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Forest landscapes of the southern western Ghats, India

B.R. Ramesh
Rajan Gurukkal

Introduction: Drawing the Contours

B.R. Ramesh et Rajan Gurukkal

Texte intégral

1The tropical forests, apart from sustaining a rich assortment of biological diversity, contribute substantially towards the wellbeing of the local communities by providing a source of income, employment, food and vital ingredients to their farming systems. In developing countries, the issue of poverty and gender equity revolves largely around forest habitats. At the global level, forests are important in order to counter climate change and soil erosion. Over a period of time, due to the use and abuse of forests under inappropriate property rights regimes and institutional arrangements, forests are subjected to severe degradation resulting in loss of biodiversity and to people’s needs.

2The forests of the Western Ghats represent one among the best non-equatorial tropical forests in India, and it is considered as one of the 25- biodiversity hotspots across the world (Myers et al, 2000). The southern part of the Western Ghats has a high degree of environmental heterogeneity due to diverse geographical and demographic factors. These complex geographical features and corresponding macro and microclimatic variations give rise to a stunning array of habitats populated with exuberant expressions of life forms (Pascal, 1988).

3The Kerala State, on the windward side of the southern Western Ghats stretching along the Western Coast, is biogeographically the most important State in India. The three main centres of endemism in the Southern Western Ghats: Agasthyamalai, Anamalai and Silent Valley-New Amarambalam (Nayar, 1996) are located in the State. More than 90 % (4679 species) of the flowering plant species reported from the Western Ghats are found in the state, of which 35 % (1637 species) are endemic (Sasidharan, 2004). Out of the 337 species of vertebrates endemic to the Western Ghats, about 66 % are found in Kerala (Daniels, 2001). However, due to increasing population pressure and undesirable land use practices, substantial extent of forest habitat is lost or degraded and many species are driven towards critical status. The rate of deforestation in the state has aggravated during the last few decades. A study on forest loss for entire Kerala (Prasad, 1998) indicates that between 1961 (10,820 km2) and 1988 (9,904 km2) forest loss was 8.4 %, at the average annual rate of 0.28 %. Another study (Ramesh et al, 1997) at landscape level shows that between 1920 and 1960, forest loss in Agastyamalai region accounts to 2.9 % with an annual deforestation rate of 0.07 %. During the following 30 years from 1960 to 1990 the forest loss increased to 9.9 % with an annual deforestation rate of 0.33 %. At present Kerala has 9,437 km2 (24 % of geographic area) of natural vegetation. Of this, primary forest types cover 4669 km2 (49 %) and, secondary and degraded forests constitute 4768 km2 (51 %) (Ramesh et al, 2003).

Forest management regime

4Management of forests in Kerala is a challenging task owing to the mounting anthropogenic pressure and the heterogeneity of land use and land cover. Until recently forest policies have remained as a colonial legacy with a characteristic commercial bias where forests are considered only as a source of revenue to the state exchequer. Biodiversity conservation and people’s dependence on forests were given only secondary importance.

5Traditionally the Forest Department manages forests through working and management plans. These plans are prepared for 10 year cycles for forest administrative units (Divisions). Each territorial division is divided into different ‘working circles’ (fire protection circle, bamboo extraction circle, Non Wood Forest Product- NWFP collection etc.) and little importance has been given to biodiversity conservation. Often some of these circles like NWFP working circle overlap with others, with a risk of exposing the biologically rich and sensitive areas to biomass removal.

6Management plans are prepared for Protected Areas (PAs) such as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. Kerala has 17 PAs covering 25 % of the state’s forest area. These protected areas are supposed to be the repositories of biological richness. The gap analysis performed with reference to the biodiversity indicator values (species richness and endemicity of flora and fauna, density of Rare, Endangered and Threatened-RET mammals and unique ecosystems), with the aid of Geographic Information System (GIS) and Remote sensing indicates that out of 5009 km2 (51 %) of high priority areas, only 22 % are inside the PAs while 78 % are outside and are potentially exposed to severe anthropogenic pressures (Ramesh et al, 2003). Moreover, out of 17 PAs, only half of them have more than 50 % of high priority areas in each. The study not only highlighted the gaps in biodiversity conservation, but also revealed that no clear biological or geographical reasons are followed while creating PAs.

7With the growing spectrum of stakeholders– indigenous/local communities, public sectors, private sectors, Non Government Organisations (NGOs), panchayathi raj institutions– and continuously evolving management policies on forests the existing dual forest management system (Working and Management plans) is inadequate to check the onslaught on forests. With the rapid changes in biological, socio-economic and cultural environment, it becomes relevant to adopt management strategies and practices that address environmental conservation, sustainable development and equitable access to forest resources by local communities.

