'IoS' Christmas Appeal: Seeds of hope for a brighter future

When drought struck, one Indian community replanted its lost forests. From Tamana, Orissa, Justin Huggler reports on a project backed by Christian Aid
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'I remember how 50 years ago, the hills were covered in thick forests," says Banamali Mallik. "By the Eighties, we had to travel for days for one load of firewood."

Mr Mallik is headman of the village of Tanama, which has seen the effects of climate change up close. Twenty years ago, the surrounding hills in this part of the Indian state of Orissa were completely barren, because the natural jungle had been stripped bare by illegal logging. That was when it stopped raining. For five years. The villagers' crops failed, and they faced penury and disaster.

Today the hills are a riot of green again, the jungles restored not by the government, but by the villagers themselves. How they did it is the story of two men: Mr Mallik and Joe Madinath, a university graduate who first came to Orissa, one of India's poorest states, 30 years ago. Mr Madinath had just qualified from Madras University when a devastating cyclone hit Orissa, and many students rushed to help.

But when the others went home, Mr Madinath, haunted by the contrast between the embattled lives of ordinary Orissans and his own life of privilege, decided to stay on. He set up his own aid organisation, Gram Vikas, with just four people. Today it has 550 staff, and has become the local partner of Christian Aid, the charity backed by The Independent on Sunday's Christmas Appeal. Restoring Tanama's forest is one of many Gram Vikas projects which have bettered the lives of Orissa's poorest.

One night in 1985, Mr Madinath brought an expert on climate change to address the villagers. He explained that the loss of trees had caused the rains to fail. Mr Mallik told the villagers he wanted to restore the jungle.

Mr Madinath made it possible, persuading the government to give the villagers seeds and saplings, and organising loans. "Once people from other villages saw our forest growing, they started coming and cutting down our trees," said Mr Mallik. "We decided to set up our own watch." Each night four men go into the woods, armed with bows and arrows. At the first sign of logging, they raise the alarm, and 30 armed villagers rush to the scene.

The villagers started with 10 acres of communal land, but they have been so successful that the government has put them in charge of reforesting 670 acres. All of it is thriving.

At times Orissa can seem like a Garden of Eden: brightly coloured butterflies are everywhere; after dark, the air is heavy with the scent of blossoms. At night, bears come into the Gram Vikas compound. But Orissa is also the Indian state most exposed to natural disaster and climate change. Always at risk of cyclones, it is facing more as the world's weather changes. And as monsoons becoming increasingly irregular, severe water shortages are a further threat.

In a state where the electricity supply reaches few villages, the charity also faces the question of how to bring development to the people without contributing to global warming.

Gram Vikas's latest project is to generate electricity from birdseed. It may sound far-fetched, but Mr Madinath's colleague, Geeta Vaidyanathan, is heading a study into generating electricity from oil seeds, to avoid further depleting fossil fuels. After experimenting with several varieties, she has found the most effective is one that is exported to the US as bird food - and which currently yields little profit for farmers.

With a simple hand press, villagers will be able to extract oil from the seeds. A bicycle-driven mixer turns the oil into fuel which is burnt togenerate power.

Gram Vikas gave Chanabogodo village a loan to buy solar panels to power the water pump. Water is a more pressing need than electricity for the villagers, but without some form of power they have to draw it by hand. Now the children turn the solar panels to the sun while the men work in the fields.

In Samiapalli, Gram Vikas provided loans and technical expertise to build cyclone-resistant housing. When the devastating cyclone of 1999 hit, the old houses were all destroyed, so the villagers took shelter in the new housing, which stood untouched even though it was unfinished.

Today Samiapalli has its own water supply, with taps in every household. Kanak Pradhan, an elderly villager, said: "Before we had toilets, we had to wait until dark and then go in the fields. We had to walk a kilometre to fetch water, and bring it back by hand. Gram Vikas changed our lives."

The Independent on Sunday's 2006 Christmas Appeal has been launched to raise money for the victims of climate change. To donate now, go to: www.christianaid.org.uk/climateappeal