. She wore a backless sari, designed to make physical labor easier, and six layers of beads around her neck made of stones and natural fiber. Behind her a wall-mounted showcase was filled with pictures and plastic sculptures of Hindu deities and photographs of her award ceremonies.

When India was under British rule, the colonizers led a huge deforestation drive in the country.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

Winning the Padma Shri award, India’s fourth highest civilian honor, brought Ms. Gowda unaccustomed attention, with its extensive coverage in the Indian press. When villagers see her these days, they bow down, and children stop to take selfies with her. Busloads of students arrive at her home, where she lives with 10 members of her family, including her great-grandchildren.

“When I see them, I feel happy,” she said, referring to the students, in an interview. They need to be taught how important it is to plant trees, she said.

When India was under British rule, the colonizers led a huge deforestation drive in the mountains to strip wood to make ships and lay railway tracks, wiping out much of the forest cover of the Uttara Kannada district, where Ms. Gowda lives.

After India’s independence in 1947, the country’s leaders continued to exploit forest areas for large-scale industrialization and urbanization. Between 1951 and 1980, around 4.2 million hectares of land, or about 10.4 million acres, was devoted to developmental projects, according to government figures.

Even as a child, Ms. Gowda, who never learned to read, worked to reverse the stripping of local forests by replanting trees. During daylong trips to forests to collect firewood for the family, her mother taught her how regeneration is best done with seeds from big, healthy trees. When she was a teenager she turned a gutted landscape behind her family house into a dense forest, local residents and Indian officials say.

“Since her childhood, she spoke to trees like a mother would speak to her infant children,” said Rukmani, a local woman who uses only one name, and has worked with Ms. Gowda for decades.

Ms. Gowda still works at the nursery, after officially retiring in 1998.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

By 1983, government conservation policies had changed. That year, a top Indian forest officer, Adugodi Nanjappa Yellappa Reddy, arrived at a government nursery in Karnataka with a daunting task: to reforest large portions of land in the area.

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On his first day of work, under a sweltering sun, he met Ms. Gowda, who worked at the nursery. She was separating small stones from soil and meticulously planting seeds and saplings.

“There was some magic in her hands,” said Mr. Reddy, 86, and now retired. “Her knowledge to identify indigenous species and collect them carefully and nurture trees can be found in no book.”

Ms. Gowda became his valuable adviser, Mr. Reddy said. And working with him brought her new attention locally, with residents beginning to call her “the goddess of trees.”

Ms. Gowda walked barefoot to receive her medal for the Padma Shri award in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the president in New Delhi. Throughout her life, Ms. Gowda said in the interview, she has walked barefoot and never worn shoes, not uncommon for members of her tribal community.

The Padma Shri award that Ms. Gowda received last year for her achievement in forest conservation.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times
A tree sapling in the forest.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

India’s 700 or so tribal groups have a population of 104 million, according to the last completed census, in 2011. Out of those groups, more than 600 communities are scheduled tribes, which means they get certain government benefits, including preference in educational institutions and government jobs.

But Ms. Gowda’s tribe, the Halakki-Vokkaligas — population about 180,000 — was never given scheduled status. Members of her tribe, who have occupied the vast tropical forests of the western mountains in the state for centuries, have been agitating for such recognition since 2006.

The poverty rate among the Halakki-Vokkaligas is about 95 percent, with only 15 percent completing any level of education, said Shridhar Gouda, a teacher at Karnataka University who has studied the community for decades.

The state itself is minimally developed. In the district where Ms. Gowda lives, roads are unpaved, schools are often nonfunctional and there are no emergency hospitals, even though it is one of the state’s largest districts.

“Many people die on the roads while trying to reach hospitals,” Mr. Gouda said.

Women taking a break while working at the nursery. Part of Ms. Gowda’s work there now is to share her knowledge of the area’s trees with younger workers.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

Ms. Gowda worked for 65 years in the government nursery, retiring officially in 1998, though she continues to do some work there in an advisory role, sharing her immense knowledge of local trees.

While she said she often feels tired after long conversations with visitors, a walk by rice fields, past a billboard with her life-size picture on it and through a dense forest filled with acacia trees seemed to invigorate her.

During the walk, she stopped frequently to recite the names of trees and plants in her native Kannada language: Garcinia indica (in the mangosteen family), Ficus benghaliens (or banyan) and tamarind, among dozens of others she could find.

In recent months, the number of people arriving at her house to see her has increased, she said. Often, they ask her about climate change. She said she doesn’t understand what it means. All she knows, she said, is that the space of trees and animals has been encroached upon, with large-scale destruction of forest land and its ecosystem.

And she has noticed that monsoons in her part of the world are more erratic and dangerous, killing people because of flooding and land sliding.

Ms. Gowda at home, where she lives with 10 members of her family, including her great-grandchildren.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

“The reversal will take a lot of time,” she said, referring to the re-greening of stripped land, but she also expressed some optimism for the future. “When I see these filled forests here, I feel it is possible for humans to prosper without cutting trees.”

Despite the hubbub of visitors, not much seems to have changed for Ms. Gowda personally since she became a national celebrity, except that the local village council built a wooden bridge outside her house for her to use to cross a small stream. She said she never uses it and instead wades through the stream.

Her son and grandsons work on a small piece of land they own and also in others’ fields. They depend on the forests around them for firewood and medicines. Her tribe is known for its knowledge of medicinal plants, which members use to cure disease.

Ms. Gowda said that as she has turned frail recently, she often thinks about death and dying.

“The best death would be under the shade of a big tree with huge branches,” she said. “I like them more than anything else in my life.”

The village of Honnali, at the edge of a forest.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times
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