Forest management policy

8The recent National Forest Policy and international agreements such as Convention of Biological Diversity and Johannesburg Summit have necessitated further integration of forest management and natural resource management. The concept of Participatory Forest Management (PFM) / Eco-development has been integrated into the prevailing management system in the State for about a decade. The existing management rules and regulations (e.g., Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) are found to be too rigid to accommodate the participatory approach, which results in certain shortfalls or conflicts in management. In order to address this conflict in management and heterogeneity in land cover vis á vis land use pattern, a holistic management at landscape level by including not only forest ecosystems, but also other biotic and abiotic factors may be necessary for the long-term conservation of biodiversity.

9A recent development in conservation ecology is characterised by a shift to management of ecosystems at the landscape level. This has redefined the priorities of forestry. The land managers have begun to acknowledge that ecosystems and landscape are dynamic and the succession processes operate on varied scales to maintain ecosystem and landscapes in a constant state of flux, and that this dynamism is essential for maintaining the biodiversity. Incorporation of this ‘dynamic view’ to forest management strategies has become a major challenge for forest managers.

Landscape approach

10Keeping in view of the present management scenario, the overall aim of the landscape approach proposed in this book is to promote conservation of biodiversity at the landscape level and sustainable use of natural resources by communities and other stakeholders, through the development of strategic landscape planning. Furthermore, to enhance the capacity of forest managers, the scientific underpinnings of landscape level management and the consequences of spatial heterogeneity to land-management decisions are elucidated.

11According to the principles of landscape ecology, the structure of a landscape element is patterned by the physical factors and modified by human activities (Turner et al, 2001). Thus the study was conceived in the light of the insights from emerging field of landscape ecology and organised in following three parts:

  1. Division of Kerala into different landscape units.
  2. Two adjacent landscape units thus derived, have been selected from an important biogeographic zone and conducted detailed studies taking into account the spatial heterogeneity and underlying dynamics of ecological and anthrpogenic processes. This part includes three major components: (a) geographical database of abiotic elements (b) analysis of spatial characteristics and ecological structure of vegetation and associated selected flora and fauna (c) human ecological appraisal of forest dependency and institutionalisation of stakeholder interests for landscape level conservation planning.
  3. Landscape management plan for spatially derived management zones; strategy and action plans to address overarching issues related to threat perception in the landscape and; an institutional mechanism to address the strategies.

12Following are the features of the approach sought to address each part that is described in different chapters in the book.

Identification of landscape units

13In landscape ecology spatial scales are not absolute. It does not define a priori, specific spatial scales that may be universally applied. Rather, the emphasis is to identify scales that best characterize relationship between spatial heterogeneity and the process of interest (Turner et al, 2001). In the present study, determination of landscape unit has been considered at the scale of the diverse landforms that are derived from the dynamics of geological processes like tectonic activities and erosion (Bourgeon, 1989). These landforms generally influence the bioclimate at macro and micro level, thus prompting the variations in ecological processes, which in turn determines the biodiversity of the region (Pascal, 1991). Based on this concept, the details of the criteria used and the mapping of landscape units using geomorphological features are given in Chapter 1.

Geographical database and analysis of landscape elements

14The number of landscape elements (abiotic and biotic) and their interactions determines the heterogeneity of any landscape. The study of these elements in terms of their characteristics and their response to environmental changes are important to understand the dynamics of the landscape. In the present work, although the dynamics of the different elements are not directly studied (which requires regular monitoring), however, attempts have been made to assess different situations of landscape elements from which inferences have been drawn on the impact of disturbance on biodiversity and socio-economic conditions of forest dependent communities.

15As the landscape ecology focuses explicitly on the spatial pattern, advanced technology in remote sensing, powerful GIS and spatial statistics are used in the study. In this technical environment, spatial and georeferenced information for specific domains in the form of cartographic files were prepared. These domains include: digital elevation model (DEM), geology and soil maps, bioclimatic maps, watershed and drainage, satellite image derived vegetation map, settlements and administrative units (forest division and wildlife sanctuaries).

16Based on the basic geographical database and related maps along with information from ground survey, thematic and management layers were prepared and analysed to develop management plans and institutional mechanism. The whole process of approach is as following and also shown schematically in Figure 1.

