Dr. John Britto S. J.
‘Our Solutions Are In Nature’ was the theme of Biodiversity Day for 2020. The decade of 2011–2020 was devoted to Biodiversity by the UN. The decade draws to a close on 22nd May 2021. We are in a transitional phase for the beginning of other key decades related to Biodiversity i.e., 2021–2030, UN decade of Ocean Science for sustainable development followed by a decade on Ecosystem restoration and then another decade on sustainable development.
When the New Madurai Mission was established, our founding fathers had an innate insight to safeguard and protect nature. They were truly naturalists with a keen sense of diversity occurring in natural resources. The terms we use today — biodiversity, landscaping, land degradation, sustainability, re-wilding barren or un-protective lands or the modern environmental movements were not in vogue then. However they were men endowed with a keen sense of the value of land, soil, water and mineral resources along with flora and flora.
Hailing from an agrarian background of Toulouse province, they treasured the richness of our land, culture, indigenous knowledge and agrarian systems prevalent in the mission territories. Our institutions and parishes of today are telling evidences for their holistic and ecocentric approach. The campus of Sacred Heart College, Shembaganur is a masterpiece of landscape planning. The massive buildings mostly were from rocks around and plastered with adhesive soil of the area. The different avenues and alleys which had both native trees and trees from the Eastern Himalayan range exemplify what we now term as ‘arboretum’. The botanical garden with orchids, ferns and other plants were introductions from the rest of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas. Truly they were ‘gene banks’ of today’s terminology. Our estates in the Palni hills and elsewhere were models of soil conservation and water management. Agricultural farms had adopted indigenous water storage technologies (percolation ponds and banks) reflected the practice of replenishing ground water level. In other words the founders of the New Madurai Mission were prophets ahead of their times regarding ecology and environment.
Most of our institutions in the hills and in the plains had established cattle forms with provision for grazing land (Itti Pallam). Our estates in the hills (the Palnis, the farms in St. Xavier’s and verdant paddy fields of St. Joseph’s Trichy and elsewhere) had the future in mind and served as measures of food security and also income generation means for the New Mission. We were pioneers in introducing viticulture in the plains along with varieties of temperate vegetables, fruits and potato cultivation the large estates of Perumal, Palamalai and Manalur florist with copious coffee plantations thus providing financial support to the newly established mission.
Referring to the faunal sector, our Museums, in Shembaganur and Tiruchy were exemplars of the scientific approach to document our bio-resources along with natural history holdings. The Relief Map, a novelty in those days gave a distinct expression to the topography of the hills. The plant wealth also found adequate means of describing the diversity of plant wealth of the Palni hills, and undertaken by the Shembag team of Jesuit naturalists. The lower group of plants such as Mosses, Algae, Fungi, and especially the Fern varieties were carefully collected and named. Many of them were new to Science. The enterprising excavation and subsequent in anthropology as seen in the dolmens of the lower Palnis by the same team set a direction to present day researchers. These enumerations prove that the New Madurai Mission had bequeathed to us a valuable heritage of ecological and environmental outreach. In other words they faced challenges of the New Mission but with divine assistance found solutions in Nature.
The global context of today is that we are slowly recovering from Covid-19. The Indian scenario is alarming: migration of labour because of Covid-19, the draconian laws of governance through CAA, NEP, EIA and much more the farmers’ strike and the shock of our rate of mal-nutriention of children and poverty in India being in the bottom rank in the global index, dictatorial mind set of the rulers at the centre and state do not augur well. Our strengths are our past heritage that would motivate to conserve the wealth of natural resources and nature as a whole. India being one of the 17 mega biodiversity countries, accounts for 7 to 8 % of recorded species of the world. So far, biologists have documented 45,908 species of plants and 96,364 species of animals and 5650 microbial species. India is one of the eight primary centres of origin of cultivated plants with about 375 closely related wild species including rice, pulses, millets, vegetables, fruits and fibrous plants. There are nearly 255 breeds of animals such as cattle, sheep, goat, camel, horse and poultry, together with richness in cultural diversity and in traditional knowledge of the tribal and rural populations. These features demonstrate clearly our rich natural wealth and our potential of being one among the global biodiversity hotspots. Such a mine of resources and knowledge-base needs to be safeguarded in collaboration with global, national and state level biodiversity boards. Jesuits of today especially in Tamil Nadu have to launch concrete action plans in documenting our traditional floral and faunal resources as part of our ecology mission. Such a step will not only serve as a tribute to the architects of New Madurai Mission but a fitting response to our commitment to Our Common Home, Mother Earth.
About the Author:
Dr. John Britto S. J is an active researcher in the field ‘botany of plant systematics’ at classical and molecular level; pursues biodiversity conservation and restoration. As an authority in Taxonomy he has published the recent Flora of Central and North Tamil Nadu adopting Modern A P G classification. He has added 20 plant species new to plant science.confirmed by international association of plant taxonomy.