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stories - issue #4

An Uncomfortable Truth

At first sight, Nilgiris looks like a secluded haven, with tea plantations covering the mountains like a large green carpet, interspersed with heavily scented eucalyptustrees at every turn. But this green façade hides an uncomfortable truth - that human intervention has destabilised a fragile ecosystem, threatening an ancient culture and the existence of native species.

Nilgiris, also known as the Blue Mountains, is a mountain range that covers the three south Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Home to several national parks and wildlife sanctuaries,the Nilgiris district also boasts India’s first recognised biosphere, designated as such by UNESCO in 2000 for its rich biodiversity, blooming with rich fauna and flora. From forest gatherers to honey hunters and farmers, various tribal groups have inhabited these mountains for centuries - including the Toda people, who are now fighting to protect the native grasslands that are under threat from the non-endemic tea and eucalyptus monocultures.

With a population of a little over 2,000, the Todas live in rainbow-shaped huts in settlements called munds, generally located near streams, grasslands and forests. In the folds of the hills are the evergreen shola forests, and the slopes are covered with native grass species. The natural vegetation in Nilgiris follows a pattern called Nilgiris- or shola-grassland mosaic. The grassland serves as a natural water tank. The clouds that move inland from the Arabian Sea bring heavy rain to the area, and the leaf litter on the shola forest floor acts like a sponge, storing the water, and slowly releasing it throughout the year. The grassland is crucial for an ecosystem that sustains the forest produce that the Todas rely on for their vegetarian diet, but also for those in countryside at the foot of the hills.

Todas practice a ritual of giving common salt twice a year to the buffaloes in their settlement. Photograph courtesy of Tarun Chhabra.

Historically around a third of the upper Nilgiris consisted of montane forests, while the rest was grassland. “During the late 1700s, the British colonisers considered the native grasslands as wastelands and replaced them with exotic tree species like eucalyptus or acacia from Australia,” notes author and ecologist Godwin Vasanth Bosco. “Native grasslands were also cleared to make way for tea plantations. Post-independence, the Indian government too opted to replace grasslands with the financially profitable teak or timber plantations.” And while the Todas traditionally maintained the grasslands through contained burning to promote fresh growth, since the Indian Forest Service (formerly the Imperial Forest Service) banned the practice in 1927, invasive species have moved into what remains.

These changes to the ecosystem have come at a heavy cost: the grasslands provide a habitat for wild bison, vipers and frogs, alongside bird species endemic to southern India including the Nilgiri Pipit and the Nilgiri Laughing Thrush, and grazing for endangered species including the Nilgiris Tahr (a native mountain goat) and the Toda buffalo.The Todas are a pastoral tribe whose lives revolve around the buffaloes, and they are dependent on the animals both for the milk and milk products they produce, and for use in religious ceremonies, in which the buffaloes are treated as sacred entities.

Photographs courtesy of Northay Kuttan.

There are six grades of sacred buffalo with corresponding dairy temples where designated dairymen priests process the milk, explains Toda leader Northay Kuttan. “For us Todas, buffaloes are an intrinsic part of our lives, from birth to death, and are used in every ceremony. In fact, we open our temples only when a particular sacred buffalo births a calf, and we light a lamp with the ghee (clarified butter) churned from the milk of that buffalo. If it does not yield a calf, we have to shut our temples.” But the commercial exploitation of the area over the years has threatened the bond between his tribe and the Nilgiri ecosystem. “While the evergreen forests act as our water source, the grasslands store the water below and also act as grazing lands for our buffaloes.

When our grasslands are replaced with commercially viable species like eucalyptus or pine trees, our buffaloes vanish along with them,” he says. “There is no undergrowth in these plantations, so the temperature soars and water sources become depleted.” The situation is further exacerbated by erratic rainfall as a result of climate change. Polker Kuttan, a Toda elder, estimates that of 1,000 buffaloes that used to inhabit the villages there are only 100 left, and the lack of grassland has meant that rather than producing four to five litres of milk a day, each buffalo now yields only one. The reduction in grassland has also seen an increase in tiger attacks that have also contributed to the decimation of the Toda buffaloes.

Toda temple roof laying ceremony. Photographs courtesy of Northay Kuttan.

Because the Todas also consider the tigers to be sacred they cannot stop them. “Everything has changed,” says Kuttan. “The rains don’t come on time, there are fewer flowers and less honey for us. Our next generations have moved on from our traditional ways to get educated and take jobs. Nobody wants to preserve traditional wisdom.” But there is some hope for the future of Toda culture. Some, like the ethnobotanist and expert in Toda culture, Tarun Chhabra, believe the Todas’ ancestral knowledge of and deep connection with the local ecology should be used to further conservation in the region.

Photograph by Stuart Manktelow / Alamy Stock photo.

“They are so in tune with nature that they can understand the onset or delay of monsoon by observing the flowering cycles of local flowers,” he says. “They even use a flower to check the anxiety level of a person. It really works. The flower shuts down if your anxiety level is high.” Because of their close relationship with the land, their ceremonies and lifestyle serve to protect native species and the environment, says Chhabra.

For instance, the thin branches of the Litsea wightiana (Laurel) tree is dried and used to make fire at traditional ceremonies, while pregnancy and paternity rites use a range of trees and roots from Mappia foetia leaves to Myrsine capitellata branches and Nilagiricum sticks. Temples are constructed using rattan canes or bamboo, and the Todas use only the native avful grass to thatch their roofs.

Toda Women dancing as part of a wedding celebration. Photograph by V Mathimaran.

‘Toda expert Tarun Chhabra believes the Todas’ ancestral knowledge of and deep connection with the local ecology should be used to further conservation in the region. “They are so in tune with nature that they can understand the onset or delay of monsoon by observing the flowering cycles of local flowers,” he says.’

Toda Tribes Celebrating their Annual Festival (Moree Furth - the Festival for Ancestors). Photograph by V Mathimaran.

With this in mind, volunteers like Chhabra and Bosco have been striving hard to restore the native avful grass with the help of the government and local schools, and working with tribal leaders like Kuttan to increase community engagement with traditional life, using the buffaloes to promote milk products with unique tribal trademarks and leaf culture to propagate the avful grasslands.

And, following a legal appeal, the state government has begun to help revive the grasslands by removing invasive plant species like Lantana camara in combination with a breeding programme to replenish the vanishing levels of Toda buffaloes. So far the project has helped to revive around 500 hectares of grassland. For Kuttan and the Toda people it is the first step to re-establishing an ecosystem that underpins their traditional way of life, and a chance to maintain the connection between their people and the land for future generations.

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