Environmental activism usually stems from people trying to protect and improve their immediate surroundings and ways of life. Yet, the pressure to grab land for commercial development means that the work of environmentalists is often seen as political and, in many parts of the world, they are at risk of abuse or even death. Where people are honoured and recognised for their work to improve the local ecosystem, their efforts can have a lasting positive impact for the environment, the community, and for future generations.
Her honorary name – Saalumarada – means “a row of trees” in her native Kannarda language. It was bestowed on Thimmakka by her fellow villagers in Hulikal, near Bangalore in southwestern India, after she planted and tended a woodland of hundreds of banyan trees. A type of fig, banyans are the national tree of India, but for Thimmakka and her husband, they had a more personal significance.
After 25 years of marriage without being able to conceive a child, Thimmakka began planting trees and nurturing them as if they were her own children. With her husband, a cattle herder, she walked four kilometres of dusty road each day to carry water to the saplings. As the trees grew, the stigma of being a rural childless woman gradually reduced, and her neighbours began to admire her determination.
At over 100 years old, she has lived to see the saplings grow into a mature woodland. Bats and birds feast on the fruit, and travellers on the long road to Bangalore enjoy the deep shade of the dense canopy. Her age has not slowed her determination to improve the local community; she has been involved in efforts to construct a water storage tank, and hopes that international attention will bring in the funds to build a local hospital. Despite numerous awards for her environmental work, Thimmakka still lives in poverty. Yet, alongside her 300 or more banyan “offspring”, she now has an adopted son to carry on her legacy and ensure the woodland is protected for years to come.