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Restoration of South Indian Shola Forests Pambar Shola; a success story in conservation

A version of this was published in Social Change, Vol.33, 2003, Journal of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi

Bob Stewart & Tanya Balcar

Giving a precise definition of what constitutes a “Shola” forest presents some difficulties as the term has a generic as well as more specific applications. The generic term is derived from the Tamil “sholai” that referred to any evergreen forest. Today nevertheless the term increasingly refers to the remnant pockets of ancient evergreen forest that occupy the valleys and hollows of the high mountains of the Southern Western Ghats, particularly in the Nilgiri, Annamalai and Palni Hills. There is some disagreement at what elevation the Shola forest begins, and ranges from 1500m to 1800m. The higher end of that range would constitute the more typical Shola and continues to do so as the forest ascends to some 2400m. At these high altitudes the trees are generally stunted with canopy formation never above 15m. The crowns, often supported by trunks of massive girth, are many branched forming a very dense canopy and provide a moist, cool and shady interior that supports a rich micro flora of herbs, shrubs, ferns, mosses and epiphytes. The Sholas are associated with extensive grasslands and the Shola/grassland is usually considered as a single composite eco-system, though the Sholas are of much more ancient tropical origin while the grasslands are a product of a more recent glacial epoch, their species composition related to that of the Himalayas. The Shola margin is sharply defined as the seedlings of its trees cannot survive the searing sunshine and freezing nights of the winters in the neighbouring grasslands.

Conservation of the Shola/grassland eco-system constitute two separate problems in the Palni Hills. Sholas were rarely if ever felled to make way for commercial plantations; rather the grasslands provided an easy medium for establishing stands of Eucalyptus, Pine and Wattle. As a result the grasslands have all but disappeared. The threat to the Sholas comes from proximity to human habitation. No Shola forest can be seen around the older hill villages, while a good number around the growing hill resort of Kodaikanal, established some 100 years ago show varying degrees of degradation including near extinction.

The following narrative of Shola conservation and restoration has its beginnings in the mid 1980’s and continues to the present day. It starts with our chance discovery of the small village of Vattakanal, a few kilometres distance from Kodaikanal. Here we moved into a small Tamil cottage with a little over a half-acre of land. It lacked both electricity and running water, but it was to become our permanent base. We are always asked the hows and whys of making this seemingly eccentric move. For the naturally curious it will suffice to say that disillusionment with 80’s Britain and a potentially modest income from renting our central London flat provided enough impetus to move. Vattakanal itself, straddling a mountainside at 2000m was attraction enough, surrounded by forest, soaring cliffs and waterfalls together with the relative comforts of nearby Kodaikanal and the endless prospects of enigmatic India stretching for thousands of kilometres around us. Those were magical days as we explored the hinterlands of Kodaikanal discovering for the first time the ancient remnant forests known as Sholas.

Nevertheless there were dark clouds above our enchantment. It didn’t take long to see that almost every aspect of the environment around us was suffering from extreme human and human related pressures. The Sholas in particular were under daily attack; most notably the Pambar Shola but also the lesser known Vattakanal Shola which bordered the other side of the village. Pambar’s problems were more severe as it had local populations on both sides and was easily accessible for wood cutting gangs serving the rapidly growing urban market of Kodaikanal.

Firewood accounted for most of the cutting, but timber quality trees were also being processed. The mode of cutting was particularly inimical to self-regeneration. Individual cutters had their preferred spots which were progressively cleared, leaving the forest floor exposed to intense sun and subsequent weed invasion. The most common of these, Ageratina adenophora syn. Eupatorium, of South American origin, became established here in the 1940’s and is an aggressive coloniser of disturbed land. Compared to the moist tropical forests, the temperate Shola is very slow to repair its broken canopy. As early as the nineteenth century the notion of the Sholas non-capacity for self regeneration after logging was well established. The highly degraded upper reaches of Tiger Shola, near Kodaikanal, which is struggling to regenerate even fifteen years after it was fenced, bear testimony to this notion.

