A Background Note on the Project Proposal for Conservation of Biodiversity in the Western Ghats

by Dr. Sathis Chandran Nair 11/04

The Western Ghats – Significance

The Western Ghats form the most important watershed divide in Peninsular India. All the major rivers in India south of Narmada originate from this north-south hill chain parallel to and close to the Western coast of India. By decidedly influencing the weather and the climate, particularly rainfall during the monsoons through orographic effect, all the river runoff in the southern part of India is controlled by the Western Ghats. Thus agriculture in the States of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are crucially regulated by the Western Ghats. It is the major source for hydel power in these States.

The Western Ghats harbour the most extensive tropical forests in the Indian Peninsula in the States of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Geological stability over a long period of time, proximity to the equator, high rainfall and biogeographic antecedence have contributed to the tropical moist forests in the Western Ghats being endowed with exceptional biodiversity, ecosystem diversity and endemism. It is a refugia for ancient tropical flora and fauna.

Reaching elevations of more than 2500m along many points with a spectrum of climatic and altitudinal zones, topographic and edaphic conditions, the Western Ghats harbour a wide range of forest biotic communities. They range from sub-temperate montane wet grasslands and shola forests to dry deciduous sandal forests and xerophytic scrub.

The Western Ghats also harbour a large diversity of human cultures. For example, in the less than 20,000 sq.km. of Kerala Western Ghats there are more than 38 distinct tribal communities.

Forests south of the Palakkad Gap (10° 45¢ N , 76° 45¢ E) along the Kerala - Tamil Nadu boundary have the richest biodiversity and higher endemism than the rest of the Western Ghats.

Yet in spite of all the above mentioned potentials the ecology of the Ghats is severely damaged, threatening and destabilising not only the biological richness of the tract but also the potential of the downstream reaches for human habitation.

The most important ecological damage inflicted upon the Western Ghats is deforestation. Within the past one century more than 50 percent of the forest vegetation of this tract has been lost. The remaining forests are extremely fragmented and most of the fragments are not viable ecologically for any length of time. Climax plant communities or benchmark ecosystems occupy only a tiny fraction of the area, less than 10 percent, and even these are getting rapidly degraded due to inadequate buffering and protection.

Rapid landuse changes and unsound resource management practices have undermined the viability and productivity of the entire agricultural landscape, tribal, non-tribal food crops as well as plantation crops.

The ‘traditional’ plantation crop areas i.e. tea, coffee, cardamom and pepper which have occupied all the accessible and potentially manageable areas since the late 19th century are in a state of agricultural collapse. It is not only an ecological crisis but also a major economic and socio-political crisis which is adversely affecting the State’s economy and the lives of millions of plantation labour. These plantations located mostly between 600m and 2000m had originally destroyed the best evergreen forests and currently for survival these stranded labour population is coming to depend upon the remaining natural forests.

Later forest tree plantations, initially teak and eucalyptus, replaced practically all the lower elevation forests. Converting natural forests into monoculture plantations, essentially as industrial raw material sources, reached its peak during the 1960-1980 period occupying about 30 percent of the forest cover. Forest communities ranging from shola vegetation in the higher mountains to xerophytic scrub were affected badly, fragmenting forest ecosystems.

Between the 1950s and the 1980s a spate of river valley projects were taken up in the Ghats. Hydel dams were in the higher reaches and irrigation dams in the lower valleys. Hundreds of dam reservoirs and associated structures came up in the Western Ghats destroying outright forests and associated riverine ecosystems. And an even larger number of permanent human settlements sprang up in association with the river valley projects and altered the entire landscape irrevocably.

Kerala has about 60 large and medium dams within the less than 10,000sq.km. of forests in the Ghats. All the prime evergreen forests were destroyed or badly affected. Apart from direct destruction, the fall out effects of the opening up of the interior forests to human activity adversely affected the forests. This included forestry operations. The subsequent ecodegradation caused extensive damage to the ecology of the Western Ghats. The Periyar basin in the High Ranges of Kerala, for example, has a series of 12 large dams which directly and indirectly resulted in the destruction of about 4000sq.km. of rainforests and grasslands. In the adjacent State of Tamil Nadu in the Nilgiri Hills, along the western edge of the Nilgiri Plateau at an elevation of more than 2000m, a series of 7 dams came up, which literally wiped out the best sub-temperate shola-grassland ecosystem in this country. In the State of Karnataka further north, the most extensive evergreen forests in that State was severely damaged by the Saravathi Hydro Electric Project.

The stability of the hydrology of the river depends upon the ecological health of the catchment forests. As the forests were destroyed or damaged, the lifespan of the river valley projects were also drastically curtailed.

The biodiversity of the Western Ghats is very inadequately known. The British explorers, planters and administrators during the 19th and early 20th centuries systematically laid the foundations for cataloguing the flora and fauna. But this information base is patchy in geographical coverage as well as in the phyletic groups covered. Many ecologically significant areas remain very inadequately surveyed. Most of the smaller life forms remain to be documented. Meanwhile the tide of ecodegradation is sweeping over the entire tract annihilating most of the biodiversity.

Although policy statements support conservation backed by adequate legal framework, actual implementation is tardy. There is a total lack of landscape planning or environmental impact assessments even in large development projects. Integrating developmental planning with ecological ground-rules is totally lacking. On the other hand haphazard development later on result in intractable environmental backlashes. Adhoc measures are then applied to tackle them when the problems begin to affect the society adversely and become political issues. These ‘corrective measures’ further exacerbate the problem.

