Kareem was a little boy when he watched huge fires engulf the hilltops from his small house. In the impact, even tall trees fell to the ground.
Young Kareem did not quite like the sight of burnt twigs and branches, fallen trees and charred little creatures. He asked his mother who set the hill on fire?
As he grew up he realised that it was the age-old agricultural practice of slash and burn. As a young boy he wondered if the plants ever felt the pain of the burns like we do.
Abdul Kareem, now 70, was born into a humble family and developed a passion for plants since childhood. His father Abdullah met the needs of the family with a small business.
Kareem grew up in a small village called Kottappuram near Kasaragod in north Kerala. During his school days Kareem spent most of his lunch time in a sacred grove nearby, especially when he had nothing to fill his stomach. He was fascinated by the thick, dark green woods.
â€śIt was magical. I used to love spending time in the sacred grove. The deep dark woods and the harmony of life it represented helped me dream. I felt more alive,â€ť remembers Kareem.
Little did he know that one day he would create his own patch of green and lush woods.
How it all started
In the 1970s Kareem left for the Gulf in search of an opportunity to make some money for himself. In his early 20s at that time, he sensed he could have a stable family life if he was ready to work himself to the bone. He did many odd jobs to keep going, once even working as a ticket agent. Soon he had made a considerable fortune for himself.
It was from Dubai that Kareem got the idea to create a forest. Kareem says, â€śThe scorching heat could very well melt oneâ€™s bone. On many days, I could feel my skin getting burnt. That was my inspiration.â€ť
Kareem left his flourishing business and came back to Kerala with an unusual dream. In 1977 he bought 5 acres of land from his neighbours for Rs 3750. And then he did what his family and friends thought was insane. He went about creating a forest in his land.
â€śI bought the land at the price they asked. People called me eccentric; they laughed at me, but I was determined,â€ť he recollects.
Well, the locals scoffed at Kareemâ€™s dream for a well-justified reason. Kasaragodâ€™s terrain is sloping and made up of hard rocks, mostly laterite. The rocky surface had left the land barren and here was a man who wanted to create a forest on it.
â€śIt was tough. I bought a rocky barren land on which growing any vegetation was futile. There was nothing but an abandoned well. It took me years to watch my saplings grow into tall healthy trees and it needed an army of human labour,â€ť Kareem says.
A humungous task
Kareemâ€™s first challenge was to get the locals to support him for labour requirements. He soon noticed looming unemployment and poverty in the area, and decided to employ locals to plant saplings and till the land. He paid them in cash and this helped them fight poverty.
Thus, amidst creating a forest, Kareem grew to be a lovable personality in the area who also paved the way for local development. He brought electricity and roads to the otherwise backward area. He even urged locals to send their children to school.
â€śI wanted children to go to schools. Education is important, no child should miss experiencing school days. A human fails in his duty if he cannot feel empathetic towards another suffering living being, be it humans, plants or animals. So I wanted to help,â€ť he says endearingly.
All this meant that most of the hard-earned fortune from his business was now fast disappearing.
Kareem with his army of men and women tilled the land and planted many saplings. Initially water had to be carried from miles away to nurture the plants.
â€śWe had a tough time nurturing the saplings. While men worked on the land, women walked miles to fetch small barrels of water,â€ť he recalls.
Kareem and his people soon decide to dig a well in his land. The effort proved to be futile. There was no water, but they continued to plant saplings and fetch water from far away.
Much to his surprise and the peopleâ€™s joy, in a yearâ€™s time they found water springs gushing out from the rocky land.
But their happiness was short-lived. About a year later, Kareemâ€™s dream turned into ashes when his forest caught fire. The flames spared almost nothing in their path, leaving the land barren once again.
â€śIt was devastating to watch all our effort reduced to ashes in no time. But I was not taken aback. I held the pickaxe again in my hands with a new-found energy,â€ť he says.
Since then Kareem did not look back; his dream started to bloom like never before. He expanded his land from time to time and today he is the proud owner of 28 acres of forest. And he lives in his own deep dark woods.
â€śThis is my kingdom and I would choose this even over Washington,â€ť says a proud Kareem.
An oasis in the summers
Kareem has been living in his forest for four decades now.
â€śI have no other interests in my life. I donâ€™t watch cricket or movies. Plants are conscious and they breathe like we all do. They have equal rights like us to live on this earth. So do animals,â€ť he declares.
One of the hottest places in the state, Kasaragod often suffers drastic water scarcity through the summers. This despite receiving an average of 3,300 mm of rainfall annually. The highly porous nature of laterite lets rain water escape as sub-surface flow, badly affecting the crops and drinking water availability during summers. A delay in the monsoon or a deficit of summer showers leaves farmers and residents in Kasaragod drought-stricken.
Kareemâ€™s forest now produces hundreds of litres of water, saving an entire village from severe drought during summers. Many villagers and families take water from Kareemâ€™s land for irrigational and household purposes. All for free.
â€śIf I were to charge even a penny for one liter I can easily make more than Rs 5 crore annually. I donâ€™t want money. Allah will take care of my needs, like always,â€ť says Kareem simply.
Kareem also takes classes on conservation of forests in many schools in the state. He doesnâ€™t ask for any remuneration and invites children to visit his woods.
â€śHow long should the children learn Algebra. Thatâ€™s not enough to live life to the fullest.They should understand their past. These woods are where we came from,â€ť he says.
To honour Kareem, the Govt of Kerala in 2005 decided to add a chapter on Kareem and his forest for the Class 6 Malayalam textbook. Recently, the CBSE has also decided to include Kareemâ€™s forest as a chapter in the Class 4 syllabus in the coming academic year.
Many awards have come Kareemâ€™s way in the past years.
Trinity College, Connecticut, USA once visited Kareemâ€™s forest to study the relationship between plants and religion. Every year thousands of students, environmentalists and scientists visit Kareem to discuss environmental protection, energy conservation, clean energy and climate change.
Kareem was also honoured in 1998 by the Kerala Forest Research Institute for his outstanding contribution to forestry.
â€śThey also distributed plant saplings free of cost,â€ť says Kareem.
Kareem urges people to help conserve existing forests before they too disappear.
â€śThe call of the wild is in all of us. Never live in the present forgetting the past. We should act before it is too late,â€ť says Kareem before he disappears into the woods.