By the end of the decade even the most inaccessible parts of the Shola began to be cut, fuelled for example, by the growing demand for baked products in what was now an all year round tourist destination. It was impossible to walk anywhere in the Shola without leaving with a heavy heart. We stopped going altogether. To cap it all in March of that year a wildfire swept through the weed lands, a large basin of several hectares that stretches from the Vattakanal track all the way to the banks of the Pambar river. We refer to this area today as the fire zone and will return to it later. The fire destroyed scores of Shola trees flanking the Shola and revealed a large expanse of terraced land that had once been under potato cultivation.

It was in this same month after many previous months of false starts and three years after we had resolved to try to either save the Shola or quit Kodaikanal that we began to collect seed and develop the infrastructure of the nursery. As we did so we could see head loads of Shola going up the hill along our hedge line on a daily basis. We could hardly say we felt optimistic of turning the situation around but neither did we want to quit.

📷 Our first days in the nursery

Our original idea was very simple. We thought if the balance could be only just slightly tilted towards regeneration versus depletion the quantity of regeneration would increase exponentially year by year. To achieve this we would have to increase the amount of woody bio-mass available in the village lands adjacent to the Sholas, and thought if we could distribute some 500 fast growing firewood trees a year; a fairly modest proposal, it would be enough to give the Sholas at least a breathing space in lieu of some intervention from a relevant authority.

Unfortunately we were stymied for want of a suitable species as Acacia mearnsii, the obvious choice was regarded as a pernicious weed of the grasslands, but eventually it was agreed that in our particular circumstances Acacia mearnsii was the ideal tree for people to plant along their fence lines. So in the March of 1989, after much delay, we started the Vattakanal Tree Nursery. Nevertheless we had been encouraged to go beyond the simple provision of firewood. As well as several other utility species beside Acacia mearnsii we started to collect seed of Shola trees and so began our ever deepening relationship with the Sholas and the reality of what a botanical treasure house lay all around began to dawn on us.

As we proceeded we wondered if anyone would be interested in our product. We knew we could depend on a few people with whom we shared a similar socio-economic background and were here for similar reasons but for the majority, whose very meagre standard of living was dependent on the natural resources around them and their small landholdings, we had no idea. By the end of 1990 we had planted or distributed 1500 seedlings, mainly to friends and a few villagers directly associated with us. While 1500 was three times our original target we were not reaching the wider community.

A year later anxiety began to mount as our seedlings, especially the fast growing, utility exotics approached their second year of nursery care and began to outgrow their bags. Fortunately we had other resources to turn to. The Palni Hills Conservation Council had collaborated with others to produce two Tamil medium film documentaries that dealt with the plight of the Sholas and the related drying up of watersheds. We thought this would be the perfect medium for bringing a large number of villagers together to discuss the problems of the Sholas and ideas to solve them. The fact that Vattakanal was without electricity probably contributed to the good crowd that assembled for the evening to watch some generator powered television. We also saw to it that we had a good Tamil public speaker to come along and lead the discussion. The films themselves contained some familiar local shots that produced a buzz of excitement among the audience, young and old.

The ensuing discussion was lively. Many expressed views such as their contribution to forest destruction was miniscule compared to the big contractors, and of course they had a point, but our guest speaker always responded with understanding and good humour, and after some time it became clear that the principle of conserving the Sholas had been won. The evening did turn out to be a turning point; from the very next day people started to come and pick up seedlings. The importance of the collective nature of the decision cannot be over stressed. Many continued to cut in the Sholas, but there now existed a good number in the community who carried the idea of saving the Sholas with them. By the end of 1991 we had distributed 6000 saplings, three times the previous year. The question of charging for seedlings arose. It was felt by many that if people paid a few rupees for their plants they would be more likely to take care of them. In this instance it really was not an option, there was simply no surplus income in the community.