There is no scientific basis or a comprehensive perspective plan to the current nature conservation measures. Much of the so called Protected Area Network is a historical legacy from times when the focus of nature protection was still embedded in concepts such as ‘Game Reserves’ and viewing large mammals from the safety of a boat and so on. Later actions were for some convenience or essentially meant as window dressing. Political will is totally lacking for taking the right, strong decisions to conserve the Ghats and its ecosystems. There is no dialogue within the society concerning vital ecological issues on the basis of scientific information. Public awareness on ecology is pathetically inadequate. Hence public pressure is never brought to bear upon decision makers to force the right decision. This confusion is made use of by vested interests to distort, divert or confuse public opinion.

Awareness of the complexity of the ecological problems as well as potentials of our ecological heritage is almost absent. Whatever little awareness there is, mostly is thanks to the media. At best what is happening as environmental activism is fire fighting by a handful of pressure groups or individuals. Some issues almost fortuitously get taken up for action by public outcry, through courts of law, by individual interventions of influential people etc. Even the incidental gains from such corrective actions are rarely consolidated and built upon to create a solid foundation – the societal ecological conscience.

What is Needed

A holistic clearer picture of the ground reality of the Western Ghats.
Consolidated technical as well as non-technical information on this tract could help people understand the ecological identity and the current status of this vital part of our country. Such a primer is needed for the decision maker, planner, researcher and more so for the lay public.

An analytical documentation of what are identified as the major environmental issues of the Western Ghats.
The issues have to be dissected down to their root causative factors to bring out the interconnections. Issues connected with deforestation, water resource use, changes in agricultural land use, tribal development, eco-tourism and so on have wider ramifications. At present we do not understand how these are interconnected geographically spatially as dovetailing into each other. Nor do we understand how economically, politically or sociologically they are parts of the same developmental notion. We have very little understanding of how ecologically they are influencing the same processes or are influenced by them. The current disarticulated perspective generates only a very inadequate comprehension of what is really confronting us. Automatically this results in a very inadequate corrective effort. We need a much clearer historical time line documentation of human interventions in the Western Ghats at least during the recent couple of centuries.

Prioritisation of protection actions.
With emphasis on what is ecologically most vulnerable, valuable, threatened immediately, there should be action plans. These plans should be culturally, scientifically and procedurally feasible. This requires an enormous amount of homework. The current institutional infrastructure has not been able to cope with this requirement. There is neither the policy directive nor continuity of capable personnel to set this process in motion.

Prioritisation of restoration actions.
With emphasis on reinforcing the protection of existing valuable, sustainable community resources or ecological processes that require long gestation periods to fructify, restoration action plans are to be drawn up for each natural sub-unit of the landscape.

To approach the above stated goals the following practical steps are suggested:

Information generation, collection and processing. This is a continuous process. In various formats to suit different target groups this has to be taken up for the Western Ghats as a unit.

Information dissemination. Through various existing networks, using various modules, this has to be initiated for the Western Ghats as a unit.

Initiation of action. Whenever and wherever the ecological foundations of the Western Ghats is threatened, corrective actions have to be initiated through litigation, public mobilisation etc. Individual or group intervention as a catalyst with information, prior experience or mobilisation is needed.

Consolidation of the gains. Through documentation, education or creating institutional frameworks, gains from each of the contested issues can be transformed into social capital.

These are broadly my suggestions regarding a plan of action for the environmental protection of the Western Ghats. I have been working on some of these measures during the last 30 years. Currently I am seeking financial support for the following specific task.

Over the years some parts of the Southern Western Ghats with high biodiversity value have come to be fairly well known inside the country as well as outside. The Silent Valley National Park, the Eravikulam National Park, the Periyar Tiger Reserve and the Agastyamalai Hills are such locations. That they are recognized as valuable sites does not mean that all is well with these areas. Yet there is a higher alertness regarding these locations and a quicker, more voluble response in the society when some new threat develops against these sites. They cover only a small percentage of the total Ghat area. A large number of perhaps individually smaller, yet from the biodiversity point of view equally valuable sites are scattered along the Ghats apart from the four above mentioned areas. They face a more severe threat because of their smaller extent, unknown status and ongoing destructive processes. In fact, in the absence of systematic coverage of the forest ecosystems and the rapidity with which destruction overtook most of the accessible parts of the Ghats, the residual small fragments of natural ecosystems are of irreplaceable value. They have to be identified and mapped. These may be a small stretch of a river and the adjacent riparian vegetation, an isolated peak, a single swamp, a small trapped population of some species of wildlife surrounded by cultivations etc. To identify these, map out the threats to them and work out situation specific protective measures require prolonged intensive field survey.

I am proposing a two-year intensive survey of the Ghats in the Kerala part of South India. The residual ecosystems and the biotic communities are in the more inaccessible parts of the hills and fieldwork in these regions are possible only during part of the year. The area to be covered extends over approximately 12,000sq.km. of land under various categories of land use practices ranging from untouched wilderness to extensive cash crop plantations or even totally degraded rocky waste. The study is simultaneously a mapping documentation exercise, yet the findings are meant to be immediately injected into various circuits of public and official activities for protective action. Monetary support is needed for the field travel and the urgently required equipment are a GPS and a digital camera.