*Content warning: This article references subjects that some readers may find distressing such as severe environmental degradation and suicide*.
At TreeSisters, we are truly honoured and thrilled to be collaborating with Isha Outreach's new initiative Cauvery Calling, located in the Cauvery River Basin in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, India. We have been partnering with Isha Outreach since 2014, funding Project GreenHands, which supported over 70,000 farmers over 15 years to adopt agroforestry on their farmlands. Based on the incredible success of this project, Isha Outreach has evolved and expanded its vision to create the new Cauvery Calling project. Cauvery Calling operates at the river basin level, spanning two states across Southern India. The aim is to plant an incredible 2.42 billion trees over the next 12 years through a profoundly innovative model. Rather than paying the farmers to plant the trees, Cauvery Calling's model works to enable voluntary participation by demonstrating to farmers the multiple benefits of planting trees on their farms and then providing them with the tree saplings.
The farmers in this area have been struggling severely for many years, reaching such dire economic circumstances that many have been driven to suicide. This is a deeply complex issue driven by multiple factors, with the economic consequences of severe environmental devastation playing a major role. The combination of reduced rainfall and deforestation's impact on the water table's ability to recharge has drastically reduced the river's water levels. When combined with degraded soils, farmers are left unable to produce enough crops to sustain their livelihoods. Farmers have spoken to Cauvery Calling about their experience of going from producing three harvests a year to struggling to achieve one. Consequently, around 80% of farmers are living in debt, which is one of the main contributors to the immense distress experienced by the farmers.
The Cauvery Calling project seeks to respond directly to these issues by planting trees. The farmers are able to restore their soils, contribute to restoring the river basin and groundwater levels and generate direct economic benefits through agroforestry. The response from the farmers has affirmed that this model works! The organisation's Rally for Rivers campaign has reached over 162 million people sharing the importance of restoring the river basin; this has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reception from farmers who live within the region.
Most recently, even when the Covid-19 crisis has prevented many of their planned in-person activities, Cauvery Calling moved its activities online and reached 1.2 million unique farmers in just 28 days across May-June 2021. The volunteers were stunned to find that nearly 400,000 farmers are actively engaged on social media platforms. They also conducted live training programs for over 5000 farmers during the pandemic. Over 25 eminent resource leaders, including industry experts, scientists and government officials, joined Cauvery Calling platforms to share their insights with the farmers.
The energy and dedication of everyone involved with this project are truly inspirational. The results have been so successful that many farmers are creating their tree nurseries rather than solely depending on Cauvery Calling providing the saplings. Through this phenomenal level of dedication, Cauvery Calling has also achieved a direct collaboration with the Rural Development Department of the Indian government, which has created a pilot programme to support labour costs for small-scale farmers (with less than 2 ha of land) who otherwise could not afford the start-up costs to join in the project, thus enabling participation for all.
The government is now collaborating with Cauvery Calling to promote a scheme of tree ambassadors, around 80% of whom are women, called Kayaka Bandhu (friends of farmers). Cauvery Calling provides training for these women to empower them with knowledge of different tree species and planting conditions. The women are employed under an existing government scheme to go into the community as ambassadors and speak to farmers throughout the river basin in Karnataka. So far, over 164 women have been trained.
Cauvery Calling has appointed over 1000 young adults who live in rural areas called Mara Mitra (friends of trees) in each of the smallest local districts (Gram Panchayat). These Mara Mitras will provide free, on-the-ground support to farmers, helping them enrol into government schemes and benefit from incentives for planting trees in their farmlands. Not only does this educate the local communities about the benefits of tree planting, but these programmes also provide an alternative source of livelihood for rurally located women and young adults.
Cauvery Calling is planning an on-ground campaign in Karnataka later in 2021, where approximately 40 teams of volunteers will be travelling together to hold two small events for a day in each small local district, as well as larger events in 9 of the major Cauvery basin districts. All the relevant officials will be part of these events, committing to support the farmers, which will inspire farmers and help make the work of the Mara Mitra more effective.
The whole model for this project is about scalability and promoting voluntary engagement in tree planting. Cauvery Calling is starting to train farmers to create their tree nurseries, with the vision to gradually reduce the reliance on Cauvery Calling and truly empower farmers to take action! This directly benefits the farmers, their families, the land, the trees and the water.
Finally, what is special to us about Cauvery Calling is that it is led by a local organisation founded in India which runs out of an Ashram founded by Sadhguru. Most people working on the project are volunteers living at the Ashram, working on the project as their spiritual service. This energy and pure commitment to love and care is transmitted throughout the project and undoubtedly contributes to its phenomenal reach and success.
As TreeSisters, we are so grateful to be partnering with this beautiful initiative. We aim for each project in our portfolio to bring different qualities and diverse approaches. Our goal is not just about planting trees but truly shifting towards a harmonious world where people care for one another and the Earth. There are many diverse ways of doing this, and everyone is needed. The astounding work of Cauvery Calling deeply inspires us, and we hope you are too.