Later in the year a youth group was formed in the village by a social work agency. The young men involved were teenagers or in their early twenties. This was to prove to be a very significant development. We became aware of their presence one Sunday afternoon when we found them slashing back the weeds that lined the track to the village. That evening the idea that they might plant trees in public and common land was born. The following Sunday we began after devising a scheme whereby we would contribute a few rupees to a community project of their choosing for every tree planted with guards. Just a few members turned up to begin with, but gradually the numbers increased as the monsoon rains set in.


Tree planting with the young men of Vattakanal 1991

Tree planting became a regular and enjoyably social activity over the next few months when there were little other distractions and helped ensure that the youth group held together by providing them with a regular core activity. Discussion also centred on improving Vattakanals social and economic situation . Electricity was an issue and by the end of 1991 a fair amount of research into the possibilities of solar power had been done. A project proposal combining forest conservation and community development had also been written.

Meanwhile other developments in the hills were to impact on the process in Vattakanal. The PHCC, together with Development Alternatives (DA) based in Delhi, were working on a hill wide research project; our written proposal was put aside as Vattakanal was incorporated into the project with firewood as its central focus. At this point we thought it necessary that our visas should reflect the work we were doing and applied for such in London, little knowing it would take 16 months to issue the visa. Our absence caused many difficulties but the DA members left in charge managed to negotiate with the Forest Department the planting of the 4 hectare wasteland adjoining Pambar Shola that had burnt in 1989 and remained a perpetual fire hazard.

The planting actually took place during the South West monsoon of 1992, when our seedlings were 3 years old i.e. fairly sturdy. We had planned to plant only Shola trees but the Forest Department staff that supervised the planting went for everything in the nursery and only about 30% of the 4000 planted were Shola species. The exotics included the fast growing Himalayan species, Evodia fraxinifolia, Prunus cerasoides and a few Alnus nepalensis along with Acacia species. Also a good number of Michelia champaca which can now probably be considered a Palni Hills native but not a true, as defined, Shola species.

On our return in 1993 it looked as though the weeds had reclaimed the plot but gradually, over time, the fast growing exotics began to break through the weed cover allowing the Shola species to follow through. It appeared that the exotics had played an important role in suppressing the weeds and crucially therefore reducing the threat of fire. It was this very real threat of fire and losing the whole plantation that motivated our ongoing reafforestation project around Pambar. Prior to its go ahead in 2001, every shower during the dry season was like an answered prayer.

We also found many positive developments in Vattakanal after our long break. The plantings around the village in the previous four years were yielding results. The once relatively bare, terraced slopes of the village had begun to take on a wooded appearance. There was plenty of Wattle at hand, and though the Sholas were still exploited by a recalcitrant few, the balance in favour of regeneration had been achieved.

We re-engaged with the youth group, who had been busy campaigning for electrification of the village in our absence. This they achieved a year later. We began planting with them again with Shola species top of the agenda. By this time 16000 saplings had been planted including the 4000 in the fire zone. Another important development was the abandoning of the ecologically ruinous and unprofitable practise of potato cropping which had long been a topic of discussion. The youth were looking beyond the subsistence livelihood of their parents, and here the booming tourist economy provided an outlet, most notably street trading. It has to be said that in this instance the diversification of the economy brought on by mass tourism helped in our situation. The number of milch cows roaming our village and Sholas, which had also been a big issue, began to decline, and even now as the elders retire, no-one is taking up this vocation. The youth group began to play a very important role in the overall social integration of the village. They organised collections for those in need at times of bereavement, helped with weddings and organised village festivals. Coupled with their tree planting, their authority to act as stewards of the forest increased and more and more of the community began to identify themselves with that role. Organised wood cutting gangs from outside steered clear of the Shola. Of course all this was happening against a background of increasing awareness, newspaper articles promoting conservation abounded, the process in Vattakanal included, and the youth group members employed in street trading were able to bring their own new found awareness to their fellow traders, a large constituency in Kodaikanal society.

