UNESCO World Heritage status may have been bestowed upon the Western Ghats, but the riders that come with the tag and the resultant battle between environmentalists, the pro-‘development’ bodies and the mining mafia are yet to be negotiated. We speak to those who have loved the Ghats since long before they become ‘cool’ enough to be heritage material, looking for answers.
‘Locals don’t like wildlife’
Over the telephone, Jose Louis asks me to imagine the view outside his window on a cloud-laden afternoon. The 35 year-old who relocates villagers, works with wildlife enforcement authorities and seeks elusive animals for a living, is sitting in Kottayam, which is to the east of the Western Ghats in Kerala. So I picture him looking at impossibly green valleys and add the stunning Paradise Flycatcher to the picture.
“Now that you mention it — I haven’t seen that bird in three years,” says Louis, regional head for peninsular India for the NGO, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). As someone who spent most of his school vacations trying to somehow catch hold of the long tail of the then ubiquitous Paradise Flycatchers, Louis doesn’t quite like the taste of this realisation.
Louis is thrilled at the recent inclusion of the Western Ghats in the UNESCO World Heritage List, but says he is no fool to reality, either. “We’ll now get government sanction to conserve the Western Ghats, but the heart of the problem lies with our local communities. You think they’d like ‘outsiders’ like the UN to bestow tags on their ‘cash cow-like’ region?”
He is right. Not surprisingly, just hours after the interview, the governments of Kerala and Karnataka opposed UNESCO, saying it would affect development work. Among the 39 sites that have been given heritage status, 20 fall in Kerala. “Forget politicians, even for the locals here, wildlife is a ‘problem’, something that’ll take away their freedom,” says Louis, remembering a recent spat with a local planter.
“We were discussing the UN tag, and he said he didn’t give a damn about heritage. ‘This is my heritage and I’ll do what I want with it’ he said. Most planters are trigger happy people and hate animals,” says Louis. Another group, he adds, thinks it’s ‘cool’ to have a piece of land in the Western Ghats, given the glamour of heritage associated with it.
Louis says he is neither a biologist, not an activist. “I am something in between,” he smiles. He is definitely a heretic for most ‘development’ junkies in the Western Ghats. Till date, his maternal uncles who own vast coffee, cardamom and rubber plantations in the Western Ghats ask him to “keep conservation out of family discussions”.
They couldn’t care less that Louis recently worked on a project and relocated five villages in Wayanad to avoid man-animal conflict. For him, not having the Western Ghats as part of his personal and professional life isn’t even an option. “I spent my childhood with my maternal family in the Ghats and my biggest dream was to have a hill myna,” says Louis.
At home, Louis had, “a crazy pet business. I brought black naped hares, parakeets, common mynas and grasshoppers home and secretly bred honeybees in hives. On the days a monitor lizard or a squirrel jumped over my mother’s head, I’d get beaten up.” One night, after he finished schooling, Louis’s father entered his room at midnight and told him that he (Louis) was leaving to pursue Computer Engineering in Baroda, Gujarat.
“Just like that. Life was really dull without wildlife, but I eventually began rescuing snakes in Baroda, too,” he smiles. After six years of working in MNCs, Louis gave it up at 24 and began working with wildlife NGOs. He joined WTI in 2006. Now, Louis says the road ahead is tricky. “The UN status will attract tourists, too, but if they want to ‘have a blast’ here, the region will suffer miserably.”
He cites the case of the pilgrim site Sabrimala in Periyar. “Look at what the pilgrim tourists have done to the region — rivers have become nullahs, and E Coli breeds at an alarming rate in the water bodies. Even elephant dung there is found to have plastic in it.”
Louis, however, lives for what would be small joys for most others in the region. At one of the reclaimed sites in Wayanad, two of his team members spotted a tiger five days ago. “Can you believe that? It was a mere 200 metres away from the village we just relocated,” he says. “It all makes it worth saving the Western Ghats.”
‘Don’t cut areas off’
For three years, Hemant Ogale has been doing something rather peculiar to most people in his hometown Amboli, which falls in the Western Ghats.
He keeps glass tanks full of water and lotuses under trees and, sometimes, peers curiously inside. “I am just trying to increase the population of the elusive Malabar Gliding Frog in the Western Ghats here,” says the 36 year-old founder of the Malabar Nature Conservation Club in Amboli.
