A red flush of leaves

(By T. R. Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa)

Splashes of red dot the evergreen canopy, like blood on green canvas. The canarium, stately white and tall, holds a red flush of new leaves above verdant, multi-hued forest.

Photo: Kalyan Varma

Skimming spectacularly over the trees, a great hornbill brushes grandeur onto the canvas. In the company of hornbills, a new year dawns on an unsuspecting rainforest.

Photo: Kalyan Varma

The red flush is the flag of an ancient rhythm: a rhythm of renewal, carrying the cadence of nature’s annual cycles. In the rainforest, the tree has endured months of sharp dry weather followed by lashing rains. It has stoically retained its space amidst a thousand species, its leaves buffeted by many winds, aloft in sun and in rain, for another year of its decades’ long existence. It has provided fruits for the hornbill, leaving seeds for hungry rodents or to germinate in a secure nook, and oozed resinous dammar from a cut. Drawing in the air with the breath of humanity, richer now in carbon dioxide, the tree has returned oxygen and thousands of litres of water to enrich the air and seed the clouds. As the second monsoon withdraws, leaving clear skies, spent clouds, and a winter chill, nature’s seamless cycle enters another human year. There is now a renewed challenge of life in the environment, with other lifeforms of the forest, and with people in the wider landscape.

From the perspective afforded by the forests where the canarium tree stands, here in the Anamalai hills, one can take a sidelong look at events of the recent past and prospects for the year ahead. Local, national, and global change all have their imprint in this microcosm within a planet impacted by human action like never before.

Bolstered by a legal framework centred on conserving tigers, the state governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu firmed-up existing wildlife sanctuaries, declaring the Parambikulam and Anamalai Tiger Reserves. Stretches of remarkable forest with threatened and endemic wildlife gain renewed recognition and, hopefully, better protection and improved management. In addition, valuable Reserved Forests, languishing in deliberate or benign neglect, are in the forefront as thousands of hectares are included within buffer zones. At the larger landscape level, these areas greatly add to the conservation potential of existing reserves and help reduce the threat of forest fragmentation. Stung by past failures that aimed to exclude local people from conservation, efforts are being made to involve communities in the plantations and agricultural lands in the buffer zone. Overcoming suspicion and doubts to constructively engage these communities is essential to gain support for conservation and address pressing issues such as human-wildlife conflicts. This is no easy task, but efforts are underway, here, as elsewhere.

The people who share these forests of the canarium, the tribal communities of the Anamalais, are also at a crucial juncture. Respected for their forest skills, the kadar, in particular, have been partners in conservation of species such as hornbills and provided crucial support for wildlife research and forest protection. The Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the tiger conservation plan, both yet to be implemented, bring them promise and peril. Over the year, detractors of the FRA have learned how it has been invaluable in fighting conservation battles against mining and forest diversion, where other environmental laws have failed. Can government, civil society, and tribal communities work together to deliver on the promise, while averting the perils of relocation, forest conversion and degradation?

The hills here are named for the Asian elephant, a species that better represents present conservation challenges. Elephant conservation implies thinking about swathes of land larger than our fragmented reserves, of corridors and agriculture, of people and property. The year gone by saw a laudable initiative, the Elephant Task Force, of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), culminating in a thoughtful report that promises to gently but firmly transform our view of the elephant and ultimately its conservation. The elephant has become, deservedly, our National Heritage Animal. A wider cross-section of society, good scientific understanding, and more transparent management shall be involved in elephant conservation. Movement routes and habitat fragments, including on private lands, shall gain additional attention, bringing benefits to myriad other species in the landscape including threatened hornbills and macaques, endemic amphibians, reptiles, and native plants. We shall no more be owners of captive elephants, only responsible guardians. Awareness of the need to phase out the demeaning existence and abuse of elephants in captivity is dawning. Now the elephant obtains a renewed place in our culture and consciousness. A position that recognises and respects elephants as social, sentient, intelligent, and sensitive individuals and families, with whom we are privileged to share spaces.

Growing environmental consciousness is also driving changes in tea and coffee plantations in the landscape. Informed consumers are creating market demand for produce from farms that adopt responsible social and land-use practices. Consequently, certification programmes, such as Rainforest Alliance, require farms to protect natural ecosystems, revive native shade tree species, avoid toxic agrochemicals, and safeguard waterways. These promise to bring benefits both to the industry and environment.

Further downstream from where the canarium stands, the ill-advised Athirapilly project, opposed for years on many good environmental and social grounds, finally comes close to being scrapped. Partly, this stems from a welcome turn of events, with the Indian government finally appointing an environment minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh, who seems keen to uphold the environmental laws of the land. In a short span, Mr Ramesh has transformed the rubber-stamp position of his Ministry to one that his detractors, even in more powerful ministries, are forced to take notice of. From aspects such as making the MoEF website one of the best government repositories of information, to taking clear executive decisions on dams, roads, airports, ports, forest diversion and exploitative industries, Mr Ramesh’s efforts have revitalised India’s conservation movement and the dignity of his ministry. His approach, mostly well-informed by ecology, is balanced by political pragmatism. The stance and strictures on preventing the proliferation of dams on the Ganga, on Bt Brinjal, Vedanta, POSCO, and coal mining, are battles that, if not won outright, are at least well fought. Like the stoic canarium tree, he has many troubles to weather yet, to hold his present position.

Forces even further afield also impinge on the canarium. Climate change is a decisive factor already affecting species, landscapes, and people’s lives. The year 2010, poised to be the hottest year on record, was also marked by more heat than light in the aftermath of international climate conferences at Copenhagen and Cancún. Responses such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), and voluntary, national, and international carbon markets are developing. Efforts are being made to recognise economic and other values of our natural capital and ecosystem services to move from an exploitative development trajectory riding on flawed and uni-dimensional measures such as GDP to sustainable development valuing social and environmental goals. One can argue that these are too little too late or that forests are better REDD than dead, but time will tell if these are adequate responses to humanity’s greatest global challenge.

Out in the Anamalai hills, as the flag of the canarium flutters red over the hill slopes, there is a sense of timelessness to the upheavals of life. And there are both storms and sunshine ahead.

An edited version of this article, titled Rhythms of Renewal, which appeared today in The Hindu Magazine is available here.

1 thought on “A red flush of leaves

  1. Extensive insight to the perils and situation of Western ghats. I love the dense forest cover, and every time I see the tea plantations.. more than their beauty it is the spray of pesticides, the white ashes of burnt areas, bereft of native trees with the silver oak being the only visible tree for acres… I have wondered on harmful effects it is casting on the environment. It is heartening to read about the growing social responsibility and environment friendly attitude among plantation owners. Thanks for the insightful article.

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