R.Kannan works in the Western Ghats to restore hills. He says how everybody can and must contribute to change the Earth

“Trees and bees are my passion, declares R.Kannan, the man who for three decades has been teaching villagers and farmers across Tamil Nadu how to “hold the forests”.

“People need to understand that wealth of the hills is the health of the plains,” he says. “If you want to keep your forests and wildlife in the mountains intact, then you need to grow more trees in farmlands at the foothills,” he says.

The BITS Pilani graduate is a farmer at heart having grown up in his family-owned coffee estate at Pattiveeranpatti, a small village in the Lower Palani Hills range. “When the natural environment is protected, rural people earn a living,” he underlines, “Crops and trees must co-exist.”

To diversify the rural economy has always been his goal and his programme developed over the years to protect, preserve and renew valuable forests and watershed has effected a transition in the Western Ghats.

“The trees should be grown,” he asserts, “not for own sake but as capital investments.”

The old-growth forests and watersheds in Tamil Nadu are in crisis. With the land getting denuded, there is a sharp decline in the water table. Soil erosion, misuse of hazardous chemicals and growing of inappropriate crops are issues that constantly worry R.Kannan.

“If we do not disturb our forests, people in plains will have enough water to drink,” he says.

It was his childhood interest in natural environment that drove him to promote a green belt that would stop people from taking their agriculture and cattle deeper into the hills.

“The main threat to forests,” says Kannan, “is from the people at its base who go up to collect firewood.” To stymie this movement he encouraged villagers to cultivate drought-resistant crops, set up beehives and grow native flowering plants. “This is the only way to keep the link between water, forests and wildlife intact,” he says.

The farmers fear the choice between crops and trees. Initially they stayed away from planting programs or changing to less water-intensive crops, sceptical of losing their already declining incomes. “We had to re-forest cleared land and make it economically useful without causing any extra expense to the farmers,” says Kannan.

“Everyday I tell them if they plant and protect a native tree it will help them to clear all debts and pay for their child’s education too,” he adds.

Kannan’s work in the Western Ghats with the local tribal communities and upland farmers helped him to tap into indigenous knowledge of plant species. Through the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) -- of which he is a founder member -- Kannan has distributed more than two million trees of the species Gmelina arborea (kumul in Tamil) and Grewia tilaei folia (valakkai). “I grow my own timber and make all my furniture,” he smiles.

The PHCC, established in 1984 with a dozen like-minded individuals, is his vehicle. The staff executes the tree-growing program by collecting native species of seeds from forests under permission. These grow into trees that can be logged for timber, used for firewood, serve as food for animals and insects or act as shade for crops. Some of the seeds are processed, packed and marketed outside while the rest are grown in PHCC-run tree nurseries. Good quality saplings are then distributed among the farmers. Earlier they were given away free but now a nominal fee is charged. “If the seeds and saplings are valued like sandalwood, then we can green more,” says Kannan, who feels the tree nurseries are the main contact with the people today.

What started with a single nursery has grown into 15 big independent nurseries (the largest is in Dindigul) . In the last two decades, these have collectively distributed 15 million saplings from more than 150 species.

While farmers reap the benefits of trees after only one or two decades, Kannan designed the program to meet their short-term needs as well. “Farmers' incomes must be sustained in the interim period for any tree-growing program to be successful,” he says. Keeping bees as a hobby since 1984, Kannan encourages and trains people to set up beehives. “Once a family starts a hive, it is willing to diversify crops. And with a thriving beehive, there is honey and pollination. The family stops using chemicals and grows more flowering plants that can generate income.”

Kannan believes in leading by example to prove that his idea works. He owns a colony of 8,000 bees and successfully markets locally produced honey and wax products. He is now growing 40 fruit species to build a butterfly garden as well. “There are over 250 species in the Palani Hills and we have to train our future generations in nature conservation,” he says.

He has also identified schools as a useful instrument for expanding awareness of environmental issues. Students from schools in neighbouring regions come on field trips to the hills to learn about water quality, forests, insects, and animals. He provokes them into thinking on his nagging worries of global warming and depletion of natural resources.

As one leaves behind the canopy of trees in his farm, the sunlight glimmers through the vegetation. There is hope, he calls out. “If you plant a tree, you plant a hope…,” he quotes from an old saying.