When life doesn’t give you children, plant hundreds of trees and save the planet. At least that’s what Saalumarada Thimmakka, a poor woman living in an arid region of southern India, did after she was unable to conceive a child with her husband more than 70 years ago.
Thimmakka, now 105-years-old, began her environmental crusade during World War II and has not showed many signs of slowing down. She’s responsible for single-handedly planting and tending to an estimated 300-400 Banyan trees — and her environmental activism has gone a long way toward sparking large-scale change in India.
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According to the Saalumarada Thimmakka International Foundation, Thimmakka grew up in Gubbi, a small, rural area in southern India. Because her town did not have proper educational facilities, she began working as a coolie (an unskilled laborer) at age 10, and eventually married into another poor family.
After 25 years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child with her husband, Sri Bikkala Chikkayya, Thimmakka found a different way to bring life into the world. She began to plant trees, hundreds of them, in rows that stretched on for about four kilometers.
Despite the fact that an estimated 15% of couples worldwide are affected by infertility, according to the World Health Organization, many women who are unable to bear a child face discrimination and stigmas throughout their lives on account of a natural occurrence they are unable to influence.
Luckily for Thimmakka, her husband was supportive of her desire to plant trees, and faithfully helped her in her endeavor until he passed away in 1991.
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Though fame was not what she sought by planting trees, she became a bit of a legend in India and throughout the world, winning at least 50 awards for environmentalism and receiving international press coverage for her work.
“As the trees she planted grew in height, her stature as well as a legend has grown,” Al Jazeera wrote in 2013.
Thimmakka herself is no longer planting trees, but her protege and foster son Umesh B N, is now the president of the Saalumarada Thimmakka International Foundation, which was founded in 2014 in her honor.
Along with focusing on preserving the environment, it serves as an educational resource for poor Indians, provides poverty-relief programs, and even aims to establish a maternity hospital in the region.
Thimmakka’s environmental activism falls in line with the direction the country of 1.25 billion people has headed in recent years. India has placed a renewed focus on environmentalism, formally signing on to the Paris Agreement in October of last year, and pledging that at least 40% of its energy will come from renewable sources by 2030.
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The country is currently debating a proposal that could put $6 billion USD toward protecting and expanding the nation’s forests. Currently about 20% of the country’s land is covered by forests.
And just yesterday, the country officially declared that the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers are “living human entities” in an effort to slow pollution of these major waterways.
While Thimmakka is not quite as old as the Ganges, her environmental impact might live on just as long.