It seemed a good idea that the youth group should have contact with the wider conservation movement, so in November of 1993 we headed for the foothills of the Nilgiris where we were to spend a very enjoyable few days as guests of a tribal project concerned in equal parts with social upliftment and care for the environment. This was elephant country, dry and thorny, very different from home. It was good to meet people from such a different environment and share stories and ideas as well as play a game of volleyball or two. The visit had a very positive impact in producing a feeling of connectedness with a wider community. It was here the idea that the youth group should form itself into a formal society was mooted, primarily as a pre-requisite for receiving public funds for various projects. At first the members expressed a great reluctance to go down this road. Fear of bureaucratisation, minutes of meetings, elected officers etc. They were a natural democracy. We found as “outsiders” that their ability to discuss and solve very complex issues that arise in any community more than impressive, and we shared their misgivings. Nevertheless, a year later they bit the bullet, officers were duly elected, or rather volunteered, and Vattakanal Organisation for Youth, Community and Environment (VOYCE) was born. It was a few years before this change of status had any real effect; VOYCE remained a youth group in essence. Project proposals were written but to no avail.

Our eyes had been set on a multi purpose community building, one that would celebrate the very special nature of the local environment. We had in mind the notion of making permanent this newly evolving culture of stewardship. Such a building could go some way to that end. We also wanted to give back something to the community to whom we felt very grateful.

We had begun collecting funds at the local level in 1993 and by 1996 had enough to lay the foundations. Then a chance meeting of volunteers from a student charity, Humanitarian, Educational Long Term Projects (HELP) based at Edinburgh University led to two visits by them in 1997 and 1998 and the VOYCE building became a reality. Previously it had been decided a tailoring unit should be a component of the building fulfilling part of its role as a source of income. Personally we were very dubious of the viability of the unit but kept our peace. As it turned out the unit, with its three donated sewing machines, never approached any commercial viability, but we had not foreseen its importance in getting women into the building, and with them the younger children of the village.

Our hope that the building could help cement the environmental gains of the last decade began to be realised. Today the building functions much as imagined, as a place to meet and socialise, while a refreshment coffee bar facility provides for one income at the same time ensuring the building is always open. Displays and artwork celebrate the unique environment of the area. Other small income has been raised through producing and selling beeswax products such as soap and balms. Unfortunately this initially highly successful aspect of development seems dependent on external leadership and for the time being at least does not look self-sustaining.

The young women were keen to learn about the plants they had grown up with. They became proficient at using the Palni Hill Flora for identification. Three of them learnt how to mount herbarium specimens at the Anglade Institute of Natural History and found a new outlet for their sewing skills working on our own collection of pressed plants. They attended day workshops, and two committed themselves to a three month stay at the “School in the Forest” run by the Gurukala botanical sanctuary in Kerala. These kind of activities would have been unthinkable a decade before. This core group of young women who had found a new way of relating to nature was small but they connected to a web of individuals that was much larger.

Their work with the children has proven to be particularly important. In the evenings they meet and within a friendly and informal atmosphere they help the children with problems they are having at school. School grades have never been better. At the last village festival the children performed two short plays, “Don’t cut the Trees” and “Say No to Plastics ’. These produced tremendous applause from their adult audience. Most VOYCE members now have young children of their own, another factor that augurs well for the future.

Another U.K. based student charity, Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW), made important contributions to the overall development of the community, in collaboration with VOYCE, the first particularly so in providing a water harvesting and delivery system for the neighbouring village of Thiruvulluvar Nagar. This colony of mainly Hindu Sri Lankan repatriates was settled here in the mid eighties. While relations between them and their Catholic neighbours were generally good, the environmental consciousness that had developed in Vattakanal had not penetrated their community to the same extent. The practical solidarity thus extended from one community to another opened the door. The aforementioned festival was a joint one, and was soon followed up by joint tree planting activity around the settlement. The next SPW/VOYCE project, now nearing completion is a pre school creche that will provide a service for both communities. A further contribution from another U.K. based horticultural society helped us to found a gardening club involving twelve families drawn from both communities. Again a small development but one that contributes to the overall sense of community and civic pride; a civic pride that has developed inextricably entwined with the role of forest stewardship.

