Reforestation Of The Sacred Mountain

Reforestation of the Sacred Mountain of Arunachala, in South India, has been resoundingly successful. John Barrie Button explains his permacultural approach to the challenge.

In 1989 I was asked to co-ordinate a reforestation project in South India.

Specifically, this was a sacred mountain, Arunachala, recognized as Siva in the form of Light, or Fire.

The view of the mountain from the bus station, when I first arrived in 1989 – rocks and almost no vegetation at all.
Mountain was burnt every year, to evenly raze all the grass stubble and provide some potash as fertilizer for the grass cut for thatching material. Minimal income for a few dozen workers.

As the legend relates, Shiva, Lord of Destruction and Re-creation, was asked to adjudicate an argument between Vishnu (Lord of Preservation) and Brahma, Lord of Creation as to who had precedence.

Having manifest Himself as a column of  the pure light of consciousness, he bade each of them to find His limits; one to seek the lowest point, and the other the highest.

Neither apparently was successful, and in their awe of Shiva’s brilliance, they pleaded with Him to take a form less dazzling, which mere mortals could then behold.

Shiva transformed himself into the form of the mountain

Shiva agreed, and transformed himself into the form of the mountain, Arunachala, which has been venerated ever since.

The main temple from the mountain. We approached the temple to use the temple for our nursery, raising 400,000 seedlings per year, providing flowers and coconuts for daily worship, and initiating the creation of the largest temple garden in India. Also, connecting the reforestation of the mountain with the act of worship in the minds of the people.

A  Call to Action 

The request for help from the small and radical rainforest action group which I was associated with in Australia, arrived in the form of a very poetic letter which acknowledged that reforesting Arunachala had little to do with the kind of actions which the Rainforest Information Centre usually was involved with, namely because the arid and barren region where the holy mountain stood was far removed from rainforests.

However, the letter pointed out, if the forests outside the receding rainforests of India were not enhanced, then there would be little chance of ensuring the survival of those rainforests themselves.

A good point.

I bought my plane ticket.

Advice & Motivation for Reforestation

Having done plenty of tree planting but with no experience of involvement in projects beyond my own neighbourhood, I sought all the advice I could find.

My original teacher of Permculture and dear friend, Bill Mollison, suggested that if I didn’t have volunteers, then I wouldn’t have a project.

His implication was that if no local people believed in the aims of the project enough to offer their services, then it had little chance of success.

The other wisdom which comes to mind, was offered by a woman with long experience working with various overseas projects. 

Write Yourself a Letter!

“Write yourself a letter,” she advised, “about all the things you think you are going to do over there.

As many as you can think of.

When you have finished this list, put it in an envelope, seal it up, and put it safely in the luggage you take with you.

Don’t open if for at least three months.

Even longer would be better.

Do nothing, observe everything” (Masunobu Fukuoka).

The problem is the solution.

Bill Mollison’s Advice

Inspired by Bill’s advice, I had images of great chains of pilgrims passing seedlings up the mountain, and our forest growing tall and rapidly with the abundance of their enthusiasm.

Arunachala 2018. A forested mountain: most people believe it was impossible to do. Mountain has become a rain catcher, where before it was a rain repellent. Springs run again which have not run for many decades; wildlife not seen for years has returned. Huge quantities of wood and wood products without degrading the forest. People have said that they thought it was original forest!

I imagined that my presence would be irrelevant after a couple of years.   

Realising the Challenge fo Reforestation

I still recall vividly my first view of the mountain, seen through the window of the bone-shaking bus.

We were still twenty kilometers away and the dusty haze blurred any detail beyond the distinctive shape.

Drawing closer, my perspective sharpened It was so barren, brown, dry, and almost void of vegetation, much less trees.

The work would start from zero.

The full significance of the fire manifestation of Shiva came to light.

The mountain ablaze was a common sight, deliberately lit to encourage the grasses used for thatching, and to discourage any trees or shrubs that may impede their growth.

Not to mention the pyromania inspired by those coming to the mountain to pray for divine intervention to dissolve debt, or deliver a son, or cure a hernia, or an infinite number of other earthly needs. 

Shiva in his form of Fire was honoured with matches and cigarette lighters.

Arunachala was little more than a great mound of rocks.

