A slice of Western Ghats tucked in the corner of an urban cluster - this green haven is the work of V Mohammed Koya, 60, who has carved out a mini Ghats, with a thick canopy of more than 300 species of trees and 1,000-odd medicinal plants, in Arambara, about 22 km from Kozhikode.
Governments and ecologists may be splitting hairs over expert committees (see box) and their findings to save the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats but this businessman realised the need to protect the rain-forest a long time ago.
Koya's forest is not just a cover of green; he nurtures trees with connections to our cultural past. Each tree has a story to tell. Many, such as the Ashoka Vanam, have been featured in epics like the Ramayana (Sita is said to have taken refuge under it, in Ravana's garden), and other world literature. The chestnut tree mentioned in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Subabul mentioned in Khalil Gibran's work and the 'Neermathalam' mentioned in Kamala Das's poetry, are here.
Initially, Koya was unwilling to make his forest public but when he saw how hills were being stripped and rivers drying up, he wanted people to value greenery and appreciate nature's bounty. Such is his attachment to his forest that when a sandalwood tree was stolen two months ago, he was deeply shocked. "All my trees are like my children," he says.
Though Koya is a school dropout, he has authored seven books. He wants to drive home the point that the earth belongs to all and like human beings, birds, plants and animals have the right to claim it as their home.
How did he manage to convert a wasteland into a thick forest? His love for nature made him plant saplings in the 30 cents (100 cents is an acre) of land that he inherited from his parents. Begun in 1999 with a dozen saplings, the forest now covers 3.5 acres and contains a variety of trees that have bee added over the years. Koya plans to increase its size. This is a forest grown naturally - without insecticides or fertilizers - as Koya believes in the ability of nature to replenish itself without human intervention. That's why he does not allow even fallen leaves or twigs from the forest to be removed.
"Without trees, mankind has no future. Once a tree is cut, it is not the tree alone that dies. At least 10 species of birds and insects perish with it. Our green cover is shrinking alarmingly. My endeavour is a small effort to open others' eyes," he says.
Koya, who runs a small jewellery shop in Kunnamangalam on the outskirts of historic Kozhikode (the Portughese explorer Vaco-da-Gama landed here in 1498), has kept no count of the amount of money he has spent on his botanical garden. A nature lover since childhood, he has travelled extensively to procure saplings and seeds. He tells his friends and relatives to gift him trees on special occasions.
In his botanical garden, all are welcome. There is no fee or fixed timing for a visit, and no menacing guards to police a visitor. "Come with an empty hand and return with a rich experience," says a board in a corner.
Initially, his forest had no name. But when forest officials informed him that private individuals could not grow certain trees, he named it the VMK Botanical Garden. His wife shares his interest but his five sons have no interest in his endeavour. "It should come naturally. You can't force these things," he says with a broad grin.
Today, this forest is a haven for nature-lovers - from students wanting to explore the woods, to agricultural scientists paying a visit to clear a doubt or two by studying the trees at close range. One can literally go into the garden without a guide. Each tree carries it name, botanical name and salient features.
After former Forest Minister Binoy Viswom, who had heard about the endeavour, visited the forest, a small motorable road was sanctioned to help visitors reach the garden. That has been the sole government help that Koya has received so far.
His neighbours swear that the perennially drought-affected area, has not experienced water shortage in the recent past. Bird-lovers and entomologists also claim the return of many vanished breeds. This is also the home of the fox, rabbit, porcupine, mongoose and lizard.
"He's a man committed to nature. People like him give us much hope," says professor Sobhindran, a well-known conservationist. "Preserve or perish, the message is loud and clear for us," PK Afzal, a Class X student, says in agreement, after visiting the forest for the first time.
Koya visits his forest at least twice a day. "Trees are like our children. I talk to them regularly. Even at 60, I am free of any lifestyle disease. Whenever I leave the garden after my daily jaunt, I feel recharged," he says. A backer of the Madhav Gadgil report, Koya says it is a last-ditch effort to save the pristine forests of the Western Ghats that play a crucial role in the monsoon and rainfall patterns of the subcontinent. "Western Ghats is the lifeline of the country. We can't keep wounding it."
He says he has made his "last wish" to his wife very clear. She is to maintain this kanya vanam (sacred forest) for as long as she is able, and bury him in a corner of the forest after his death. V Mohammed Koya is a man who truly lives his life for his trees.