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Meet the photojournalist behind Mumbai's Rewilding Aarey initiative

·3-min read
Environmental activist Sanjiv Valsan and tribal rights activist Vanita Tai at the Aarey forest foraging event
Environmental activist Sanjiv Valsan and tribal rights activist Vanita Tai at the Aarey forest foraging event

About a year ago, environmental activist-photojournalist Sanjiv Valsan sowed the seeds for Rewilding Aarey, a community-led, conservation initiative. It started as an offshoot of 2019’s #SaveAarey public protests against the felling of trees and land development for the Mumbai Metro project. “Aarey Forest and her indigenous population have always been something of a blind spot for Mumbaikars,” says Valsan

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Through Rewilding Aarey, he hoped to make the city’s almost inconspicuous forest relevant again. Amongst its key achievements is the plantation of 810 native trees; “one tree for every acre of Aarey that the State declared as reserve forest [in October 2020],” he says. And, the ongoing clean-up and revival of Mumbai's once-loved Picnic Spot. 

Volunteers at Aarey's plantation and clean-up drives.
Volunteers at Aarey's plantation and clean-up drives.

Both these drives have helped create a community comprising Mumbai’s nature lovers, Aarey's Adivasis and related non-profit organizations. Valsan and his crew are constantly looking for sustainable ways to foster symbiotic relationships with the forest's indigenous people. 

During the first lockdown, they helped generate income for tribal farmers via sapling care work and the sale of local produce to volunteers. “[The farmers] in turn welcomed us to plant trees on the borders of their village farms,” he says. 

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With the help of local resident and palmyra activist Rev. Godson Samuel, palmyra (thaad) revival was added to the agenda. Besides sowing seeds, we’ve conducted workshops to revive the lost craft of palmyra leaf weaving amongst tribal and city folk, explains Valsan.

The Rewilding Aarey banner also encompasses wildlife rescues, forest fire prevention and management, and initiatives to better water access. Then there are urban-tribal cross-cultural events like the Forest Foraging Walk in collaboration with Hallu Hallu. The day-long, monthly event is led by Valsan and local farmer-tribal rights activist Vanita Tai.

"The concept introduces city people to indigenous ecological knowledge and the value of protecting both, the forest and its protector community. It renews tribal pride in their own heritage and generates much-needed income,” explains Valsan.

Snapshots from the Aarey Forest Foraging Walk
Snapshots from the Aarey Forest Foraging Walk

Other eco-cultural workshops have included subjects such as Warli tribal art, indigenous architecture, and ecological awareness sessions. The Rewilding Aarey initiative has also partnered with a host of NGOs like We Will Help, Rotaract clubs, Robin Hood Army, The Climate Reality Project, India, Roots Nature Club, Palmyra Mission, Save Aarey, etc.

In late 2020, Valsan's short documentary titled 'Rewilding Aarey' gained international recognition at MegaCities ShortDocs. The Paris-based, citizens film festival aimed at improving living conditions in the world's biggest metropolises. It won the award for world's most inspiring campaign & short documentary on the transformation of public spaces and environment.

The end goal is to get the Aarey-Sanjay Gandhi National Park forest recognition as a UNESCO World Cultural and Biodiversity Heritage Site. Valsan, who has been involved in the Save Aarey movement since 2017, is optimistic about the response so far. “I'm so happy when I see mini personal transformations happening during workshops, and urban settlers finally becoming friends with and appreciating Mumbai's indigenous people,” he smiles.

Images: Courtesy Sanjiv Valsan

Rewilding Aarey community events are currently on hold due to Covid restrictions. To know more about the initiative, find them on Instagram @aareyforestmumbai or Facebook @Aarey Forest 

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