Senior Digital Marketing Manager turned eco-warrior, Vijo Varghese, is on a mission to create a safe space for wildlife and nature to flourish. Having resided most of his life in Thailand, Vijo’s Kerala roots has inspired him to serve nature by seeking out ways to inspire people around him about environmental conservation. With the aim to channel his eco vision, he told us, “It is the beauty of nature that mesmerizes me. The way it creates such deep emotions within us, the way its beauty overwhelms us and how just by being in its presence, gives us the ability to heal ourselves.” One of the most important aspects of Vijo’s story is that he feels strongly about preserving nature and reshaping the conversation around it. One wonders how he manages it all.
Vijo Varghese was born to Malayali parents in Muthalakodam, Idukki district, along the foothills of the Western Ghats. His father, V.I. Varghese, hails from Piravom and left India in 1981 to work in Thailand, and is a traditional hard-working man who ensured that his children got all they wanted. His mother from Thattakuzha, (a remote village on the foothills of the Western Ghats), Jolly Varghese, is full of love, and she is possibly the main reason Vijo’s roots in nature are so strong. Vijo has a younger sister Anu, who is now a mother of two children and lives in Trivandrum with the love of her life Allen.
Vijo was brought up in Thailand from the age of 6. He shared, “Most of my childhood was spent on the outskirts of Bangkok in a place called Samrong, where the industrial world bumped up against nature. A factory on one side and tropical forests on the other, I roamed the jungles Huckleberry Finn style with my best friend Anshu ever since I can remember. Anshu now runs OurLand with me. In Bangkok, I went to school, I went to high school, I went to university.” But, every year, he would visit his mother’s hometown and explore the wildlife around him. He believes that the seed to look up to nature for tranquility and peace was sowed during his vacations in Kerala.
Having completed Bachelors in Computer engineering and a Masters in Marketing even though he wasn’t too interested in them, he sought out do what everyone did after earning a degree – find a job. After much effort, he got a job as a junior automotive editor, which was ‘dream job’, he would say. Soon he was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis Grade 3 on his back, and he spent a year in india at several ayurvedic hospitals trying to get better. Eventually he had to get surgery with titanium implants drilled into the back bone to fix things. After recovery, he worked in the Times of India Kochi for a short while, before he moved back to Thailand for a job with Chevrolet Thailand. Four years passed, and he realised he wasn’t happy. He lacked passion, which he regained when he started OurLand along with his best friend Anshu.
HOW OURLAND HAPPENED
During Vijo’s stint at Chevrolet on a work assignment to South Africa, where he visited a Nature reserve. He was in the vicinity of many animals, the ones that you see on National Geographic. He also had the chance to meet the team that ran the reserve and was blown away by how everything was managed. Amazed by it, he wondered if he could do it. It was around this time that he went to Nepal where he met Moti, the owner of the Panoramic view guesthouse, a small which was on a cliff with an unbelievable view. Vijo shared, “I spent every evening talking to Moti about his life and how he built up the place. This is where it all changed. I asked myself why a third grade drop out like Moti could follow his dreams and be so happy, while I had all the resources in the world and was yet unhappy.” As soon as he got back to Thailand, Vijo started searching for a piece of land. Ultimately, he found one which connected to him on a deeper level. As soon as he shifted his mindset towards his newly rented land, he got fired from his job. And, it was the best thing that’s happened to him.
OurLand is now a nature conservation project where every living organism is allowed to live freely. People who hold a deep connection with nature come to spend some quiet time with nature and experience wildlife like never before. Upon asking Vijo how Kerala inspired him to promote and sustain an eco-friendly lifestyle, he said, “There’s something about the natural beauty of Kerala, something like a whisper of distant memory that spread its fingers into your conscious mind as you drive through the polluted clogged streets of a city like Bangkok. More than an inspiration, Kerala has been a beacon of light deep in the heart. Living in Kerala gave me a sense of home. It rooted me to the motherland, and it made me realize that as an adult, I could live in this place. A place where eagles fly the cities, and where people fight hard against factories polluting the environment (while still burning plastic in the backyard).”
Some of the activities that OurLand provides is also quite interesting. It helps visitors connect with nature and understand it from their point of view. Besides learning about the jungle and the rivers and the importance of reforestation, there is also:
Banteng Conservation – A critically endangered species of Wild Cattle that is being bred in captivity to be released into the wild. Only 70 of the Banteng exist in the wild in Thailand. Students get to learn about how the breeding, reintroduction and health of the Banteng is managed.
Community Tree Planting – Head to the local village tree nursery and get trained by the local villagers on how to prepare trees for a new generation of forests. The locals working on the reforestation are experts. One can also learn about how building mini-check dams can help solve the Human-Elephant-Conflict.
Snake Education Course – Learn about the mystical world of serpents in Thailand. With over 200 snake species in Thailand, there’s a lot to learn about them. Students will get to see over 7 commonly found species, along with how to identify them. Most importantly, students learn about basic first-aid in case of a snake bite.
Human Elephant Conflict Course – With Kanchanaburi having the highest population of Wild elephants in Thailand, conflict between farmers and elephants is rife here. OurLand has been working with the locals on how to solve this problem – By building mini-dams as an alternative watering sources and tree-houses to create wild elephant tourism as an alternative source of income for the farmers. Students can get in-depth understanding in the world of HEC and can also be part of the solution.
Bat and Cave Education – Learn about the caves and the various species of Bats in the Kanchanaburi Area. Home to the world’s smallest mammal, Kitti’s Hog nosed bat, the caves here are mesmerizing to explore. Guests will also learn about how caves are formed and the bats that inhabit this dark underworld.
The response from the public has been positive. People are learning more about conserving nature through OurLand.
HOW HAS LIFE CHANGED FOR VIJO
For Vijo, life has become quieter and more peaceful. In fact, he shared, “I appreciate the fact that my life is more community based now. I work with the people who live around me. I don’t walk past the neighbor like I don’t know them. I feel life is more impactful, that I am really able to create a change. Perhaps the one thing that amazed me was how happy I am now. A nice place to sleep (my bamboo hut), good food and the bare minimums keeps me happy. I always knew that material things don’t matter much to me, but OurLand tested that for me.” However, it has been a challenge for Vijo to look after OurLand. “I now work all the time. The weight of the organization bears heavy on my shoulders, and I’m not the best at handling stress. I do miss being able to just shut off and walk away from the business and not think about it. Then, a 9-5 job now sounds kinda relaxing. Having said that, making a difference is what my destiny holds and that’s exactly what I’m going to do”, said Vijo. When Vijo isn’t managing 15 acres of land, he goes to the city to catch up on the latest movies and trains dogs. He keeps himself occupied even when he isn’t around nature.
Vijo is highly aware of the fact that human beings are using up resources way too fast, and that there won’t be much left if we don’t decrease our consumption. The simplest way to do that is to be sustainable. Vijo’s life-changing story is all you need to become a better contributor to the world. If he can do it, so can we. He backed up his environmental beliefs by sharing his knowledge about nature and wildlife to people. Even though he continuously flights to spread the importance of sustainability, in the end, it’s all about fighting for humanity. By treating the natural environment with love and respect, we begin to understand its value better and begin to appreciate its givings. And Vijo is doing exactly that.