The man who grew a forest in India’s cold, high desert

Down to Earth, 2010.

One of the most pernicious myths in our society is that an individual can’t make a difference – despite the many stories that prove it wrong. The Better India, which looks for and shares positive news stories from India, had one of those stories recently.

It is the story of a retired Indian civil servant who created a lush green forest near a remote village in a cold and arid desert region in the Upper Kinnaur region in Himachal Pradesh, more than 3,200 metres above sea level – where an expensive government program had been unable to achieve such results. 

Anand Dhawaj Negi, who died in May aged 74 due to a stroke, created a forest with more than 30,000 trees on 65 hectares of land, and proved that it is possible to grow potatoes, peas, asparagus, sunflower, mushroom and kidney beans, as well as traditionally grown fruit crops, including apples and apricots, in the inhospitable desert.

The unexpectedness of his work comes across so clearly in this 2010 story by Down to Earth writer Ruhi Kandhari:

“It was 3 pm. I was on top of a mountain in the middle of the only green expanse in the cold desert in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. For the last 50 km I saw only mountains of stones and sand, and I would see only desert for the next 100 km or so. In between was this village full of trees. Lush greenery, herds of sheep feeding on clover and ponies carting compost offered a view far removed from what the name of the village evokes; Thang Karma means white open field in the Himachali language.

A frail-looking man wearing a monkey cap emerged from a cave. Rubbing his eyes, he walked towards me; he had woken up from an afternoon nap. The meeting was unplanned. I had trekked across a mountain, crossed a river and then climbed another mountain to meet A D Negi. He has been living in the cave for over a decade. He looks after several cows, donkeys and a herd of 300 Tibetan goats. A retired bureaucrat, he lost faith in the government’s Desert Development Programme, for which he worked in the finance department.”

The son of humble farmers, Mr. Negi was working as an auditor with the Himachal Pradesh government’s Desert Development Programme (DDP) in the 1990s. Himachal Pradesh’s DDP was part of a larger centrally sponsored scheme launched in 1977-78 to control the desertification and restoration of ecological balance in desert areas. But it wasn’t achieving results, and whenever the government would ask why, state officials said they didn’t have the technology to develop plantations in cold deserts. 

Negi, however, said that officials weren’t spending time on the ground, learning how to work with the land from local people and benefiting from their traditional knowledge. “It is only after I spent time experimenting with different kinds of plantations here that I have been able to develop this desert,” he said in a 2017 interview.

In 1998, he began working on a patch of land in one of the project sites, at Thang Karma, as a volunteer. The next year, he took a leave of absence and by 2003 had retired to work on this project full-time.

He started by creating a nursery, but his first attempts to sow seeds failed due to the lack of a reliable water supply. So he took measures such as contour planting, which tills sloped land along a consistent elevation to conserve rainwater, and worked with the traditional irriation systems of local communities to channel streams from glaciers situated around 25 kilometres away. That inspired the irrigation department to work on supplying water regularly.

To retain water, he planted clovers along these irrigation channels, which provides a protective cover from hares who destroy crops and which help improve soil fertility as the roots decompose every three years.

To increase nitrogen in the sandy loam, he created a farm rearing about 300 Chigu goats and mixed the waste generated by the Chigu goats and earthworms into the soil. Negi never employed chemical fertilisers and pesticides, although scientists who visited the site tried to convince him otherwise. All his farming needs were met by organic compost generated by Chigu goats and he only grew vegetables and fruits that he knew could survive the harsh desert climate and terrain.

He covered the bark of tree saplings with scrap wood to protect against the freezing cold. Saplings are planted a little below ground level in pits to shield them from the wind. Even in 2010, Negi was trying to plant conifers, which serve as an excellent windbreak when they mature, Down to Earth reported.

“My first priority here is afforestation. Robinia trees are the highest in number. They are followed by willow poplar and wild apricot trees. As far as fruit trees (such apricots and apples) and other crops including green peas are concerned, I grow them just for demonstration purposes so that people can replicate them,” he said. Since then, about 200 farmers have been inspired to grow their own orchards.

Negi envisioned showcasing tiny, isolated Thang Karma as a model to scientists so that they could replicate it in other regions. He had planned the decade from 1999 to 2009 as a research period when he would try to grow whatever he could in the desert and see if this could be sustainable. Then he hoped that the government would take up his work and he could move on to something else. But that didn’t happen, although residents of the sparsely-populated tribal region, who were earlier reluctant to take up farming, were keen to learn from his work.

“We have created an asset worth almost Rs 4 crore, mostly from 30,000 trees valued at the government’s rate of Rs 1,000 a tree,” Negi said in 2010. (This is the equivalent of about US$600,000.)

Today, people from villages nearly 50 km away take their sheep to graze in Thang Karma because the clover he planted there is considered quality fodder. Meanwhile, orchard owners from villages like Chango, which is popular for very sweet apples, would come and buy sackfuls of vermicompost from him. Also, the nursery which he first built supplies saplings to farmers from nearby villages.

Pradeep Sangwan, convenor of the nonprofit Healing Himalayas, a non-profit, recalls visiting Thang Karma in April. “We drove down there from Kinnaur. For the first 10 km, there was nothing but barren land and remote border outposts of the Indian military. As you get adjusted to the terrain, you suddenly see this lush green forest-like an oasis in the middle of a desert. ….Today, students from agricultural universities visit the forest every summer and experiment to see whether certain types of plants or crops can grow in that climate. In a way, the forest has become a centre of learning/university.”

In 2017, Negi was focusing on planting evergreen or coniferous trees in order to combat climate change, and his family says they plan to do this in order to honour his wishes.


Himachal Man Spent 2 Decades Turning Cold Desert Patch Into Forest With 30000 Trees. The Better India, June 3, 2021

How one man created a forest in a cold desert of Himachal Pradesh. Down to Earth, Nov. 28, 2017

Desert Healer. Down to Earth, Nov. 30, 2010