"We must find a way to coexist with nature as our populations rise. As wild spaces shrink, we will bump up against nature."
SCENES shines a spotlight on youth around the world that are breaking down barriers and creating change. The character-driven short films will inspire and amaze, as these young change-makers tell their remarkable stories.
Vijo Varghese was a year old when his family moved from south India to Thailand. Growing up on the outskirts of Bangkok, Vijo formed a strong connection with nature. He spent his childhood playing in the nearby jungle. Fishing in the streams, climbing trees and observing elephants.
As the years passed, Vijo moved away from green tranquillity to the hustle and bustle of city life. Stuck at a desk and working long hours at a corporate job, the Kerala native felt lost. "In those years, I struggled to find good mental health and good meaning in life," he tells Scenes.
In an attempt to nurse his inner struggles, Vijo would escape to the wilderness on the weekends. He began to retreat into the wild by renting a 15-acre plot of land 150 km west of Bangkok. "When you're stressed, when you're worried, when you feel like you are overwhelmed, we have a natural reaction to want to go into nature, to heal ourselves," says Vijo. "That is the beginning of how OurLand started, just a need to be closer to nature and need to heal the trauma within."
Vijo commuted from the jungle to the city for a year before quitting and living in the wild full-time. In 2015, alongside his childhood friend, Anshuman Tripathy, he established the social enterprise, OurLand. What started as an escape became one of Thailand's first privately managed wildlife reserves.
"Being in a place where I can wake up in the morning and experience the beauty of nature, to know there's birds, squirrels, sambar deers and elephants going by. I know I'm working really hard to protect them. It's just such a beautiful feeling," says Vijo.
OurLand's mission is for people to live in harmony with nature. The organisation functions on three main pillars, conservation, sustainability and education, which they believe are interlinked and essential to survival.
"We must find a way to coexist with nature as our populations rise. As wild spaces shrink, we will bump up against nature. We need to find a way that we can be comfortable in their space and also safe at the same time," states Vijo.
Conservation and elephant protection
OurLand is located at the southern tip of the Western Forest Complex, one of the largest contiguous forests in SouthEast Asia, a region heavily impacted by habitat loss, degradation and human-wildlife conflict.
Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the oldest sanctuaries in Thailand and is home to over 150 wild elephants. As the elephant population has grown, their habitats have diminished due to overexploitation and encroachment. The organisation have created a natural corridor that leads the wild elephants to the Khwae Yai River, where they can access a vital water source.
"The elephants are coming out of the sanctuary to forage for food and drink water from the river, and to do that, they're coming into contact with farmers, and they're having to cross the road, which means that both people and elephants are dying," explains MacKenzie King, Sustainability Manager at OurLand. "The farmers are growing mainly sugarcane, corn and cassava, and just like us, elephants have a sweet tooth. So significantly, a new business model just needs to be more profitable than sugar cane," she adds.
OurLand works on sustainable solutions to ensure the local community and the endangered species can live side-by-side. "We start telling the local people, 'Hey, would you be interested in planting citronella, lemongrass or ginger?' All the things that elephants don't necessarily like to eat. This was the first step towards moving in the direction of how we can generate revenue by keeping nature intact," says Vijo.
Alongside OurLand's conservation strategies, they also operate an ecovillage. For the ecovillage to be self-sufficient, food, water, shelter and energy are needed. The village runs on solar power and harvests water from rainwater. Houses are built from mud gathered from the jungle floor. "The hardest part has always been food because we have wild elephants," states Vijo. "In the past, as they came through, they would find some of the food we were growing. For this reason, we've moved food production outside the OurLand reserve."
For OurLand to conserve wild spaces, they believe living integrated with nature is key. "Despite all the research, science, and education we do, I think it's really important sometimes to look within ourselves. And that's where the ecovillage is a part of the tranquillity we have to find within ourselves. For me, the ecovillage isn't just an ecovillage and a research station, it is a home within nature," says Vijo.
The grassroots organisation believes that education is key to expanding its influence and ensuring the survival of endangered species. "At OurLand, education is really the core of what we do. It's the method by which we achieve the mission of conservation of coexistence," states MacKenzie.
The ecovillage also functions as an education centre, where they monitor wildlife, test nature-integrated living strategies and bring conscious tourists and school children to learn about sustainability and the environment.
"The next generation is a little bit more distant from nature. They seem to have this kind of yukky, nature's icky (attitude). We always encourage children to create that actual connection with nature. So that they can look within themselves and find a sense of calm in any environment and use nature as a tool when helping themselves," says Vijo.