Confronting Scepticism on Reforestation

Little fuelwood for the locals, nor medicinal or nutritional herbs, nor any chance of rain from the clouds that chanced to gather, only to be driven off by the dry heat radiated from the scorching sun on the rocky slopes.

Even the task of growing any seedlings to plant on the desolate mountain was far from simple.

The land for the farm was donated by a person impressed with our work. It was totally degraded, almost without even any grass.

In a district where the local population often had to line up for hours at a public tap just to get their most essential household water needs, lavishing water from a private well on plants to raise a nursery was hardly likely to nurture all that enthusiastic support I had dreamed of. 

“Give yourself up to the mountain, Shiva will prevail” was advice I heard more than once, offered by the spiritual seekers who flocked to the mountain.

I was there to work, to get the task done, not to adhere any doctrine or superstition.

Arunachala is a Fire Mountain

“Arunachala is a Fire mountain, and has always been rocks. You can’t grow a forest on Arunachala,” other skeptics declared.

The local librarian assured me otherwise.

Having studied old texts, there were abundant records of great forests on the mountain, which had been renowned as a source of diverse medicines and sanctuary for wild animals.

All this though, was negated by photos dating back almost a hundred years which depicted barren slopes with not more vegetation than the present.  

Stepping forward for Reforestation

We raised a nursery nevertheless, watered from an open well in a secluded backstreet.

For all it was worth: our first two significant plantings on the mountain were both abject failures.

What the flames did not claim, the goats certainly did.

“If you have no problems, buy a goat” says one Sufi wisdom.

We did not even need to buy our problems.

Mistakes are tools for learning

Teaching a course for local farmers on the farm.

One of our small team of volunteers inspired a major step forward.

He suggested approaching the main temple.

Temples are often constructed on springs.

In this case, several.

Not only this abundance, but the traditional design of the temples consists of many walled compounds focussing inwards to the sanctuary.

Perfect protection.

Further, the temple authorities control 50% of the mountain, and a lot of land around it. 

Planting & Growing for Reforestation

They were happy to our proposal to create a nursery while refurbishing the compounds with gardens that had not existed for many years.

First priority was that not a drop of water should leave the land: every plant had a microcatchment, plus swales for heavy rains. We harvested at least 800 cubic metres of water with the first 100 mm thunderstorms, plus all the soil which it would have carried away off the land. Also harvested water and soil from uphill neighbouring land. Abundance harvested from the start

We selected our plants to supply their needs in flowers and coconuts, as well as planting sacred constellations long neglected.

In the following years we raised between 200 and 350 thousand saplings for planting on and around the mountain, and for sale to service the wages our growing workforce.

After two years, zones 1 & 2 were already abundant, having furnished simple vegetables within months of the start. Vegetation was ‘stacked’ in time as well as space, for changing productivity as the system developed

Optimize edges.

In this case, it was the social edge between the spiritual and earthly life; for the first time local people volunteered their support in significant numbers.

Make the least change for the greatest effect.

Going smaller!

Our next planting was much smaller in area.

Use small-scale intensive systems.

We selected our planting sites carefully, where the least likelihood of fire casualties lay, where we might zealously guard our vulnerable young ones.

Use relative location.

Ah, hard-earned success. Our trees grew, planted with the monsoon’s first drops.

We had selected well, choosing the hardiest species that would need the least watering, if any.

Multiple elements serving every function.

After 12 years we had a small herd of cows, harvested all the manure for biogas and liquid fertilizer for recycling to fodder fields, fruit and high value trees, and gardens. Good design is the key to success and productivity.
The biogas system next to the cow stall. All urine collected too as fertilizer and for IPM recipes. Gas used for lighting and cooking. Overflow from biogas unit is fertilizer for next fodder cycle, plus for gardens and fruit trees.

Careful Selection for Reforestation

We planted at least 80 different species – diversity  – including shrubs and groundcovers, fast-growing pioneers, climax species.

Follow natural succession.

Fruiting species, trees for timber, plants for medicines and other uses.

Each element performs multiple functions.

Every plant was bunded with a micro-catchment arc to catch and localise water, silt and organic material.

Tree ‘smiles’

I heard some foreign pilgrims complaining that all the trees were spoiling the sunset view from the mountain.

Ah, disgruntled whisperings of success!

After less than two years, when a fire broke out amongst our plantings, local villagers spontaneously extinguished the fire.

