In the early 1980s I was in Kashmir for a month, trekking with my friend Muhammad. We set up camp and lived for a few weeks with a local tribe, the Gurjar, in a pine forest way up in the higher Himalayas. The smell of pine smoke and cattle in a timeless mountain landscape, and the sound of a cascading river of bright fresh water, will always be my first memory of these beautiful, proud people.
I was a young man then, with a big dark beard, dressed like a Kashmiri. The Gurjar were kind and hospitable throughout those few weeks – one mother even offered to pair me off with her daughter. Flattering though this was, I declined and offered them a pack of biscuits instead, which they seemed happy with.
I climbed one day to the top of a mountain and we sat enjoying the view, until a young Gurjar man appeared, seemingly from nowhere. He threw a few words at us and then ran off down the mountain. “What’s the matter?” I asked Muhammad. “John, it’s going to rain, we have to get down quickly,” he replied. I felt a little confused as the sun was beating down on our heads, but Muhammad was pulling me urgently to my feet and before long we were running headlong down the mountain, surfing the loose shingle in our haste. Torrential rain quickly followed and within minutes the mountainside became a surging torrent of muddy water that followed us all the way down.
At the bottom we were ushered into an old cabin by an ancient Gurjar with a bright orange beard. We sat steaming around the fire and were given a welcome hot tea with a spoonful of salt. “Good for health,” said Muhammad, “drink!”
When we stepped outside a little later the rain had stopped and the sun was peering round the doorway. We stood quietly for a minute or two, dripping like the tall pines that surrounded us, then we made our way back to our base in the valley.
I met up with the Gurjar again this year in Rajaji National Park. Some 5,000 of them live around the buffer zone in the reserve forest. They lived in this area well before the Indian national parks were created, but were asked to relocate to the edges of the park to allow the core area to become truly wild, with no human pressures or deforestation.
The Gurjar make their living buying and selling water buffalo and cows. Their water buffalo milk is top quality and utterly delicious – after a glass my aches and pains disappeared and I felt immediately rejuvenated.
Gurjar buffalos fetch a good price as they give a higher yield of superior milk to cows, but it does come at an environmental price.
Normal buffalo milk is quite watery but the Gurjar enhance the flavour and creaminess by feeding their cattle with leaves from the sen trees.
Local farmers follow suit, but sadly it is the Gurjar who bear the brunt of blame for cutting down sen trees that have not traditionally been replaced.
They also need fuel, as do many villagers – for this to be sustainable locals in rural areas all need to plant and grow more trees to maintain a healthy forest.
We too must learn from this. People everywhere need trees, whether or not you live in the jungle. We should all be planting to make the best of our future.
Education is vital for us all, yet thousands of Gurjar have never been to school. Their population is growing, but without education they are deprived of choice and the chance to change their lives if they want to.
While in Rajaji I met an old man called Alam Gir at his home where his family had been relocated. As the oldest in the village, with his experience of 95 years, I felt he would be a perfect person to ask to plant3trees. He agreed, and while I and other friends helped him plant the trees, he wanted to know more about me.
I told him I was returning to Corbett National Park, a place I thought of as home. His eyes lit up, then contracted in sadness as he told me he grew up in the buffer zone around Corbett, some 500 miles away. When he was still young, both his parents had died in an outbreak of malaria, along with other family members and friends. Alam was one of the few survivors and now he wanted to return to be buried with his family.
After some thought, we struck a bargain. If he looked after the trees we had planted, I would take him the following year back to his childhood home, which would give him some time to think about it. He asked if he died before I returned, would I take his son, and I agreed. I then spoke with his son and said if he planted a tree nursery for replanting back into the forest, I would help him set up a school for his children on my return next year.
India holds up a mirror to the world – what is happening here is also happening somewhere else. The Gurjar tribes reflect similar issues for native Amazonian indians, aboriginals, American indians, the baka, and pygmies. For countless generations these peoples have lived as part of a vast ecosystem that is shrinking fast. We should all be finding ways to replace what has been lost if we want claim ourselves as an intelligent species.
I would like to thank my friends Ravi Viru and Raman for making it possible to pass on the message of plant3trees to over 18 settlements where Gurjar now live with their families. Many of them are not only planting 3 trees, but also creating tree nurseries and planting seeds, that will grow into saplings and eventually rejuvenate the forest.
Nothing can succeed by itself, plant3trees.