Regenerating Shola

To re-cap, 1991 was a watershed year when planting began in earnest, and the idea of saving the Sholas became firmly established. By 1993 there was enough woody biomass around the village to ensure that no one at least needed to exploit the Sholas. Our simple notion that if we could just tip the balance a little in favour of regeneration the gains would grow exponentially has proven to be true both in terms of available biomass on village land and in the regeneration of the Sholas themselves. We are now witness to ten years of Shola regeneration; everywhere there is improvement. Where the Shola canopy was fractured saplings are now becoming established and look set to close the gaps. In the previously encroached margins subsequently planted with Pine (Pinus patula) Shola seedlings are beginning to establish themselves along with those planted under the current Pambar Shola Restoration and Regeneration Research Project (PSRRRP) which began in 2001. This project was prompted initially over our fears of losing the 1992 fire zone plantation, but now represents a chance to enrich this natural regeneration with several species which are rare, vulnerable or nearing extinction and in some cases to reintroduce species that have already become extinct at the local level.

Species enrichment is particularly pertinent as self-regeneration favours a few pioneer species, most notably Daphniphyllum neilgherrense. The bright green spring foliage of this tree can be seen coming up everywhere around the previously disturbed fringes of Pambar Shola, likewise Vattakanal Shola, which also suffered heavy fire damage, even penetrating the canopy down one side in 1989.

Conservation of Rare Species

The number of rare plants in the Vattakanal locality has recently proven to be greater than previously thought. Two trees have been rediscovered, following their apparent extinction. Elaeocarpus blascoi, previously known from only one specimen since destroyed, and Psydrax ficiformis, both now represented in the area by one individual tree and a sapling each. The medicinal shrub Utleria salicifolia, formerly thought to be represented by only one clump elsewhere in the hills is also represented here by two more.

Three other plants now extinct in the Palnis have been re-introduced under the PSRRRP. These are Impatiens tangachee that once lived in Tiger Shola. Also from Tiger Shola and not seen for many years, a very unlikely tree from the family Compositae, which is normally associated with daisies and the like, namely Vernonia arborea. The seeds of this tree, collected from the Nilgiris, have only just germinated. Lastly, previously from Pambar Shola itself, Alchemilla indica, a strawberry like plant from the Rose family. Apart from re-introductions many locally vulnerable species will have their populations bolstered such as Pentapanax leschenaultii, known only from two plants some 30km away from each other. The population of the Pambar endemics themselves will also be bolstered, finding new homes in the restoration plots for plants such as Phyllanthus chandrabosei and the wax flower, Hoya wightii ssp. palniensis.

(this page Fr Matthew edited out for his Tamil Handbook)

Main points in Restoring Forest Lands Adjoining Communities Dependent on Forest Produce

1. Provision

No conservation without it. Establish a community tree nursery with utility species including fruit trees

2. Communication

Organise events, not turgid meetings where the idea of restoring forest can be addressed as well as the needs of the community.

3. Organisation

Bring together all those individuals who share your aims. Form a group or a committee. By becoming a formal society VOYCE was able to attract funds.

4. Action

However daunting your goal, aim for a small gain in the short term, something readily achievable. From small gains you can build. Plant trees together, draw children into the activity. Regular activity will keep the group together. Let the group campaign for the wider needs of the community. In our instance electrification was a big issue. Activity the best publicity.

5. Development

Always link community development with forest conservation. Alternative occupations not dependent on the forest. This was difficult for us at the local level but paradoxically the developing tourist economy in Kodaikanal provided an outlet. Also the provision of drinking water for the neighbouring village drew the two communities together.

6. Women

We were very slow to get women involved in the process. The presumably male activist group must create space for women to become involved. The key here was the building and tailoring unit.

7. Funding

Funding for a community tree nursery probably essential but not expensive. Funding for such should not present great difficulties.

8. Policing

Not an option if the community as a whole is not won to the idea of conservation and the other points have not been addressed.


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