They knew the plants would be more value to them than rocks and grass.

Real genuine success; the locals were volunteering.

Biodiversity Return

Animals and birds not seen for years are now becoming common place.

We create nothing; we can only support the conditions for creation to take place.

Humility, always.

Great bamboo groves not seen for tens of decades are now regenerating rapidly.

Huge diversity of species. Fruits, nuts, palm fruits, herbs, etc. A harvest system. Grains, timber, firewood, fruits.

The great trees that once covered the mountain are regenerating from their long-ravaged stumps.

People can actually harvest the fuelwood from pioneer trees already dying off, and abundant medicinal plants are thriving.

Get a yield.


It is now more than twenty years since our first small failures – mistakes are tools for learning.

It has taken a lot of work, as all projects do at first.

Transformation requires energy from somewhere.

Many firebreaks have been cut, by the different groups that have grown on the inspiration of the first successes.

These days, when the first traces of smoke on the mountain are seen, watchmen with mobile phones quickly alert small armies of school and college students who swarm up the mountain to beat out the fire before it can grow.

The skeptics are silent now.

The mountain is not yet fully forested by any means.

But it will be. The Reforestation process started very well!

The biggest limit to abundance is creativity.

First published in Permaculture Magazine issue 66. See


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John Button

Beginning his academic studies in Economics at the University of Tasmania, John Button has been working in his profession as a Permaculture designer, consultant and practitioner for the past forty years, initially as a means to establishment his own land on ecological principles towards self-sufficiency and then, as a result of the success of those applied experiments, into a fully professional role as designer, teacher, consultant, and project coordinator. This work has taken him all over the world, with the only exception being the North American continent. From sub-arctic Russia, through most climatic zones wet and dry, mountain, desert and coastal through to the wet tropics. This work has taken place through equally diverse cultural scenarios, providing him with the scope to hone very adaptive social skills along the way. During that time, he has worked with NGOs, government organizations, tertiary and non-formal education institutions, private landowners and communities, rich and poor, as volunteer and activist as well as a professional.

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Ecosystem Restoration Is Vital in Every Business Model - Driesenaar

[…] example is a beautiful project in India: reforestation of the sacred mountain by John Button’s permaculture team. It started in 1989, and in 2018 Arunachala was a forested […]


This is a very informative article about the reforestation of Arunachala going on. I knew about it but not in this detail. The photos speak for themselves. Amazing work done, also getting the locals involved and stop the forest fires. Thank you so much!!

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Thank you for your positive feedback on the article about the reforestation of Arunachala. We are glad to hear that it provided you with detailed information about the project. It is indeed an amazing work done by John Button’s permaculture team, not only in terms of reforestation but also in terms of involving the local community and preventing forest fires. We are glad that you enjoyed reading the article and the photos. Thank you for your support.

J Jayaraman

A GOOD RECAP of the truly pioneering that happened between 1989 till about the year 2000…. when RIC’s John Seed and throufhhim, John Button was associated and gave a “bigger” sized vision to the nursery, to the nature of the strategy of raising tall sapli gs, diversity of indegenous oilseedsbearing trees, plantation timing and hole and bund sizes, mamdatory mulching, A-Frame use to dig contour for bunds to slow down the rain water and increase seepage.
I am amazed that my friend John since the years of birth of ARS (Annamalai Reforestation Society as regd. body in 1989) has chosen to keep all the pioneering local dramatispersonae out of his report. This is an unfortunate arrogation. Appeetha Arunagiri, Dev Gogoi, Thyagarajan (Sw Hamsanansa), JJayaraman and Kannikeswaran etc have all been forgotten?

    john button

    Great to hear from you JJ, and a bit embarrassing to think that anyone might feel offended for not naming all the people concerned. You are right, it was an article I wrote many years ago when asked by The Permaculture Magazine for my experience of the project, and it was simply reproduced on this blog, with my permission. I used it to make an example of applying Permaculture principles to approaching the work of a project. In any recent requests for information on the early history of the project (since I’m not in any way qualified to speak of what’s happened for such a long time), I’ve specifically referred to others involved: for example the following, to one Lalitha, who from memory was a journalist (?) writing an article:Dear Lalitha,

    So, back again, my duties fulfilled. I intend to answer your questions about people involved, as much as possible. Time passes of course, and my recollections of details are a little faded with time. You see, may active role there finished in around 1997, and I’ve played a very peripheral role since, although Arunachala is always in my heart and I keep myself informed of what’s happening.

