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Thimakka is a Dalit woman from Karnataka, India, who, when taunted by her neighbors for being infertile, adopted 284 banyan trees as her “children.” Her remarkable act won her the Prime Minister’s Award for social forestry. It also inspired a young woman halfway across the world, right here in the Bay Area, to start a non-profit in 1998.

Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education was founded by Ritu Primlani to offer economically viable environmental solutions to all communities. In the six years of its existence, this organization has made a place for itself as a major education and advocacy resource for the environment. However, it is best known for its Greening Ethnic Restaurants project, an innovative, culturally-sensitive program aimed at reaching out to the underserved business communities of the area.

In April this year, Primlani was honored as a hometown hero by the Volvo for Life Awards, for her success in greening 44 ethnic restaurants and saving them over $1.5 million. She beat more than 2,750 nominees for the award and received $10,000 to be given to a charity of her choice.

There were many reasons why the Greening Ethnic Restaurant project was a priority for Primlani. According to her, restaurants consume more energy per square foot than any other retail industry. They also produce a lot of waste, 83 percent of which can be recycled.

Ethnic restaurants with their multicultural staff and language barriers present a challenge to city environmental departments and often fail to implement some of their regulations. “These businesses are traditionally overlooked and underserved,” says Primlani. “I wanted to change that. Besides, working with businesses is an essential part of saving the earth since they are the greatest producers and consumers of resources.”

In order to be certified as a green restaurant the owner has to commit to adopting a minimum of 60 environmental measures—from installing energy-saving light bulbs and water-conserving faucets, to recycling cooking oil and serving a partially organic menu. Primlani initially approached a few South Asian restaurants in the Berkeley-Oakland area. She promised to save them money and cut their costs—at no charge to them. All they had to do was cooperate with her team, which comprised of partners from various city, county, or regional agencies. It was a win-win situation, and 44 restaurant owners of different ethnicities—Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Mediterranean, among others—complied. The success rate was phenomenal. About 96 percent of the restaurants in the program were certified. Many scored more than the minimum, the highest score being 440 measures.

Primlani puts things into perspective with a few statistics, “So far, the restaurants have saved enough water to give each resident in Berkeley two bathtubs full of water, and have conserved enough energy to run an average American home for 96 years. What’s more, the participating restaurants have saved a total of $1.5 million on electricity, water bills, and garbage fees. All this happened in two years.”

On their side, the restaurants that participated in the program are very satisfied. Samten Chinkarlaprang, whose Café Tibet in Berkeley scored over 100 points in the program, says that before Primalani came along, no agency either from the city or the county had ever talked to her about recycling. “Now I save over $60 in electricity and water each month. That may not seem like much, but for a small business like mine, every cent counts,” she emphasizes. Both Chinkarlaprang and Tuanchai Supsuwan, owner of Thai Delight Cuisine in Berkeley talked knowledgeably about the impact of their “greening” on the environment. Says Supsuwan, “I like to think that we have preserved some of our limited resources for future generations by being part of the program. Ritu has also become a very good friend in the process.”

It is no wonder that Thimmakka’s inventive project earned it the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Achievement Award in 2003 as well as the prestigious California Governor’s Award.

Primlani is seriously committed to being environmentally responsible not only in her business but in her personal life as well. She recently purchased a house in Oakland which she is renovating from the basement up with recycled stone, old wood, lead-free paint, and natural fibers. The carpets on the floor are kilim, the walls are painted in a soft ochre using the fresco technique that Michelangelo Buonarroti used in painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling (pigment over absorbent plaster), and the furniture and some of the door frames are bargains that Primlani picked up at antique stores in the Bay Area. She is a long-time vegan and wears only cotton or khadi silk. “I even drive a used Toyota Prius,” she explains, referring to the popular hybrid-engine car model.

One does not have to be a Ph.D. in science or have the wealth of a Bill Gates to be an environmentalist, suggests Primlani. “All it takes is commitment and knowledge. Try to do one thing every month for the environment,” she says. “And I don’t mean just recycling your trash.”

“If man does not learn to be environmentally responsible, he will always be known as the species that was never toilet-trained,” she continues, alluding to the colossal waste and pollution generated by modern-day living. “The day nature says I can’t take any more, that is the last day you and I will ever see.”

Primlani sees a very definite path for Thimmakka in the coming years. Her big vision is to go national and green the entire food service industry. “I’d like to green the entire world,” she laughs, “But you have to start somewhere.” So, for the present, Thimmakka’s plans are more modest and include greening 200 restaurants in California by 2006.

In the larger global context, Primlani feels that western concept of development has condemned the earth to toxic pollution and depleting resources. Unfortunately, as more and more countries embrace this ideal, our knowledge of how to live in, and preserve, the environment is getting lost. “There is an old Chinese saying that I have taken to heart and live by,” she declares. “If you don’t change the direction in which you’re going, you’ll likely end up where you’re headed.”

Shobha Hiatt works with Narika, a domestic violence agency, and lives in Berkeley.