Tanya Balcar and Robert W.Stewart work with the local inhabitants to conserve the sholas and grass-hills of the Palani Hills through the ‘Vattakanal Conservation Trust'

When they visited the picturesque village of Vattakanal in the Palani Hills in 1985, little did Tanya Balcar and Robert W.Stewart know that they would end up spending over 20 years of their lives there. They loved the place, but were distressed to see that the locals often chopped down trees. “We decided to set up a nursery to provide people with useful trees,” says Tanya.

In 2001, the duo from London formed the ‘Vattakanal Conservation Trust' (VCT) for the conservation of plants native to the South Western Ghats and the Nilgiris. They were in the city recently to receive the ‘Eco Award 2012' conferred by RAAC (Residents Awareness Association of Coimbatore) and the Coimbatore chapter of the Association of British Scholars.

Tree spotting

Tanya and Robert started by collecting seeds wherever they went. Roadsides, shopping areas…they looked everywhere. “Whether we were at a funeral or a wedding, we collected seeds,” says Robert. The nursery grew in size. “We had saplings of fruit-trees and firewood trees and gave them away to the people for free,” says Tanya.

Gradually, the villagers took an interest in their activities. Robert and Tanya organised tree-planting expeditions in wastelands by involving a youth group in the village. The youngsters, most of them in their late-teens, were active. They formed the ‘Vattakanal Organisation for Youth, Community and Environment' and carried out rigorous campaigns to save trees. They also discussed issues relating to the development of their village.

Working for their village

“The village had no facilities back then. The youngsters held talks on the absence of proper roads and community structures. They brought electricity to the village and settled disputes,” says Tanya.

But the native plants of the Palani Hills were far from safe. Invasive species and wattles threatened their existence. The Nilgiri Tahrs that lived in the high-altitude grass-hills were threatened too since their habitat shrunk in size. Tanya and Robert wanted to do something to protect the forest they had grown to love. Thus was born the ‘Vattakanal Conservation Trust.'

The Trust was formed with the aim of restoring the sholas, explains Tanya. “This involves weeding, planting and watering saplings. We now have two tree nurseries and three green houses.” The members work in association with the Forest Department, she adds. D. Sampath, the district forest officer of Kodaikanal, appreciates the efforts taken by VCT to improve the conditions of degraded patches of grass-lands. He says, “Their services have been helpful for the department. They are routinely involved in conservation activities such as planting saplings in gaps in the vegetation.”

At the tree nurseries, the members raise rare, endangered and threatened species of the Palani Hills. But the key to the Trust's restoration work is the involvement of the local people.

Cleaning up

Along with volunteers, they regularly clean up places in and around Kodaikanal. “Thomas, who works for us, recently got together a group of children from a local school to pick rubbish off the streets and forests. They collected the waste in sacks and disposed them in the Municipality bins,” says Robert.

Tanya and Robert have been documenting their work in the Trust's website, http://www.vattakanalconservationtrust.org/. They are also planning to bring out a book on the germination and conservation of native plants of the Palani Hills. One of the long-term visions of the team is to restore the semi-urban ‘Bombay shola' in the area, says Tanya.

Making connections

Working with the villagers and the Forest Department, witnessing the quality of the sholas improve, learning ‘Tamlish', bringing people together, going on team outings with the village kids…Tanya and Robert say that they enjoyed every bit of their work in the Palani Hills. The response to their restoration work, says Robert, has been “Very positive.” “We've created a strong sense of connect. No single villager would ever harm a tree now.”

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