    I’ll try not to be too verbose, but nor will I restrict myself too much to give you information that you haven’t specifically asked for, but which I know are important and may spark some inspiration in you as another possible angle for the article.

    Arunachala Greening Society — started in the early to mid 90s, I believe, first with Apeetha who involved different local people who’s names elude me (Kasi was one, but I have no idea of his family name); physically their work involved establishment of a nursery near the Katshiva tank, working with reforesting the area near their, including the Inner Path . A little later I think she began working with Govinda, who later formed his own group that morphed into the Forest Way and all their wonderful work; Govinda has all the details so please check with him. As far as I know, Apeetha continued working in the background lobbying bureaucrats and continuing to use her art to inspire all who she could reach.

    Arunachala Reforestation Society – was undoubtedly the first visibly successful reforestation effort after the relatively low-impact efforts of the Forestry Department and an Australian ascetic named Nerikuttiswami, who lived for years on the mountain up above the main temple and who planted quite a lot of primarily eucalyptus on that slope (well intended if, misguided decision). His was a mainly a solo effort, and he was quite disillusioned with his lack of success and the resistance he encountered (not helped by his irascible character, I would say).

    Apeetha inspired a number of friends around the Ashram (including Dev Gogoi, wonderful photographer, JJayaraman, librarian with Ramanasramam – both have continued ever since to make significant contributions) to become actively interested in the regreening in around 1987-8, beginning with a small nursery down from the Ashram, and wonderful environmental puppet theatre shows which she took around villages and schools to try to awaken environmental consciousness.

    Seeking funding and experienced activists, Apeetha wrote to the Rainforest Information Centre(RIC) in Lismore, Australia. RIC was a very active, non-violent but radically determined bunch of young idealistic activists originally formed to save the local rainforest and on the success of that campaign, to support local people around the world (New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Sarawak, Ecuador) to preserve their rainforest homes. Apeetha’s beautiful letter essentially said that Arunachala was never a rainforest, and never would be, but she believed that unless places like Arunachala were forested, there was little chance of saving the existing rainforests elsewhere.

    During a Deep Ecology workshop held by John Seed on my land, he remarked: “You love India, and you’ve surely planted a lot of trees. Have you ever thought of planting trees in India?” I responded: ”Not specifically, but tell me what you have in mind?” John asked: “Have you ever heard of a mountain called Arunachala?” I declared: “Take me home.”

    The greening began with a dream, was taken up by people who believe in being a part of the change for a better world. The dream comes true. Anything’s possible if we dare to dream it.

    My work as co-ordinator of the Annamalai Reforestation Society (ARS) was based on Permaculture, simply and heartfully. It works, however deprecating some may be towards it (Claude Alvares in the past was very critical), it can work if applied with sensitivity and awareness. Arunachala proves it, and there are many other examples.

    As success began to be obvious, the ARS had to transform into an officially sanctioned NGO. At various stages, the retired Indian Railways officer, SV Kannikeswaran, the lawyer Vishwanathan, the SBI officers Nawazuddin, as well as SK Chandrashekaran, have all devoted their time and efforts to the continuation of the ARS.

    Govinda originally was approached to take over my role with the ARS, however he was wise enough (!) to recognise that it was time for a fresh approach, and the result of that decisions led to the wonderful work that has evolved from then. The education, playground, arboretum …. And all the rest. I’m sure Govinda will fill you in on details I have no idea of. Apeetha and the ARS were surely the beginning of the success of the Greening Arunachala.

    I apologise, Lalitha, for all these words, but I felt that I could only do justice (partially anyway) to answering your questions this way. Of course you can feel free to use it as you wish, or not as the case may be. I hope it helps, and again, contact me any time. It’s so long since I was at Arunachala (perhaps six years), and am looking forward to being there again by the end of this year.

