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Vision from Periyar

... and SUJATHA PADMANABHAN looks at this premier tiger reserve in Kerala where community involvement and conservation go hand in hand.


Getting to know Periyar better with its real custodians.

THE enthusiasm in the large and thatched meeting room was palpable. Ninety women, many dressed symbolically in green sarees, had gathered to celebrate the first anniversary of the formation of their group. That day too, they also received news of the first public recognition of their hitherto quiet contribution to a larger cause: the P.V. Thambi Endowment Award of Rs. 5,000 from the Environmental Monitoring Forum, Kochi. For the last 12 months, every day, these women have patrolled the forests of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, voluntarily. They had mapped out various routes through parts of the buffer zone of the reserve which has a number of sandalwood trees. A group of six women walks through these forests, and at the end of the day records its observations in a log book: the species it saw, their numbers and location, the collection of minor forest produce and so on. The women had also reported the presence of unfamiliar persons in the forest and had thus prevented sandalwood smuggling. A huge contribution this, in times when monetary considerations guide most human actions!

Many such quiet revolutions are taking place in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, situated in Idukki district and spread over 777 square kilometres. The reserve is a part of the Western Ghats and over 70 per cent of it includes tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forests. It was chosen as a site for the GEF-aided Eco-Development Project which started in 1998. Its overall objective being to reduce human dependence on the forest, so that impacts are minimal. This was done by addressing the economic needs of those living in and around the park (about 2,50,000 people) by finding them viable and innovative livelihood alternatives. The project has so far benefited about 40,000 people of 5,540 families.

At the start of the project, eco-development committees were formed in different villages with some seed money available to each to be used for identified needs. These were diverse, ranging from the repayment of debts to moneylenders accumulated over the years, to enhancing agricultural activities by deepening wells, to even finding an alternative to poaching and smuggling of forest resources as a means of livelihood! The alternatives were worked out with the help of the Forest Department officials after discussions with the village committees. The success of these efforts today reflect vision, compassion, and concern for achieving a balance between conservation and livelihoods on the part of the many forest officials who were involved in the project. It is this that seems to distinguish Periyar from other eco-development initiatives in the country, many of which are reported to be failures or at best with indifferent results.

Take the case of the Ex-Vayana Bark Collectors eco-development committees. Its members were involved in the illegal debarking of cinnamon trees (vayana in Malayalam), as well as in sandalwood smuggling and poaching. When the project was initiated in 1998, 23 smugglers came forward to begin life anew. They pledged to protect the very forests that they had plundered in the past and in return, the Forest Department withdrew all the cases against them. One of them became a martyr (killed by an elephant) while chasing a group of poachers. Today, their involvement in patrolling parts of the reserve has meant that the Forest Department has been able to divert some staff towards the border with Tamil Nadu, from where smugglers try to enter. They initiated a Bamboo Rafting programme for tourists in November 2002 and 70 per cent of the earnings from this programme goes to a community development fund from which they earn a monthly wage of Rs. 3,500.

In the last year, about 1,000 tourists have participated in this programme, which is not surprising as Periyar attracts four lakh tourists a year. On the anti-smuggling and poaching front, the picture is equally encouraging: so far, 110 cases were reported over the last five years, and in 35 of them, the smugglers and poachers were caught. And today, the members tell us with absolute certainty that "not a single individual from our villages is involved in these illegal activities. Those involved come in from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Eco-development work needs to be started in those villages." A fitting tribute to the work of the PTR officials!

A stake in tourism for local communities is a step in the right (and fair) direction. While it does provide for alternative sources of income to communities which live in and around protected areas, thus decreasing their dependence on forest resources (firewood, black dammar, honey and the collection of thatching grass in the case of communities around Periyar), it also increases their commitment to keeping the forests intact. The Tribal Trekkers Eco-Development Committee (a group of 20 young tribal youth) and the PETS (the Periyar Tiger Samrakshnan) EDC (a group of 70 members who were earlier employed by the Forest Department as watchers) have a stake in the tourism through a host of diverse initiatives and services like day treks through the forest, facilitating the use of binoculars on hire, enabling toilet facilities, a souvenir shop, horse riding, nature camps, and special programmes for the more serious wildlife lover. The earnings from these sources (a profit of Rs. 10 lakhs was earned last year) go into a community development fund. The members, as in the case of the ex-cinnamon bark collectors, take home a monthly salary. Their growing interest in the nature reserve is evident. The members of all the committees help the Forest Department in the collection of census data and are certain that there has been a significant increase in the number of animals in Periyar. And in living proof of the contributions that local people can make to the research base of a protected area, members of the Tribal Trekkers group have added four species of birds to the checklist of the reserve.

In some of the tribal villages on the fringes of the park, eco-development committees have been formed where the focus has been on enhanced agricultural activities. These tribal families were helped in clearing their debts, improving the yield of their pepper crop, and procuring a fair price for their produce in the market by eliminating middlemen.

But far more important benefits accrued, especially to the residents of Paliyakudi hamlet. The start of the project revived family and social relationships within the village, and brought about a long-lost cohesiveness, destroyed by the illicit brewing of liquor by the men and prostitution by the women — resorted to due to sheer economic desperation. The first few years saw the tribals receiving a profit. The imports of cheap pepper from Malaysia and Sri Lanka have caused the prices here to crash, a heavy price that small farmers have had to pay due to globalisation.

The lessons from the Periyar experience are important. For the vast protected area network in our country, there is a clear case for communities and conservation to go hand in hand. There are today over three million people living inside, and many million more around, our protected areas. In most cases these protected areas have had serious negative consequences for the local communities, and clashes between them and the officials are commonplace.

Micro-plans for such areas must look at the traditional uses of forest resources and recognise their legitimacy where they are not detrimental to the conservation values/objectives of the area, both in recognition of their status as customary rights and especially when they could help in the management of the area.

In Periyar, the tribals continue to fish, but are encouraged to look out for for two exotics (the Tilopia and the Gold Fish) that entered the reservoir years ago through a breach in a small check dam in a cardamom estate nearby — a good example of how a creative resolution can be achieved between livelihood needs and conservation. Woodcutting is permitted in areas where it prevents the forests from taking over the grasslands. Allowing some uses to continue ensures that links with the forest are not broken, and that such communities will continue to do their bit to protect what is around them.

One of the young men from Mannakkudy tribal village echoed a poignant sentiment when he said, "Even if we do finally leave our village for work outside, we will know the smell of our forests when we are back!"

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