Gaia Grid: One acre, One person, One community, and a world of difference
One acre of land — it might seem miniscule, yet just one acre of healthy trees has the power to change the trajectory of an entire community, a simple seed that multiplies and grows. On the southwest tip of India, along the Malabar Coast in the state of Kerala, Gaia Grid is an ongoing effort to create a self-sustaining farm system demonstrating that one person, one acre, and one community can make a positive impact on our world.
In Kerala, wild elephants roam free across the hilly terrain of the Western Ghats Mountain Range. The Western Ghats, rising to about 1,500 meters above sea level, is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, and is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site (UNESCO). Here, in a small tribal village belonging to the ancient Irula tribe, Gaia Grid has taken root.
Giving Up Everything for a Vision of Green
Harsh Valechha graduated from Calcutta University in 2007 with a degree in finance. After a brief stint (3 years) with GE Aviation, he then transitioned to the consulting firm Deloitte, gathering exposure to Bitcoin and blockchain technology.
However, having felt a calling for conservation — one that seemed to grow stronger with each step up the corporate ladder — he was soon drawn to return to his roots to reinvent himself with a mission of learning more about soil-regeneration. In 2013 he left everything behind to pursue climate conservation.
“I had a choice: Work for personal financial independence, or work toward cultivating a passion. Something that would fulfill the soul and be beneficial for the community and nature around us.”- Harsh, on why he left it all behind
He started from scratch, giving away all his material possessions, and began volunteering with a forest community based out of South India for two years. This work took him to Haiti where he learned French Creole (his seventh language) working with the local communities to plant food forests for another year. It was here that the seed of Gaia Grid, a self-sustaining food-forest, was planted in his mind.
“The idea was to create small backyard orchards, the produce could be used by the people, their neighbors and the surplus could be sold — small steps toward food and financial resilience”- Harsh, reflecting on his work in Haiti
Soon after leaving Haiti, Harsh moved back to India, where he committed himself to a life of few material possessions with full devotion to restoring the soil under him. He purchased a 1 acre piece of land in Kerala to begin developing Gaia Grid. Upon visiting the land, he realized he had his work cut out for him: the property was on top of a hill, and was covered with exposed rock from decades of erosion. When he saw how heavily degraded the land was, Harsh was even more motivated to regenerate the area, and pursue a long-term food forest project there.
The idea was to create a small-scale model farm that could be replicated anywhere in the world. Harsh wanted to provide self-resilience in terms of water, food, shelter and electricity to its residents, and benefit the ecosystem and surrounding community.
As Gaia Grid runs solely on crowdfunding, he began fundraising, winning a total of $3,000 from The Pollination Project (based in Berkeley). Gaia Grid also raised a total of $15,000 from over 500 donors from all over the world in under 4 years. This enabled them to plant hundreds of fruit trees, and establish sustainable infrastructure on the land, including upcycled housing, compost toilets, solar powered irrigation, and low water use plumbing for all the trees and garden beds.
Having picked up permaculture and other soil and water management techniques from locals in Haiti and South India during his years with different forest projects prior to Gaia Grid, he spent a year observing the way that the elements interact with the land. He wanted to ensure that every drop of rain on the land is used, and curtailed runoff by creating hand dug swales, catchment ponds, trenches, pits, bunds, and steps.
Alongside 500 volunteers from the community and all over the world, over 5 years, over a thousand pits were dug across the land area, as spots for trees to be planted in the future. Then, nitrogen-fixing legumes were planted into these pits to enrich the soil, and prepare it for planting.
Over the past 6 years, Gaia Grid has become a self-sustaining system in terms of water, shelter, and electricity; it is not connected to the grid, so shelters on the property are made by volunteers and local tribal people, with locally sourced wood, and upcycled roofing tiles.
“I do this work because the soil, water, and trees are my mother… This is the least I can do to take care of someone that has nourished me since I was in the womb. This feels like the most intuitive way to dedicate my waking life.”- Harsh
Working with Open Forest Protocol
Sustainability and autonomy (including data autonomy) have been at the forefront of the Gaia Grid community structure since its onset in 2016. Harsh developed an interest in tree geo-tagging as a means to take complete stewardship of each tree planted; this coincided with the blockchain boom; in time, the subsequent evolution of Regenerative Finance (ReFi) and physical asset tokenization inspired him to put this to work on the ground. However, legacy MRV solutions have not supported small projects like Gaia Grid. When he discovered Open Forest Protocol (OFP), Harsh was excited at the prospect of an open-source, blockchain-based tree growth measurement and management system. OFP’s self-governance model places the control of the land back into the hands of the community of which it belongs.
“My project is called Gaia Grid as a reminder that a balanced life acknowledges ‘Gaia’ (the natural life around us) and the ‘Grid’ (technology and all that comes with it). Partnering with OFP is the perfect manifestation of this ideal.”- Harsh
As a new economic model for sustainable fruit forest growth and generation, Gaia Grid is confident in their path forward and eager to replicate their model globally. Harsh is already in talks with partners in Mexico and Portugal about creating similar self-sustaining farms, and is actively seeking partnerships with like minded people who would like to convert their unused land to long term self-sustaining food-forests.
Gaia Grid has hosted visitors from all around the world, imparting knowledge on unique methods that reshape convergent sustainability. Many of his volunteers have now gone on to start their own farm projects, including in Sussex and Sicily. Leading with a tone of respect and reverence for a community that Harsh now calls home, he emphasizes the need to put others first in order to create just and lasting change. In his Gaia Grid journey, Harsh demonstrates that serving others selflessly is crucial to cultivating personal and communal growth.
Moving Forward with Intention
Gaia Grid will benefit from OFP’s easy to use, open access Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) platform, and will be able to make earnings on the carbon stored by their trees through participation in the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM). At present, they have planted over 800 fruit trees in Kerala with ambitions to expand to other locations while cultivating a community of giving, service, and interconnectivity.
Harsh’s primary motivation for Gaia Grid is rooted in a genuine desire to live as one with the earth rather than cater to the materialism that seems so pervasive within society today. Harsh hopes that Gaia Grid can demonstrate that a project of any size can make a difference; we hope that the open-source nature of OFP will serve to empower individuals with similar goals and aspirations to unveil the power of forests.
If you would like to learn more about Gaia Grid, or would like to contribute to and support their vision to globally expand this self sustaining community farm head to:
NEAR protocol address (for donations): gaiagridindia.near