  • Abiotic factors were represented on maps of the geology, soil, relief, drainage and bioclimate, which were prepared using different sources of information (Chapter 2). From these basic layers, thematic maps indicating the zones of vulnerable soils to erosion and watershed areas were prepared. From these thematic layers critical areas for soil and water conservation zones were identified.

Fig 1: General approach for landscape analysis and management plan

  • Land cover and land use map (at 1: 50,000 scale) highlighting different vegetation types and its status was prepared using extensive ground truthing and satellite data (Chapter 3). Across these different vegetation types, sampling plots and transects were laid to assess the richness and diversity of flowering plants (Chapter 4) as well as richness, abundance and distribution of selected Rare, Endangered and Threatened (RET) vertebrate fauna (Chapter 5). The data thus obtained was analyzed with an emphasis on the critical status of habitats and species (endemics and RET). Furthermore, using these data sets, conservation importance of unique ecosystems, endemic zones and habitats of critical species were identified.
  • The human ecological component includes two distinct themes: (i) human ecological appraisal of the spatial patterns of subsistence (Chapter 6) and (ii) appraisal of the present mode of resource utilization and inquiry into alternate and sustainable modes of resource use (Chapter 7). Adivasi and non-adivasi settlements around the landscape were sampled through Rapid Appraisal techniques. Data on socio-economic variables and social history thus collected were analyzed to derive a typology of socio economic situations, which reflect their assets and portfolio choices that have a strong implication over their dependency on forests and sustainability of the resource use.

Landscape management plan

17Management plan proposed in the book is derived from the results of detailed studies conducted with special emphasis on biological and human ecological complexities. Before arriving at the management plans, as a precursor, the review of the present management system was made by consulting working and management plans, annual administrative reports and discussions with forest staff (Chapter 8). An attempt is also made to review current forest policies. Through these reviews, rationale of forest management is traced historically, continuities and disjunctions in the forest management objectives are discussed and the compatibilities and contradictions associated with the current challenges and requirements are listed.

18Management plan derived for the landscape is based on two sets of criteria- values and constraints. The landscape elements in the selected landscapes were evaluated: (i) based on the ecological value, which are determined by the successional status of forests, presence of unique ecosystems, habitat range of the selected RET mammals and birds (ii) based on resource value (like NWFP, bamboo, reeds and teak) either for human subsistence / survival or industrial consumption (Chapter 9). Soil and water, which are the constituents of ecosystem functioning and render their services to proximal and distant stakeholders is also valued in the zones where they are in critical status. In order to develop management plan and to understand the extent and size, these value-based components are mapped as management zones from the basic GIS layers on land cover and land use map and soil and watershed maps (Figure 1).

19The success of conservation of biological diversity and sustainable development of local communities in a landscape, depend on the way the constraints are being managed. There are many direct and indirect causes (or constraints) that lead to the loss of biological wealth due to degradation and fragmentation of habitats. The direct constraints are human induced actions that destroy the forests and their components; whereas, the indirect ones originate from the basic social, economic, political, cultural and historical features of the society impacting on biodiversity in various ways. To address these overarching constraints in the management plan, first, focus group discussions were conducted with the frontline staff of forest department. Based on their field experience, potential and existing threats to conservation in the landscape has been listed and prioritised by considering the frequency and extent of threats within their respective jurisdiction (Chapter 10). In the second step, each threat is addressed with a set of strategies and action plans that need to be implemented to mitigate the threat as well as its consequences particularly on the proposed value based management zones.

20Implementation of the strategies requires refashioning of the institutional priorities and practices. Institutions are instruments for coordinating individual expectations. Here, the sustainable management of the landscape is the collective expectation. Drawing on the insights from the human ecological appraisal and the stakeholder analysis, an institutional structure is recommended for the landscape. An institutional structure means a network of institutions coordinated by a key nodal institution; in this case the coordinating nodal agency is the forest department. The new PFM institutional forms such as Vana Samrakshana Samitis (VSS) or Forest Protection Committees and Eco-Development Committees are given priority while channelling the benefit-streams of conservation as an incentive to their participation. Though policy environment is conducive for participatory forest management, its implementation is impeded due to the indifference of the bureaucracy in the forest department. An attitudinal change in favour of the participatory management itself would require a massive retraining of the forest staff. So the issue of the institutionalisation is viewed as a continuing and evolutionary process rather than a one-time intervention. The last chapter of the book (Chapter 11) reflects on the various aspects on the institutionalisation of landscape level forest management.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig 1: General approach for landscape analysis and management plan
Fichier image/jpeg, 81k

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2007

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