A Vision for the Future: Founder of Earth Trust, Vanya Orr

The Nilgiri Hills consists of a heart-shaped region rising almost vertically from the lowlands of the Southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka in Southern India. In order to protect its unique population of plants and animals, it was one of the earliest places in the world to be registered as a World Biosphere Reserve Home. The Nilgiris are also home to indigenous populations of India, including tribes such as the Toda, the Badaga and Kota, among others. Today, more than 60% of the grassland has disappeared. These grasslands served as a tank, taking water from the mists and rains and releasing it slowly through the roots of the ancient shola tree throughout the year. Much of this grassland has now been covered with destructive forests of eucalyptus, as well as tea plantations. “The Nilgiris is like the heart of south India,” Founder and Director of Earth Trust, Vanya Orr says during an interview in Ooty, India. “It [the Nilgiris] is the shape of a heart and supplies water and energy to South India, it has a real function.”

Vanya Orr, founder of Earth Trust

Vanya Orr, now 77 years-old, came to India with her mother when she was 60. But her connection to India goes back many years before. Her grandfather was a collector in Thane, Pune and Bombay from 1889-1920. Her great, great, great grandmother came to the Nilgiris at age 7 in 1824, very soon after the first Europeans arrived. Though she never intended to come to India at all, the trip with her mother became a turning point for Orr, and she has been living in India, for the most part, since 1994.

About 20 years ago, a little earlier than Orr arrived in India for the first time, the village people of Cinchona, walked the 540 kilometers (or 335 miles) from the Nilgiri Hills to the state government in Chennai, Tamil Nadu to ask state leaders to intervene on their behalf. As Orr recalls, there was a bitter impasse following the closing of the Government Cinchona Department, and it’s adoption by the Forest Department. The people were required to leave their homes, but they were determined not to. As Orr recalls, “Nobody could move. It just needed one person to step in and shift the pieces.”

“There was a kind of war going on,” Orr says. “Everyone was very cross with everyone else.” The people were suffering, “they kept saying to me, ‘Your grandfather was Superintendent here. You have photos of your grandparents and our grandparents… we are all part of the same story, you have got to help us.’” Orr says she didn’t know anything about anything in India, including how the hierarchy and bureaucracy works, not to mention the language and couldn’t see how she would be able to assist the situation.

The Nilgiri Hills

Orr asked the local people to write down the names of the people in the village, what their skills were and what they wanted to do together, “they brought this list to me a couple days later and they hadn’t got anything in the ‘what they wanted to do’ column, so I said ‘that’s useless,’ I can’t tell you what to do. You have to tell me what you want.” And they said, “No, it’s not possible, all we have done is lost. Our children have no food. We are right on the cliff’s edge… How can we dream? There is nothing and no future for us.”

She went to see the local Collector and the Forest Officer, as she remembers, “You know in England you just chat to people. I wasn’t bothered by their seniority. I suppose now I would be more circumspect!” Unsure of what to do next, Orr spent three days in the house her grandmother lived in, trying to think about her next plan of action. She remembers, “If I came here, thinking I was going to solve everyone’s problems, if this was just an ego trip, what a complete waste of time this would be. I had to know it was more than that.”

After being unable to decide exactly what to do, she went back to England. Things fell into place when she was given 500 pounds to see if going back to India was really something she had to do.

Early on, she was told “You haven’t got any credibility as a foreigner, and even less as a woman.” But it was suggested that she set up an NGO with the women of the village in order to act as a facilitator between the village and the forest department. “In the end, with this group of women, I set up the first Medicinal Plant Development Area in South India.” Today, the women’s group has, more than enough to start their own new projects.

Orr continued to act as a facilitator to re-establish the aromatic herbal fields and nurseries under the auspices of the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) and the Forest Department. Over the past several years, she has helped set up distillation units for essential oils, making linkages with the Spice Board and other outlets. After this, she left India for a year, but she continued to recall the story of a woman who poured kerosene over herself and burned to death from being desperately unhappy. A year later, the woman’s husband was run-over trying to stop a truck from stealing timber, “You don’t walk away from something like that when it happens, without it having some kind of impact.”After thinking about the people, the soil and the land, she returned from England.

An Earth Trust project site.

This time, her aim was to give people tools for survival, for women who were in situations of inescapable stress and farmer training, in order to mitigate the destruction of the soil. With health programs, stress management, and organic biodynamic farming and gardening, Earth Trust has a variety of tools at their disposal. “People don’t drink, or become violent for no reason, do they?” she says, “It is a symptom, not a cause. A symptom of woundedness or where we find our companionship. This was the idea, that by introducing these nurturing techniques, it could help people feel as if they were worth something.”

Orr believes that, for Nilgiris, this is a critical time in history, “The whole system of everyday living is built on dependency, it’s so important for people to start taking charge of their own lives.” She adds, “It seems to me, this time, is about trying to enable people in rural areas to survive within compassionate communities.” She also wants to play a role in giving children a feeling that they are able to help build a future, and allow people to be able to return to “working with their hearts.”

When I ask her about her vision for the future, she says, “that there will be clear water flowing from the streams of Nilgiris without poison… that everyone will have their place; animals will have their place, and people will have their place.” I smile and tell her it sounds good. She says, “It is possible, you see, it’s possible.”

I hope so.

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