Blending Ecology + Economy in the Western Ghats

As the world gears up for the Rio+20 conference next week, we’re bringing you stories of how green economies are already being implemented across the globe. Today we hear from Pratim Roy, the director of India’s Keystone Foundation, which is a grantee of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF).

Asian elephants in river

Along with 50 million people, the Western Ghats are home to important populations of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and other rare species. (© CI/photo by Haroldo Castro)

The quantity and diversity of life packed into India’s Western Ghats region is truly mind-blowing. Part of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats provides habitat for hundreds of species of endangered birds, mammals and plants — many of which are found nowhere else. Stretching across 180,000 square kilometers (almost 70,000 square miles) along the west coast of India, this region is also home to 50 million people.

Many people who dot this landscape come from ancient indigenous communities. Some are rural pastoralists, artisans, honey collectors, potters, hunter-gatherers, fisher folk and agriculturists. Others live in the ever-growing cities that are fragmenting habitats, shrinking freshwater supplies and spurring the large-scale conversion of forest to agricultural lands.

How do all these people live so closely together among the rivers, sanctuaries and national parks that encircle their villages and lie at the back door of their cities? Life in India is slow, fast, dynamic, sedentary, sustainable, low-carbon, poverty-stricken and very rich — all at the same time. The question is: How can we pursue sustainable development in the face of such drastic contrasts?

Vazhachal waterfalls in India's Western Ghats

Vazhachal waterfalls in India’s Western Ghats. (© CI/Photo by Jack Tordoff)

In fact, local communities do not need to learn about sustainability — they are already living it. They live on small plots of land, use local, natural materials and have been recycling since long before it was fashionable. They rely on the power of gravity to provide their water, and collect, harvest and forage only what they need each season. In essence, they live a “light footprint” life.

India’s rural communities come from age-old traditions of harmony with nature; however, continuing this approach to natural resource management in today’s world can be a challenge. Due to their low population numbers and limited political power, many of these communities are facing an onslaught of ecological and economic deprivation. To decision-makers like large corporations, they are often invisible — indistinguishable from their landscapes. When unsustainable development forces take a toll on local ecosystems, these are the communities that suffer the most, because their livelihoods, cultural practices and social mores get uprooted.

Rapid economic growth and urbanization without the ethics of sustainability are leading to a dangerous cycle of degradation and fragmentation. With larger population pressures and migration, this damage will only increase without intervention.

Yet I see tremendous opportunity here for innovation informed by indigenous communities and modern technology. Some Western Ghats communities can show us how to co-exist — why can’t modern planners and developers learn from these practices?

Since 1995, my organization has focused on conservation, livelihoods and enterprise in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve — helping communities restore and improve on their traditional livelihood practices. Working with tribal people in 89 villages, we have had some successes, such as

  • Using a bank loan to set up a honey and beeswax enterprise that combines traditions of honey gathering with scientific understanding of bee ecology;
  • Diversifying local livelihoods to include agricultural and forest products such as gooseberries;
  • Restoring traditional agriculture practices and establishing seed banks;
  • Reviving traditional leadership structures in communities where they have been disappearing; and
  • Conducting community-based ecological monitoring, which combines modern science with recognition of traditional ancestral boundaries for harvesting and collection. This is giving rise to a new level of knowledge about local ecosystem health.

In addition, CEPF’s support of the Keystone Foundation led to the establishment of Nilgiri Natural History Society, an outreach organization that educates urban middle and high school students and citizens on the value of ecosystems and conducts research on issues like human-wildlife conflict, which is becoming a more frequent problem in the region.

CEPF has also supported a project working with Adivasi indigenous communities to conserve sacred groves — small clusters of forest, often sheltering important freshwater sources, which are sacred to nearby villages as areas of worship and ancestral burial places. Through this project, we have been able to identify, protect and generate greater awareness of sacred groves, emphasizing the importance of culture and traditions in tribal societies and the value of conservation to their lives.

I’m proud of the work we have done so far on the local level — but I can’t help wondering if these sorts of activities can work on a grander scale.

Fortunately, CEPF exists to make important conversations happen between rural communities, governments, corporations and donors — bringing us closer to a world in which ecology and economy are truly united. It definitely won’t be easy, but building these relationships is an important step in the right direction.

Pratim Roy is the founder and director of the Keystone Foundation, an organization that works with indigenous communities on “eco-development” in the Western Ghats. CEPF is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. To learn more about CEPF’s work in the Western Ghats, check out this video.

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