Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Far South

Our last destination in India’s south was the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve.  This reserve, the first marine biosphere reserve in all of south and central Asia, encompasses 10,500 sq km of coastal waters stretching 300 km along the south-east coastline of the state of Tamil Nadu just opposite from the western coast of Sri Lanka.  Within the biosphere reserve are 21 small uninhabited islands scattered in a line parallel to the coast.  The water within 500 meters of these islands comprises the Gulf of Mannar marine national park, as well as the core area of the biosphere reserve. 
From the town of Ramanathapuram on the Indian mainland we travelled south-east down the length of a sandy peninsula which soon broke into a series of sand bar islands linked with bridges stretching towards Sri Lanka. At the south-eastern end of the last island is the Hindu pilgrimage town of Rameswaram, visited by worshipers of both Vishna and Shiva.  Home of both the Ramanathaswamy Temple and ghats for ocean bathing, Rameswaram is considered one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus in India and is sometimes called the “Varanasi of the south”.  

South of Rameswaram stretches a narrow spit of sand known as Adam’s Bridge.  About 10 km from town the spit disappears underwater to form a series of partially submerged limestone shoals connecting India and Sri Lanka.  Geological evidence and temple records indicate that Adam’s Bridge may have been passable on foot as recently as 1480, when it was destroyed by a cyclone.   The first mention of the bridge was by its other name, Rama’s Bridge, in the ancient Indian Sanskrit epic Ramayana, which refers to a bridge built by Lord Rama’s army of ape-men to allow Rama to reach the kingdom of Lanka (Sri Lanka) to rescue his wife, Sita, from a demon king. This compelling story notwithstanding, geological evidence tells us that the bridge is a natural geological formation, not man- (or monkey) made.

A 19th century painting depicting a scene from Ramayana in which monkeys and bears are shown building a bridge to Lanka. This painting is currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

The small town of Rameswaram is full of guest house accommodation for Indian religious tourists and every day in the early morning hundreds of pilgrims make their way down to the ocean-side bathing ghat.  The low morning sun picks out bright saris in a hundred hues as women wade into the sea fully dressed to perform their ablutions. On the shore vendors sell puja offerings – coconuts and marigolds in baskets made of woven leaves. Young men point their cell phone cameras at us as we try but fail to blend into the crowd.  Down the beach a pig roots in a rotting pile of sea flotsam and beyond a rocky seawall several men defecate on the beach.  Hundreds of moored fishing boats line the horizon, inactive due to the strictly enforced fishing ban observed in Tamil Nadu and Kerala from April 15th to June 1st.  During this time, changing water current patters result in a nutrient bloom that feeds young fish and is critical in ensuring continuing fish stocks.  Because of the seasonal ban, the beaches and wharfs are crowded with men, either engaged in repairs of nets and boats or resting under the shade of their boats drawn up onto the beach. 

We wander the shore, speaking with fishermen, admiring the catch of small boats not affected by the ban. Eventually we are driven by hunger and the heat of the rising sun into a small dhaba in search of breakfast.  South Indian parottas were on the menu – flaky flatbread beaten just a little bit to separate the layers. Sitting right next to the cooking station, every few minutes our table shook with a bang bang bang as the cook slammed his fist down repeatedly on a pile of fresh parottas. Waving away the flies, we consumed parottas and omelets from broad banana leaf plates, and then staggered home to nap during the heat of the south Indian afternoon. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Land of Tea

The capitol of the Nilgiris district of the southern-most Indian state of Tamil Nadu is Udhagamandalam, oOoty for those who can't pronounce the full name. Nilgiris means "blue mountains" in Tamil. Indeed, the Nilgiris are a bluish hue - outside of the protected forest areas much of the natural vegetation has been cleared for eucalyptus stands and tea plantations, reflecting green-ish blue light across the hillsides.

Ooty is home to a number of NGOs and government offices dealing with conservation issues in the Nilgiris.  We sought out a few for interviews. A Mudumali national park wildlife officer told us that the three greatest threats to the park were poaching, invasive species, and forest fire. In previous years poaching was a huge problem, but recent government-run programs to employ villagers as anti-poaching watchers have brought improvements. Lantana, a bushy shrub, and parthenium, a toxic plant in the aster family, are the region's two worst invasive species, affecting food webs, agriculture, and human and animal health. Lantana, along with recent erratic rainfall, has made the park more susceptible to forest fires. The wildlife officer shared stories of his efforts to increase the park's fire management capacity, as well as to start programs to provide sustainable vocational training for local adivasi youth. He also revealed that, as is the case with many of India's national parks and protected areas, there are currently about 300 families living inside the park. India's conservation protocols require that these people be relocated (for more on this controversial issue see the post on the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary).  In a deal many are calling the "golden handshake", the government has offered families living in the park 10 lakh rupees (1 million rupees or about 21 thousand dollars) as well as land outside the reserve as incentive to leave. By all accounts this is a great deal. However for many families, the emotional and historic significance of their ancestral home in the park outweighs the financial benefits of moving.

Making our way to Ooty's sister town of Kotagiri, we met with the director of the Keystone Foundation, a natural resource and rural development NGO that has been working in the Nilgiris since 1995. The Keystone Foundation emphasizes the need to include local people in natural resource management decision-making. Its work includes reviving natural vegetation, environmental governance, documenting indigenous knowledge of biodiversity and local cultural practices, and promoting the sustainable harvest of non-timber forest products such as honey, beeswax and fruit. The Keystone Foundation also works to implement the 2006 Forest Rights Act, a piece of legislation restoring rights of forest use back to traditional forest dwellers and indigenous people. This legislation, enacted by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, is seen as a threat by the Forest Department, an entrenched bureaucracy with a history of managing forest land for timber revenue rather than wildlife or the livelihoods of local people. The story of the Forest Rights Act and the Forest Department is a fascinating one that I will discuss in a subsequent post.

Tea cultivation plays an important role in the economy and ecology of the Nilgiris. The state government, under pressure to increase local incomes and standards of living, provides subsidies of 60,000 rupees per acre for tea cultivation and has ambitious plans to expand production. However the Keystone Foundation maintains that this incentive system leads to superficial land values and no recognition of the significance of the greater landscape. A lack of rules promoting soil and water conservation results in loss of trees and soil through erosion.  The money spent on tea subsidies would be better spent encouraging the cultivation of local millets that have less environmental impact and increased food sustainability benefits.  But tea cultivation provides reliable income for 10 months of the year, and it is much more difficult to quantify the benefits of preserving traditional crops and intact ecosystems.    

Deciding our understanding of the Nilgiri biosphere reserve was incomplete without seeing tea production up close, we talked our way into an impromptu tour of one of Kotagiri's big plantations. The tea warehouse was a massive dimly lit space, filled with giant steel machines and the fragrant aroma of Nilgiri tea. Sunlight from the skylights filtered down through motes of tea dust permeating the air. A fine film of tea layered every surface and clogged every knook and cranny of the machines.

Tea leaves are plucked by hand and carried into the processing warehouse, where they are left to wither for a number of hours under fans.  This tea factory used the CTC method (crush, tear and curl) to process their product.  After being bruised and fermented, the tea leaves are then passed through a machine with cylindrical rollers with sharp teeth that, yup, you guessed it, crush, tear, and curl the leaves.  Over 80% of tea production in India is of this sort and is suitable for use in teabags or for the loose tea used in making the ubiquitous Indian chai.  CTC tea produced in the Nilgiris has mild tannin, a generic flavor, and is low cost, contributing to its popularity in the Indian domestic market.