A rainforest’s saga of survival

Twentyfive years after Kerala’s Silent Valley was saved by environmentalists.

December 01, 2009 02:56 am | Updated November 26, 2021 10:22 pm IST

'SACRED GROVE FOR THE WORLD': A view of the Silent Valley. Photo : Shekar Dattari

'SACRED GROVE FOR THE WORLD': A view of the Silent Valley. Photo : Shekar Dattari

Rainforests have been under extreme pressure all across the earth for more than a century now, and they now cover only an estimated 3 per cent of the earth’s land surface. In India, they are now distributed mainly in the Western Ghats and in the northeastern region. Even here, they are shrinking in area.

Rainforests are repositories of biodiversity, especially the unexplored and wild kind. The antiquity of the rainforest ecosystem and its fine-tuned physico-chemical conditions have led to a very high degree of endemism of the species found there. Hence, the destruction of rainforests is opening up the floodgates of species extinction. Of late, the linkage between rainforests and climate change has also become an issue that has caught the attention of scientists and governments the world over.

The struggle in the 1970s and 1980s to protect the unique Silent Valley rainforests in the Western Ghats system in Palakkad district of Kerala was something of a watershed event. It helped focus attention worldwide on the need to protect the few remaining patches of rainforests in the country.

The Nilgiri Hills occupy a pivotal position in the southern peninsula because of its location at the junction of the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats, the Carnatic Plains and the Malabar Coastal Strip.

The Silent Valley is a small plateau located on the southwestern corner of the Nilgiri Hills, a part of the Western Ghats hill chain in southern peninsular India. This forested plateau is the point of origin of the Kunthi river which joins the west-flowing Bharathapuzha. The Silent Valley also forms the core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

The ‘Save Silent Valley movement’ resulted in the creation of the Silent Valley National Park following the intervention of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. It was the culmination of an environmental saga and a milestone in the environment movement in the country, said M.K. Prasad, who was then president of the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad. He was himself a key figure who led the struggle.

The environmentalists who had battled then to conserve the forests and the ecology had another creditable victory when Union Minister for Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh and Kerala Forest Minister Binoy Viswam declared, while inaugurating the silver jubilee celebration of the Park in Palakkad on November 21, that the buffer zone of the Park would be made an integral part of it in order to ensure better protection of the area.

Silent Valley symbolises hope for all the people who stand up for nature, and remains a beacon for rainforests everywhere. Thus it is no longer merely the name of a place but part of a universal vocabulary as a word that indicates an untrammeled wilderness that would last beyond human greed and wilful destruction, and protected through the efforts of the people sustained by hope.

A national seminar organised by Kerala Forest Department and the Wild Life Department as part of the silver jubilee celebrations of the Silent Valley National Park at Mundur in Palakkad district on November 21 on the theme of ‘Rainforest and Climate Change’ highlighted some of the imperatives in this context.

The conservation of entire Silent Valley forest area is vital to ensure the perennial flow of water through the Bharathapuzha, the Bhavani and the Cauvery providing water to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The Kunthipuzha, which originates from the Silent Valley National Park area, is the main source of water for Bharathapuzha, Kerala’s longest river. It provides drinking and irrigation water to the districts of Palakkad, Malappuram and Thrissur. A tributary of the Bhavani that originates on the eastern side of the Silent Valley forest area is the perennial source of water for this major inter-State river. Its protection is vital for drinking water and irrigation water projects in a couple of districts of Tamil Nadu. It later empties into the Cauvery.

Thus the protection of the Silent Valley and its adjacent forests that form the core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere is vital for the peaceful sharing of the water sources of three major rivers by the three neighboring States. This major benefit to the people of three States is the best justification for the struggle for the protection of the Silent Valley and its adjoining buffer zone covering an area of 237.52 sq km, said Dr. Satheeshchandran Nair, a well-known field biologist.

The Park comprises essentially two parallel south-sloping valleys. The western Kunthi valley is part of the basin of the west-draining Bharathapuzha. The eastern, Bhavani Valley is part of the basin of the east-flowing Cauvery.

In the estimation of scientists such as M.S. Swaminathan, the Silent Valley evergreen rainforest is more than 50 million years old. It is perhaps the only remaining undisturbed tropical rainforest in peninsular India. The flora and fauna here are quite unique. The Silent Valley’s dark and cool ambience, vibrating with life, has been described as “the richest expression of life on earth” and a “cradle of evolution.”

Ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali observed that the “Silent Valley is not just an evergreen forest, it is a very fine example of one of the richest, most threatened and least studied habitats on earth.” Thus, it is the “sacred grove” for the world, and a gene pool of rare flora and fauna.

The Silent Valley receives the second highest rate of rainfall in the country after the Mawsynram-Cheerapunji belt in the Khasi Hills of the Himalayan ranges in Meghalaya, known as the world’s wettest place. Some areas of the Valley like Valakkad received a record annual rainfall of 9,569 mm in 2006. In 2005 the area received 9,347 mm of rainfall and in 2004 it had 8,465 mm. In 2007, Valakkad received 7532 mm of rainfall. In 2008, the Puchipara area received a rainfall of 7,639 mm.

Malayalam poet Sugathakumari, a key figure in the struggle to save the Silent Valley, said that the biggest justification for the protection of the Valley is that it gives the second highest rainfall in the country. Recalling her three-decade-long efforts to save the Silent Valley, she said that this precious chunk of dense forest is perhaps India’s last, largest and oldest tropical rainforest remaining undisturbed, undisturbed because of its relative inaccessibility, oldest because its age is estimated to be 50 million years.

The echoes of the campaign to save the Silent Valley have served to ignite other campaigns in the region over the last 25 years, and conservation initiatives were made in the Nelliampathy Hills of Palakkad, the Vembanad lake, Kochi-Mangalavanam, Athirappally, Sabaramala-Pampa and so on, although some of these have had only mixed results.

But the gains that have been made ought to be consolidated and taken forward.

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