February 2011: In Gudalar, at the edge of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, a small committed group of volunteers work to protect India’s shola forests – a mosaic of montane evergreen forests and grasslands found only at high altitude (more than 1,500 m. above mean sea level) regions within the tropics.
In India, shola forests are limited to the southern Western Ghats and are under increasing anthropogenic pressure. These undulating grassland patches interspersed with thickets of stunted evergreen tree species are home to a host of endemic and endangered flora and fauna but have received little protection as they have no timber value. The key goal of the Shola Trust, as the name suggests, is to ensure that these vital wildernesses survive the onslaught of monocultures and expanding cities.
One of the ways the Trust achieves this is by buying patches of privately owned patches of shola forests, particularly those that fall in the corridor and buffer zones of larger reserves to prevent them from being ‘developed’. These protected spots become living nurseries where shola species are regenerated and people educated about their importance. This endeavour, which is being implemented in tandem with the Tzedakah Trust, has resulted in the protection of large areas of shola forests and consequently aided the conservation of countless species that rely on this habitat. Understanding that awareness is key to conservation, the Shola Trust works closely with children to ensure that they recognise the importance of wildlife and forests. Its youth group, CAN (Children Act for Nature) Clubs, organises nature trails, movie screenings and a wide range of activities for kids.
The Shola Trust’s biochar and lantana projects are other excellent examples of community conservation that could easily be replicated around the country. Terra Preta, the most fertile soil in the world found in the Amazon basin, was created by indigenous people about 5,000 years ago by burning biomass in low oxygen conditions (called pyrolysis), mixing the resulting matter with organic waste to make biochar which was then buried in the soil to increase fertility. The organisation has been working hard to promote the use of biochar in the region and has divided its efforts into two parts. First, it works at a household level to encourage biochar stoves which produce less smoke than traditional stoves and also leave a charcoal by product which can be used as manure once mixed with compost. Secondly, the Trust works at a regional level, tackling the problem of lantana – an invasive weed that is choking many of India’s forests – by using the weed as raw material for biochar. To further promote the use of lantana, the Trust, in association with ATREE, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam has been helping adivasi communities make lantana furniture. This serves the dual purpose of giving them an alternative source of livelihood and weaning them of forest dependency and the waste matter from the furniture making is used in the biochar initiative. The model also ensures that the furniture is sold directly in the market, removing middlemen and allowing all the proceeds to reach the communities.
Human tolerance for animals is steadily dwindling and snakes are a common victim of this insensitivity. The Shola Trust has opened an animal rescue centre in Gudalur to help treat injured snakes and other wildlife found in human habitation. Once recovered, they are released back into the wild. The centre also doubles as an education hub and classroom sessions on conservation and other programmes are held at the facility. Research is an important part of the organisation’s work and it supports scientific studies and projects in the region as well as acts as the secretariat for the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) Alliance (www.nbralliance.org). The NBR Alliance is an effective pressure group for sustainable development and conservation, coming together when ‘development’ projects threaten this fragile landscape.
The Shola Trust is currently working on a new initiative to promote ecotourism. Its pilot project is being set up in the Madhuvana estate which is owned by the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam and lies on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, next to Devala. The 175 acre farm comprises a tea, coffee and cardamom plantation and also a private forest from where traditional medicinal plants are harvested. The goal is to develop it as an education centre, completely powered by renewable energy where nature trails, programmes on medicinal plants and other activities can be held.
By adopting a holistic approach to conservation and ensuring that its imagination is not limited, the Shola Trust is working to combat threats to the environment as they emerge. It has been able to revolutionise conservation in Gudalur and its work is a stellar example of how a small organisation comprising locals can come up with innovative and sustainable solutions to aid ecosystem protection and win the support of surrounding communities.
THE SHOLA TRUST
27th Mile, Ooty Road, Gudalur, the Nilgiris,
Tamil Nadu – 643211, India.