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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.

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