By teaching a group of tribals how to make a living out of non-timber forest produce (NTFP), Keystone, an NGO in the Nilgiri biosphere of Tamil Nadu has ensured the protection of the shola forests.
Sholas are the montane tropical forests in the Western Ghats. They support a wealth of flora and fauna - including endangered species such as the Lion-tailed Macaque and the Nilgiri Tahr - and conserving the sholas is vital to maintaining the rich biodiversity of the region.
A common and widespread misconception is that tribal people cut timber to meet their needs and are thus responsible for destroying forests. However, Keystone's experience of over 14 years in the Nilgiris has revealed that while the tribals are mainly engaged in agriculture, it is the settlers from outside who cut down trees for profit. In addition, the increase in the number of plantations, commercial forestry, and the construction of small dams in the area have contributed to the depletion of the forest cover.
When Keystone began its conservation work in the region, it realised that putting a stop to the indiscriminate economic activity in the forests would require the complete support and cooperation of the locals. That once the tribals were made aware of the ecological damage being caused, they would resist the attempts to ruin their land. It was also believed that once they were taught new skills and better ways to earn a living, the tribals would become enthusiastic partners in the battle for conservation.
With this in mind, Keystone initiated the NTFP programme. The rationale was that sustainable use of NTFPs would help conserve the forest. Instead of timber, other forest products, like seeds, leaves, flowers and fruits, would be put to use. And, if forest dwellers were able to earn a decent income from forest produce, they would value it enough to protect it from unwanted/illegal elements.
Primarily funded by the Ford Foundation, the NTFP programme covers the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, encompassing a total of 5,520 square kilometres, and affects the lives of at least 29 adivasi (tribal) communities, including Kurumba, Irula and Sholiga.
The tribals collect different seasonal raw materials, which are then taken to the nearby village production centres set up by Keystone. There they are processed into finished products. For example, honey is filtered and bottled; beeswax is used to make lip balms and candles; gooseberry is pickled and candied; and phoenix leaves are transformed into blinds and brooms. While the 10 to 15 women employed at each centre do the processing and value addition, Keystone provides the training, infrastructure and marketing support.
These products are sold through a chain of 'Green Shops' in the Nilgiris, besides being retailed at other independent stores in Kotagiri, Coonoor and Udhagamandalam (Ooty).
Says Rangan, an NTFP collector from Mavanatham, "We collect amla (gooseberry). By processing it locally, we are able to double our profits as we save on transportation costs. Also, we get a better price for the produce. Of course, during the season, we earn much more than usual."
According to Snehlata Nath, Keystone's Director-Programmes and leader of the NTFP programme, several families from the Kurumba and Irula communities are now assured of a decent regular income, thanks to the initiative. Consequently, they have better access to health care facilities. Also, now more tribals are sending their children to school than ever before. Until now, approximately 400 women, including NTFP collectors and processing centre workers, have benefited from the programme.
This isn't the only conservation initiative in the region by Keystone. The NGO has also been working on other elements of forest conservation. It has initiated resource assessment studies in the forests, done soil and moisture conservation work on nearly 250 acres of tribal land and planted 400,000 plants of different species. It also publishes material on biodiversity of the Nilgiris, with an indigenous people/knowledge perspective. Says Nath, "A lot of perspectives are hidden in the work of conservation and livelihood. If one is receptive, it can teach a lot."