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Aspley parish priest returning to India to establish new nature reserve inspired by Laudato Si’

New mission: Fr John Panamthottam is returning to India to establish a nature study and conservation reserve.

ELEPHANTS, monkeys and tigers will be part of Aspley parish priest Fr John Panamthottam’s community when he returns to India soon.

His religious order, the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, has given him a special task – to establish a nature study centre.

Fr Panamthottam is heading home to Kerala, in southern India, at the end of the month having been a missionary in Brisbane archdiocese for the past five years.

His new mission will be to turn a 40ha farm into a nature study centre and conservation reserve.

Although his superiors have appointed him to the role, the project was Fr Panamthottam’s idea and he will be the centre’s director.

“I was really inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home) because it is about conserving nature … and because the idea is that especially the children and the new generation must be trained and they must be given some idea about the importance of conserving nature,” he said.

The site of the project is a farm owned by the CMI, called St Elias Ashram.

It is surrounded by forest, and Fr Panamthottam said a large indigenous community lived there.

The forest is home to elephants, monkeys, bisons, wild boars and deers.

Tigers are occasionally seen there.

The Carmelites had operated a farm on the property since 1960 but Fr Panamthottam said the farm was no longer viable.

“… Because of the changing climate and the acute shortage of labourers, it’s very difficult to continue farming there,” he said.

“Therefore our religious order planned to start a different mission and a different project that will be useful for our educational institutions and the future generations.”

The order had intended selling the property but, after a visit two years ago, Fr Panamthottam saw other possibilities.

“After (the visit) I just forwarded a project proposal on this particular place and my superiors were so happy to approve it, so they gave me a green light,” he said.

Part of the plan is that schools and colleges could utilise the centre for study visits.

“For example, 30 children can come and stay there for one or two or three days, and they can have interaction with the indigenous community, and spend some time in nature,” Fr Panamthottam said.

“And we will organise classes regarding the farming and the importance of nature and the medicinal plants – so many things.

“I have to go and then explore the many possibilities and this is only an outline.”

He said part of his mission would be to protect and promote the folklore of the indigenous people, and to help introduce their folklore to the new generation of students.

“At the same time, I have a small parish to be looked after there – a parish of 50 families – so it is a pastoral, educational, ecological and cultural (project); that means a combination of all these ministries,” he said.

“It’s unique in its kind and it’s an evolving project, and so I have to go there and just spend one year fully to explore the possibilities, and then we will start the project.

“So it’s difficult and challenging.”

The project will also have an eye towards the protection of the local habitat and species because Fr Panamthottam said the animals in the area were endangered because of declining food sources in the forest.

“That’s why they are coming to our place,” he said.

“They actually destroyed the farmlands, because there are times (when they come looking for food), especially in the jackfruit seasons – they like very much the jackfruits.

“They will be attracted by the season of the jackfruits and they will come straight away from the forest, and all these monkeys will come and pick up all these mangoes and these jackfruits.”

Fr Panamthottam said students could visit the new centre “and spend some days with nature, and they can play there, and do birdwatching, insect-watching, and see different types of herbs there – all these things”.

“At the same time, I plan to plant a lot of rare species of plants and trees there, and whatever is available in our country because if it is suitable to that place, I will plant it there,” he said.

“There are a lot of dreams regarding that particular place but how far I will be able to achieve that depends on the providence of God.”

Fr Panamthottam said he would miss the “beautiful parish” at Aspley.

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