Driving through the Valparai plateau, located 3,500ft above sea level in the Anamalai mountain range, can make anyone feel a little schizophrenic.
One minute you’re driving through glistening tea plantations sloping away gently from the road, running as far as the eye can see. The next minute, you could be engulfed in the wet, cool, green shade of a rainforest, echoing with the calls of hill mynas, hornbills and lion-tailed macaques.
The fragmented landscape wasn’t always like this. More than a century ago, it was a homogeneous mass of rainforests. Until then, no one had tried to grow the tea, pepper or coffee crops that the plateau now harbours.
“By 1896-1920, most of the conversion of forests had occurred,” says T.R. Shankar Raman, a conservation scientist with the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). “Today we have plantations and people surrounded by forests, and rainforest fragments within the plantations. Pepper, cardamom and cinnamon: the three spices that transformed this place.”
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Most outsiders will be mesmerised, at least momentarily, by the geometric beauty of the perfectly spaced tea shrubs. For Raman and his wife and NCF colleague Divya Mudappa, the plantations hold no special charm. The couple has found a home in the rainforest fragments held hostage within the plantations and are, in a way, trying to reverse history.
In Valparai’s remaining fragments of rainforest, Raman and Mudappa are restoring and regrowing the human-battered landscape. With native forests and biodiversity disappearing slowly, what they’re attempting is a sort of ecological regeneration.
The beginning of their effort came from an end. Mudappa had just finished her PhD research on the brown palm civet, a key mammalian seed disperser in the Western Ghats’ rainforests. Through the year, the animals carry the mature seeds of rainforest plants and deposit them in the surroundings, playing a valuable role in forest growth.
“We didn’t even know rainforest plants could be grown like this,” Raman says. “If they could, as Divya’s research showed, then why not grow them in the actual area.”
The couple has planted roughly 20,000 saplings, with a surprisingly good survival rate of 60-65%, in 10 forest fragments. Almost all the land in the plateau is privately owned—by six coffee and tea companies—so NCF had to tie up with the businesses to work on the forests. Raman says the plantation managers were amenable to the idea, and they started a dialogue.
Dominant species: A tea plantation in the Western Ghats. Almost all the land in the Anamalais is owned by tea and coffee companies. Hemant Mishra/Mint
The first fragment was given by Hindustan Unilever Ltd on plots that were later purchased by Tata Coffee Ltd. Parry Agro Industries Ltd and Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. Ltd also joined in, the latter for a brief period.
“The forest fragments are an invaluable treasure, and it would be a crying shame to lose them. We have watchers on patrol too for the forests,” says John P. Thomas, senior general manager (plantations), Tata Coffee.
The company, which owns six estates in the area covering 4,773 hectares, has just renewed its memorandum of understanding with NCF.
Most of the planting is done by local tribespeople who can best identify the native species. NCF trains and employs daily-wage workers during the planting season, which lasts for five months.
NCF also runs a plant nursery—an orphanage for native rainforest trees. It has housed over 120 species and currently has about half that number. NCF staff walk the forests’ edges, hunting for seeds of native trees, to then nurse them into saplings and shoulder-high plants before rehabilitating them into their habitat.
The nursery flourishes under the shade of towering trees, newly sprouting saplings thus protected from rodent and squirrel attacks.
K. Krishna, a tribal from a nearby village, now manages the nursery, a job to which he was attracted by his curiosity about what grows in a forest and how. “Replanting them in the forest is my favourite part,” he says, all the while meticulously measuring the height of a plant. “We put in so much effort in the nursery, but it is just natural for them to be in the forest.”
But funding for the nursery will soon run out, and NCF is looking for new patrons. “Funding is hard, because restoration is very long-term, and for funding you need to show results,” Raman says. “But what do you show in a year?”
Showing they care
Businesses, however, are trying to show they care, and they have a reason. Tata Coffee, for instance, is looking to get its tea and coffee certified on the basis of its environmental and social practices. “Tata Global Beverages Ltd has made a commitment that, in the next five years, all tea they buy will be Rainforest Alliance-certified,” Thomas says.
Rainforest Alliance is an international certification body that works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihood in agriculture and forestry.
Practices such as conserving forests and biodiversity, conserving water, and employing local staff contribute to winning the certification.
Coffee, unlike tea, requires plentiful tree shade—another opportunity to retain biodiversity. Historically, coffee plantations have used exotic species such as silver oak and eucalyptus for providing overhanging shade. Now, with NCF, some companies are replacing those with native rainforest trees.
The United Planters’ Association of Southern India is also experimenting with five native species.
“The Rainforest Alliance says that each hectare of coffee should have 12 native trees, bringing it as close to the natural environment as possible,” Raman says. “It helps in leaf litter, bee pollination, pest control and enhanced yields.”
Tata Coffee has completed its preliminary audits for certification, and reports have come in. Parry Agro owns the largest tea estate in the Anamalais, which is organic-certified, again mostly for the export market.
The market share of organic and ethically certified coffee has been expanding, explaining the business interest. According to a 2009 Food and Agriculture Organization report, ethically certified coffees accounted for 6% of worldwide production in 2008, compared with only 1% in 2002.
“In addition to the strong growth of fair-trade and organic coffees, three relatively new certification labels—Utz Certified, Rainforest Alliance and CAFE—have seen a dramatic increase in sales over the past few years,” the report said.
Other things green
Raman’s biggest adversary in his green mission, ironically, are other green things. He stands in the middle of a road, separating a fragment he has worked on from one he hasn’t. One side is replete with healthy, shoulder-high, full-grown trees; the other is overrun by weedy bushes.
“This is lantana,” he says, pulling a leaf off a bush.
Much of Raman’s battle is against this weed, an exotic species brought into India by the British. With its little red and yellow flowers, lantana looks innocuous, but it is a serious problem in many Indian forests and protected areas where it threatens biodiversity.
The first task, thus, is to clear a fragment of weeds. “Then we plant the edges. If you can save the fringe, then the entire patch benefits,” says Raman. “Rainforests require humus and lot of shade. But in forest fragments, the micro-climate would have changed.”
Raman explains that, as fragments let in too much light, weeds thrive. He expertly tucks his trouser legs into his socks and strides into the forest, armed with binoculars. This manoeuvre is explained when leeches slither up his trousers. Raman points to a giant, moss-ridden tree root that a Malabar giant squirrel is vaulting, and says: “This is a rainforest.” This fragment, called Old Valparai, is original growth.
“Restoration can never bring back the original features,” Raman says. “It is very, very tough, but you can bring back significant aspects of it. The trees bring the structure and define the micro-climate, but it is unlikely to get back to what it was originally.”
Although restoration ecology is becoming an attractive branch of science elsewhere, it has yet to catch on in India, in spite of considerable potential in the restoration of, for instance, post-mined lands. Raman sees plenty of scope for research and trials in many leased plantations in the Western Ghats.
But he cautions repeatedly: “Restoration is not and should not be used as an argument for forest conversion for other uses, claiming that it can be restored. They will not be the same.”
For now, Raman and Mudappa are content with restoring the leftover fragments. The next step will be to try to connect the fragments to the main forests as a wildlife corridor.
Raman will probably not be around to appreciate fruits of his labour.
“It takes about 50-60 years for these plots at least,” he says. “Our assistance is only for a few years. By the third year, you want to phase out your presence. It’s not restoration like art restoration. It is like kick-starting, after which it is on its own.”