Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Rainforest Revival

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine 17 July 2005

We were in the Western Ghats, technically one of the world’s richest hotspots of biodiversity. But instead, a vast manicured matrix of tea estates spread out in every direction as far as the eye could see. Although tea estates are way up in the high rainfall belt, they are biological deserts. Decades of spraying pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides had made sure that not even a frog croaks on a rainy night here. You can see only the survivors – jungle crows, jungle mynas, red-whiskered bulbuls. We are faced with a losing battle – hundreds of hectares of rainforest vanish every year in the Western Ghats. After decades of bad press, a group of estates in the Anamalais, under the banner of Anamalai Biodiversity Conservation Association (ABCA), have joined hands with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) to buck the trend.

Any tea estate has areas of low productivity called “blanks” – where tea cannot be planted. Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), as one of the first participants in the programme, has allocated a few such “blanks” to the NCF to plant with indigenous rainforest trees. A nursery used to raise tea plants has been converted into a rainforest sapling nursery. An amazing 30,000 saplings of 90 species have been raised so far, of which over a dozen species have never before been germinated in a nursery. Another estate in the vicinity, Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC) has decided to use rainforest species to provide shade to their 80 hectares of organic coffee and vanilla. As the smaller building blocks of a healthy ecosystem come together, hopes for a better representation of biodiversity have increased. When the habitat is restored, it provides valuable new haunts for native species of birds and mammals. How did this remarkable alliance begin?

As a doctoral student, Divya Mudappa studied the role of fruit-eating mammals in the propagation of forest trees in the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) near Thirunelveli. She collected scores of seeds from the scats of frugivorous animals like civets and germinated them to study their growth rates. (As suspected she found that seeds of many species that have passed through the gut of the animals germinated better or faster than seeds from uneaten fruits.) When the time came to wrap up her study she had hundreds of sturdy little saplings ready for life in the jungle. In an abandoned cardamom estate in Sengaltheri (KMTR) Divya and her colleague-husband, Shankar Raman, had noticed that indigenous saplings easily took root in clearings where there was no competition from cardamom. Taking a cue from this observation, Divya planted her 250 saplings in clearings amongst the cardamom and helped speed up the regeneration process. Realizing what it takes to get the forest back on its roots, Divya and Shankar Raman, decided to focus on rainforest restoration. This was just the sort of project that their NGO, the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, wanted to do.

The abandoned estates of Kalakkad-Mundanthurai were in better shape than the estates of the Anamalais. Although the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary surrounded the vast plantations, the last fragments of forest were disappearing. The presence of a vast human population on these mountains threw up a whole gamut of socioeconomic issues. The Anamalais needed urgent attention and the couple moved there, forsaking the relative peace and quiet of KMTR.

Hindustan Lever Limited, a major landholder in the Anamalais had a mandate to protect biodiversity on their lands under their international sustainable agriculture programme. Divya and Shankar held several meetings with the General Manager, D.G. Hegde, about what needed to be done. He had the right ideas – tree planting, starting a nursery – and Divya and Shankar found their first collaborator in the area. All of them agreed on the general principles of the work ahead – to plant a diversity of tree species typical to rainforests of that elevation, and choose pioneer species that do well in open areas which also attract seed-dispersing birds and other animals. HLL provided the infrastructure, labour support and more importantly, access to degraded fragments on its land with the caveat never to convert them to plantations. Now the real work began.

Almost nothing is known about forest trees – germination time, viability of seeds, rate of survival, what to plant in specific site conditions. Divya and Shankar also had to figure out which species would naturally regenerate as “pioneer” species. Under the shade of these pioneers, other more shade loving saplings could be planted. Within the first two years the team planted 5000 nursery-raised saplings of 75 species amongst these pioneers in two degraded bits of land totaling 24 hectares.

With little more than the logistical support provided by HLL, the NCF team managed to prove that a lot could be achieved. Even as the team proved their credibility with the local tea plantation managers, some funds trickled in from the Netherlands Committee of the IUCN’s Tropical Rainforest Programme which helped the restorers consolidate some of their efforts. Over the last two years, with additional support coming from the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme in India and from Barakat Inc., USA, the programme is set to expand to new areas. Another local company, Parry Agro Limited, has come forward to restore degraded fragments totaling about 350-400 hectares.

Perhaps the hardest solutions that the team has had to come up with are to meet people’s needs for fuel-wood to prevent further degradation of these fragile rainforests and to find indigenous shade trees for the tea. Tea needs relatively more sunlight than coffee and the exotic silver oak has been the tree of choice to provide the scant shade that the plants need. Collaborating with the United Planters’ Association of South India (UPASI), the team is experimenting with four rainforest tree species - Filicium decipiens, Ormosia travancorica, Trichilia connaroides and Dimocarpus longan - that could possibly replace the silver oak. Should it succeed then they are set to change the profile of tea estates across the Western Ghats.

What has upgrading the quality of the forest in these isolated bits of land achieved? For one thing it can reduce the extent of damage caused by elephants. Throughout the appropriately named Anamalai hills, there are running battles with elephants. By providing shelter during the day and access to other parts of their range these new forest oases help bring down the intensity of the conflict. Conversely, it is the estates that have no such fragments of forest where elephants pose a greater threat. Besides creating habitat for endangered wild animals like the lion-tailed macaques and the great Indian hornbills, native trees are the key to watershed management.

Starting small, by restoring and protecting little bits of degraded slopes, Divya and Shankar want to take on the bigger challenge of planting corridors between these individual bits of forest. While this may not be comparable to a pristine rainforest, its effect will be greater than the sum of all the isolated fragments. Traditionally conservation has focused on National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Reserve forests, but this project goes to show that by co-opting private land owners much can be achieved.

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