Every year, nature lovers, trekkers and photographers throng to Amboli for a glimpse of the elusive Malabar Gliding Frog. “When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to see them hopping all over Amboli, but they’ve been disappearing since the past five years. So, I built tanks around my home so their tadpoles can fall into them from the trees they inhabit.”
Ogale later shifts the frogs near ponds where they were originally sighted years ago to encourage breeding and nesting. Until 2003, Ogale was a mechanical engineer at Pune. Growing up in the heart of the Western Ghats was special, he says, but he wasn’t deeply attached to the environment. While in Pune, he began accompanying naturalists and conservationists on nature trails.
“I didn’t even realise when the corporate ennui got to me and I began thinking of saving the Ghats. I left my job, came back to Amboli and started the conservation club,” he says. Now, he works closely with wildlife researcher Varad Giri and, next month, will publish a paper on a new species of a snake he has helped him discover.
“Honestly, I don’t know how much the UN tag will do for us, because the political lobbies are strong, but I am doing my bit by documenting species in the Western Ghats, which then helps planners and researchers work better. I feel I was a bit late to realise what needed to be done for the Western Ghats — I was 28 when I started the Club — so I regularly visit schools to tell children about the fecund ecosystem they are living on.”
Ogale says cutting off corridors and areas for conservation will not help the Western Ghats. “Sites like Koyna, Radhanagari and the Kaas plateau — which come under the UNESCO sites now — are already well-protected. Koyna, for instance, falls in a wildlife sanctuary. But mining is rampant in Sindhudurg, which is not in the UN list. What about that?” says Ogale. “You can’t chop the Ghats in pieces and speak of conservation,” he concludes.
‘The Ghats are bleeding’
If 57 year-old Kalanand Mani is disappointed that not a single site in the Western Ghats in Goa has been included in the 39 serial sites under the UNESCO World Heritage List, he doesn’t show it.
The activist, who was instrumental in organising two marches under the legendary Save The Western Ghats movement in 1985, says he is only thinking about the forthcoming meeting in November organised by his Goa-based NGO, Peaceful Society, which will further discuss fresh activism efforts to save the Western Ghats.
“In the Western Ghats in Goa, which are 110 km wide and 70 km long, 40 km have been destroyed by mining. It looks like its insides have been upturned, and it is bleeding,” he says emotionally. Mani formed the Peaceful Society in 1983 to speak up against mining and liquor trade in the Western Ghats.
Technically, he is not a local from the Western Ghats, but made Goa his home in 1980 because he decided to dedicate his life to fighting for the Ghats. “That makes me ‘local’ enough, don’t you think?”
Mani was born on the banks of the river Baghmati in Bihar. “Back then, floods were not something we feared or chastised for wrecking our homes — we loved them because they brought us fertile silt and built kachha homes so the flood could have it easy.” Mani’s first childhood memory, he says, is of taking three dips in the Baghmati during the Chhat Pooja. “It was less than zero degrees Celsius.
The logic, my grandfather would say, was to build an intimate relationship with the river, no matter what,” he recalls. Right from Makar Sankrant in January, to Diwali towards the end of the year, the Baghmati river was part of every ritual in Mani’s life.
“I was later inspired by Vinoba Bhave and joined the Bhudan Movement in 1971. After taking charge of youth wings which helped out during droughts and famines in Bihar, I decided I didn’t just want to be a Bihari all my life and made Goa home,” he says.
However, even for someone who revered floods, the destruction of the Western Ghats due to floods in Goa in 1981 struck Mani as rather unnatural. “I began looking into the matter and realised it was the first time floods had ever hit Goa, and it was all due to mining. That’s when I decided to dedicate my life to mobilising people and creating awareness to save the Western Ghats.”
Mani’s career has not been without victories. In the mid-80s, when tribals in the village of Cotigaon in Goa were displaced to make a wildlife sanctuary, he helped them get their land back from the state government. “They told me, ‘Go tell your Goa locals that we live with the wild animals the way they live with their dogs’.”
But saving the Western Ghats, he admits, is a different ball game. “In spite of the march in the ’80s, and in 2007, the Ghats have suffered because we haven’t had a strong leadership that can stay long enough to execute conservation efforts. But now, with the UN tag, we hope that the mining mafias will not run free and loot us.”