Missing democracy for the trees and hills

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If you thought humans only exoticised and discriminated based on notions of racial purity among our own species, you aren’t paying attention to why we treat forestland the way we do.

To fell a tree under the argument that it is alien to the region is akin to racial discrimination. | Siddhartha Krishnan

People judge others by their skin, gender, caste, religion and class. Being native or foreign is society's enduring parameter of judging belonging. Unfortunately, ecology is also now a realm of judgment, beyond mere objective labelling. Conservationists label trees as alien and exotic. And the Nilgiri administration recently judged a forest as dispensable on that count. Some criticised the felling and sympathised with the forest. Others joined the tree-shaming or remained silent about the felling.

On January 31, 2018, the police department auctioned a forest located along Ooty’s Havelock road. The department owned the forest and now wanted to construct a parade ground. It passed orders for felling 487 old trees. Mid-February, Havelock road residents woke up to the sickening sound of sawing. They confronted the contractor, and informed the media. The police department told the media that they followed procedure. The felling had official sanction. Some environmentalists questioned the ease and haste behind the sanction. Others, including some media contacts, were indifferent to the forest and protests. Limited social media sympathy and outrage ensued. On a popular Facebook group, a local historian lauded the protests but found them misplaced. The British had introduced these ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’ trees; ecological restoration of the pristine shola grassland landscape was priority.


The Ooty episode raises important questions. Should one exercise more caution in flaunting exclusionary adjectives like ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’? Are there really pristine landscapes in the Nilgiris or any place else? What are the historical and future implications of felling exotics and restoring grasslands?

Procedure and conservation

A district-level committee approved the police department’s deforestation request. Reinforcing procedure was ecological convenience. Eucalyptus, including blue gum and red gum, and cypress trees were colonial introductions. Did convening as a committee ensure procedural justice or fair process and outcome? No. Neighbourhood perspectives and concerns were not heard. Eucalyptus bark and leaf collectors were not consulted. Neither were cross-country veterans who ran these woods. The decision to deforest was unfair. For environmentalists and the public satisfied with committee and procedure, here is statistic. In 2017 alone, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEF & CC recommended the de-notification of 91,798 hectares of forests. Go figure.

Many trees and plants in ex-colonies like India suffer a dual nomenclature. One, dignified and Linnaean. Another, disgraceful and alien. The 18th-Century Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, founded the binomial taxonomic system — the first part of a plant’s name refers to the genus, and the second, the species. The blue Gum tree is thus Eucalyptus globules. Cypress is Cupressus torulosa. A politically incorrect and judgmental nomenclature of alien and exotic supplements the scientific.

People refer to foreigners and migrants as alien. If the foreigner is from the tropical south, she is also ‘exotic’. The exotic was colonial society’s representation of ‘other’ cultures. Society is now sensitive to exoticising. But in popular imagination, the exotic thrives. After World War II, the UK removed ‘alien’ from immigration legislations. Even the milder ‘migrant’ is problematic. In 2015, social commentators criticised the BBC for calling Syrian refugees ‘migrant’. The Al Jazeera has since decided not to use ‘migrant’, a “blunt” and “dehumanising” word.

Calling a tree alien and exotic is a political prompt in an era of nationalist protectionism. It also prompts ‘whataboutery’, a reactionary trait in these populist times. Only here, the reaction is necessary. What about Nilgiri tea, English vegetables, fruits and garden flowers? And colonial buildings and bungalows? This attracts economic and cultural response, and a hydrological censure. Tea, carrot and carnation earn income and revenue. Colonial architecture is heritage. Eucalyptus and pine deplete groundwater.

But eucalyptus has been a crucial energy source. It replaced shola trees as a fuel resource in the colonial period. Eucalyptus earns revenue for oil distillers, and livelihood income for leaf collectors. Cypress and pine sell as packing and decorative material. Colonial buildings built with native and exotic timber are cultural inheritance. But some species introduced by the English are ecological irritants. This is hill station hypocrisy. There indeed are some irritants referred to in military terms as ‘invasive’. Like wattle (Acacia mearnsii), an aggressive seed producer and disperser. Like Prosopis juliflora of the plains and the ubiquitous Lantana camara, these out-competing species need to be controlled and eradicated. But an ‘exotic’ species like cypress or eucalyptus is not default invasive. They play, and continue to play, aesthetic and economic roles.