    Best wishes, and inspiration in all that you do,


    Anyway, dear JJ, please accept this as an explanation for any shortcomings you read into the article. Let’s face, we were all doing it just for the Earth and for Arunachala. I hope you’re well, and all the rest of the crew. With love, John Button

      Anuradha Roy

      Dear Sir(John Button)
      I m a simple Indian residing in a city Thane , unfortunately thnx to mmodern life style and luxury and routine work have never been close to nature but fortunately have got an opportunity to work in the environment wing of Central Railway under Government of India and have been reading articles on nature , Afforestation, pollution etc. and today while exploring articles was highly impressed to now the transformation of Arunachal hills where I have been once because my maternal aunt stays there but never did I know or even bother to know, really wish we could turn our barren lands to green patches in Mumbai.And dont know about others but you sure can help me .If you visit Mumbai would want to meet you and introduce you to my boss who will be more pleased to meet you.My whats app no. 9833369983.
      Thanksand regards.
      Awaiting your kind reply.

        Giuseppe Tallarico

        Dear Anuradha,

        Thank you for your kind words and interest in reforestation. My name is Giuseppe Tallarico, and I am a member of the World Permaculture Association. I am glad to hear that you have been reading articles on nature and afforestation, and that you are impressed by the transformation of the Arunachal Hills.

        I would be happy to meet with you and your boss in Mumbai if I have the opportunity to visit. I appreciate your offer to introduce me to your boss, and I will keep your contact information for future reference.

        Thank you for your interest in working towards a greener future.

        Best regards,
        Giuseppe Tallarico

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the reforestation of Arunachala. It is important to acknowledge and recognize the efforts and contributions of all those involved in this pioneering project. We apologize if the article did not include the individuals you mentioned and will make sure to include them in future coverage of this project.


Hi John,
I greatly enjoyed reading your witty description. Thank you so much for this entertaining and inspiring story and your tremendous work!
My favourite quote from your text is definitely ‘If you have no problem, buy a goat.’
I had to laugh out loud and stick it on my fridge to make me laugh every time I pass.
If my Turkish fellows only remembered their sages’ sayings, we’d have far more healthy woods…
All my love,

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Dear Yasemin,

    Thank you for your kind words about the article and for sharing your favorite quote. I am glad that this story was able to entertain and inspire you. Your support for reforestation efforts is greatly appreciated.

    I couldn’t agree more with your statement about the importance of remembering the wisdom of our ancestors. The sayings of our sages can be powerful tools in guiding us towards a more sustainable future.

    I hope that your Turkish fellows will come to appreciate the value of healthy woods and that they will work towards preserving and restoring them.

    Thank you again for your support and all the best,

    Giuseppe Tallarico

Restoring the complex ecosystem of India’s sacred Arunachala Hill | Hopebuilding

[…] ecologist John Barrie Button, who first encountered Arunachala in 1989 when he was invited to help local people reforest it, […]


We create nothing; we can only support the conditions for creation to take place.

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Hello, thank you for your comment. I couldn’t agree more, as a permaculture practitioner, I believe that our role is to observe and work with natural systems, rather than trying to control them. By creating the right conditions and providing the necessary resources, we can support the growth and regeneration of ecosystems.

    Giuseppe Tallarico

Prasiddhi Forest Foundations

Thanks for sharing the blog. its really very needful

Prasiddhi Forest Foundations

Thanks for sharing the blog. its is really helpful thnks

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    You’re welcome! I’m glad that you found the blog helpful. Reforestation is an important aspect of permaculture and it is good to see that people are taking initiative to reforest the sacred mountain. It is essential to ensure that the right tree species are planted in the right place, and that they are grown in a way that mimics the natural ecosystem. I hope the information provided in the blog will inspire you to take action in your community and contribute to the reforestation efforts. Let me know if you have any other questions or if there’s anything more I can help you with.


Great post about the reforestation of the sacred mountain! It is inspiring to see the dedication and hard work put into restoring this important ecosystem. The use of native species and traditional knowledge in the reforestation efforts is especially commendable. The benefits of reforestation, not only for the environment but for the local communities and future generations, are immeasurable. It is wonderful to see organizations like the World Permaculture Association taking action towards a sustainable future. Keep up the amazing work!

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Thank you for your kind words and support for the reforestation efforts on the sacred mountain. We are thrilled to see the positive impact it is having on the environment and the local communities. The use of native species and traditional knowledge is a key aspect of permaculture design and we are glad to see it being effectively implemented in this project. We appreciate your recognition of the importance of organizations like the World Permaculture Association in working towards a sustainable future. We will continue to strive towards creating positive change through permaculture and conservation efforts.

    Giuseppe Tallarico


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