The Western Ghats is one of the eight hotspots of biological diversity in the world and is spread across six states—Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In the last six decades, the forest cover in the Western Ghats has been severely fragmented due to human activities. Meera Chandran, co-founder of Forest First Samithi, a non-profit organisation, has dedicated her work towards preserving and restoring degraded forest lands in this area. With her passion and commitment to the cause, Chandran, a renowned environmentalist, has played a significant role in creating awareness about the importance of forests and their conservation in India.
Forest First has been actively involved in uprooting invasive plants, planting native trees, and creating sustainable livelihoods for forest-dwelling communities of Kodagu and Wayanad, in the Western Ghats. Through their efforts, the organisation has been able to restore more than 300 acres of land in the Western Ghats. In an exclusive interview with LetmeBreathe, she shares her insights on the workings and achievements of the non-profit. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What was the purpose behind establishing the Forest First Samithi?
Forest first Samithi began with the purpose of working on degraded forest lands and of course conserving a lot of diverse native species of Western Ghats. The whole journey started off with understanding what are these species that we need to conserve and how do we work towards those species diversity and what is required to be conserved in this particular landscape. So, we were working in both Wayanad and Kodagu as a region and identifying areas of degradation. When I say degradation, it is about invasive species, lands that are completely taken over by invasive species due to previous deforestation.
What are the invasive species that you focus upon? And what is your process of dealing with them?
There are two primary invasives in the landscape that we are working. One is Senna spectabilis, locally called in Malayalam vernacular language as Manjakonna or it’s even called Rakshasakonna. It shows a characteristic of a demon because even if you cut it from the top, coppices from the shoots.
Our process is to do manual uprooting entirely. We do not leave any biomass of the invasive Senna underground or even above the ground. Even if it is big trees of Senna, it is a complete uprooting process. Now since we’re doing this manually, we cannot work during the peak rain season because there is a certain kind of work requirement which needs somebody to climb on the tree. So when there is too much rain then you know the tree will be slippery and then we cannot climb on the tree. So, our ideal season for working on the Senna uprooting is between September to December.
The other primary invasive that we deal with is Lantana camara, but we do not do this large scale removal of Lantana camara. We do ‘assisted natural regeneration’, which is a process where we only take out Lantana around naturally established saplings, even if it is a tree which is actually strangulated by Lantana. You basically release the Lantana around that particular tree so that the tree can branch and establish well.
Apart from that we also do what is called ‘wetland clearing of Lantana’ which is to establish grass. If it has covered a wetland grassland area, we uproot Lantana from the grassland so that the grass can establish well, because grass is a very important component in forest land restoration because that is the primary fodder for all the ungulates and the pachyderms like elephants.
How much of the degraded forest land has Forest First restored till now?
Starting from 2010, we were actually learning a lot about species and what species to conserve. So, our initial land under restoration was smaller, but what we achieved during that time frame is to get to understand species. During that time frame, we were more into conservation of a larger diversity — up to 150 species diversity. We typically talk not much in terms of the number of saplings, but more in terms of how many species will we be able to diversify and establish in a specific land area.
So from that, it evolved into working on degraded sacred group conservation in Kodagu, then working with coffee estate owners in Kodagu. So, prior to our forest land restoration, we have covered roughly around 100 acres. Forest land restoration alone in Wayanad is 230 acres. So put together, we have roughly covered around 330 acres of land.
Forest land restoration is the most time consuming effort. We cannot simply work on a specific patch of land in year one, and then I don’t go back again. I have to go back again for a minimum of five years to even see a small percentage of the results that we would want to achieve. So that’s how time consuming forest land restoration is.
How big is your team now?
Our current team is around 35. We’ve trained up to around 45 folks, but we have not been able to support them with the wages throughout the year. The entire group gets work only during the peak invasive uprooting season, Six days a week for 10 months, we can support them with jobs provided we get our funding on time.
With one of the CSR funds that we have received, we were able to support them with solar home lighting systems, because during monsoon, sometimes these remote villages and hamlets, they will not have power. And they might not have any problem by staying without light, but without power, what happens is your mobile mobile phone connectivity is completely off. So then there’s no communication mechanism for them. So this has been a big plus, and we implemented it for around 80 homes and most of them have got a power bill cut off by one third.
What motivates you to continue doing this work?
It is the restored patches that inspire me to continue doing what we’re doing. I will talk about the smallest thing, which is the leeches.They were totally absent in that space because of the high amount of desiccation. And in just about five years of leaf litter falling on the land, we’ve observed leeches on the land which is an amazing thing, which also means that there is soil moisture conservation happening.
You know, these are your indicators — different species of frogs coming in, different species of birds coming into the patch. And I know for sure that the birds are also contributing to other degraded patches by taking the seeds away from this restored patch. So I feel when you have these conservation patches, what it creates is something which is extremely intangible that you will not be able to measure and monitor.
What’s that one advice that you like to give to people who want to take up similar projects?
It is not a cakewalk. In a wild space, when you do planting, you will have to face a lot of challenges and then you deal with those challenges with certain local conditions which are extremely field specific. My condition may not be what works for somebody who’s sitting in, say, Jharkhand. But, certain principles can be overlapped. For instance, we have taken the process of Lantana uprooting from the work that is happening in Bandipur. But, again, we have evolved a separate process for how we uproot Senna, separately.