There is the hydrological criticism of eucalyptus being thirsty. True. But besides the water-storing Sholas, what is not exotic and thirsty in the Nilgiris? Ooty and Coonoor bungalows and their lawns consume a lot of water. So do tea plantations and English vegetable farms. Cherry-picking certain exotic species for depleting ground water is insular. We must locate thirsty subjects in a culture of water profligacy bequeathed by the British, and a culture of pollution that independent India indigenised. Water distribution in hill stations was inequitable. There was disparity in water consumption between gentry and peasantry. Class disparities in water access and use persist. Coonoor has seasonal water shortage, but its cantonment gentry have no reason to complain. Only the working and middle classes suffer.

The East India Company’s establishment of hill stations was energy and water-intensive. Company and crown engineers dammed rivers and created lakes and reservoirs. Reservoirs inundated thousands of grassland hectares. Post-independence, factories polluted these reservoirs and rivers. Studies by WWF and ATREE reveal the extent of pollution of the Pykara and Moyar rivers by a gelatin factory. Hill station citizenship confounds. Roses and begonias have turned native. Colonial bungalows and public buildings are cultural heritage. Tea and turnip have become local. But eucalyptus is a thirsty immigrant. Pine is an acidic immigrant. Cypress, a resinous immigrant. If these species non grata spoke, they would ask tough questions. How much water does the annual ‘exotic’ flower show use? What does indiscriminate pesticide use for carrot and cabbage do to the soil? So much for ‘whataboutery’. Conversations about an open grassy landscape must proceed with an open mind. Propagation of pristine ecological pasts is naïve. As is wanting to restore pristinity.

Pristine Nilgiris

Pristineness is not an ecological attribute of a landscape. It is a mythological attribute of the mind. Scientists argue that pristine landscapes or ‘unaltered’ wilderness never existed. The last time that most of earth was not affected by humans was 10,000 years ago. For environmental historians, wilderness is more cultural than natural. In America, the idea originated in romantic quests for the ‘sublime’ and in the wild ‘frontier’ myth. Political ecologists emphasise the role of human labour and production in shaping African wilderness. Colonial and post-colonial ‘misreading’ of African landscapes results in exclusive conservation policy. In the Nilgiris, 19th-Century British landscape paintings serve as reference for pristineness. These paintings were at once pastel and pastoral, gentle and gentrified. Lake sailing, horse-riding or picnicking gentry were landscape constants. Painters were meticulous in curating manors and cottages into Ooty’s grassy undulations.



If colonisers misread the African landscape, the colonised misread the Nilgiri landscape. The shola-grassland ecosystem may have a pre-human history. But, for centuries, pastoral Todas grazed the landscape with their buffaloes. They burnt it before the monsoons. Todas shared the upper Nilgiri plateau with Badaga peasants and other local communities. The landscape is a product of physical exertions and social relations. The British painted a pastoral idyll. Behind it was Centuries of laborious coping with long monsoons and frosty winters.

Restoring ecology democratically

Restoring shola-grasslands to any ‘original’ state raises questions about the past and future. First, what is original? The colonial or immediate pre-colonial period may well serve as restoration referent. If so, we acknowledge the social or anthropogenic background of shola-grasslands. And in restoration, the thoughts and practices of the Todas, Badagas and Kotas become crucial. Second, grassland vulnerability to ‘language change’ at a time of climate change. Colonial and independent India classified millions of acres of savanna grasslands as wastelands. In western and central India, biodiverse semi-arid savanna are either afforested or irrigated. Pastoralists, Blackbuck, and Great Indian Bustards have suffered.

Post-independence, Nilgiri grasslands too became vulnerable. They were not ‘forests’. Legal land use conversion and illegal occupation were real risks under populist politics. Besides serving as energy sources, exotic plantations served as a land-conversion deterrent. Today, climate-change thinkers warn of migration to mountains in the tropics — like birds and plants that shift ranges, humans will too. Under climate change, restored grasslands may well suffer language change risks. These are tough times for Indian democracy, the environment and science. Even as we strive to restore Indian democracy, let ecological restoration be democratic. Certain fundamental duties guaranteed in our Constitution are relevant to the Nilgiri story. First, preserving cultural heritage. Second, protecting the natural environment. Third, developing scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry. Acknowledging the collective agency of pastoralists and peasants in shaping grasslands is humanism. Scientific temper, social and natural, must prevail in discussions of where and how we restore grasslands. A spirit of inquiry must mark the reevaluation of colonial heritage from an environmental sustainability perspective.

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