Our work continued with a visit to the village of Dhalamukkai located about an hours drive from Kotagiri where the local savings group held their monthly meeting. The community faces a number of challenges when it comes to livelihoods, and as with many other villages in the area wildlife intrusions are a major concern. The farmers are set to start cultivating millets next year but they are worried about the damage caused by elephants and gaur. In addition, this years late rains have been a reminder that crops can fail. Read more about the Dhalamukkai visit here.
Back at the office we have settled in to the rhythm of the workplace. Keystone has a sort of relaxed but professional atmosphere where a sense of purpose, rather than rigid rules and structures, dictates the everyday workflow. It is a dynamic workplace where microscope-wielding biologists work shoulder to shoulder with social activists.
The Keystone campus is located on a hill opposite our house. Tea plantations on two sides and a eucalyptus forest on top of the hill surround it, and as is the case in most areas of Kotagiri the local wildlife recognizes human habitation as a nuisance but not an obstruction in their daily foraging. There are frequent sightings of gaur at the office and a few days ago Ida and I spotted a couple of barking deer rummaging in the tea. Coming back from the afternoon tea break a couple of days ago we suddenly realized that a wild boar was staring at us from about twenty meters away. It must have discovered us at the same time as it quickly scurried away into the tea bushes. The subsequent pig chase ended up on top of the hill with a fantastic late-afternoon view of the valley below….just another day at the Keystone office.
Ida and I, after a month-long wrestling match with Indian bureaucracy, have finally been able to go out into the field. Yesterday we went on our second trip to the Irula community of Bhangalapadugai, a village of around 45 households that has been severely affected by elephant intrusions in the last decade. The village is located about a 11/2 hour drive and 1000 meter elevation drop from Kotagiri. On our first visit we heard harrowing stories of near escapes from elephants and trampled crops. Three people have died in recent elephant attacks, a severe blow to such a small community.
Yesterdays visit was conducted as a joint venture between the Livelihoods/Environmental Governance and Conservation programs with the purpose of discussing the conditions, technical details, and eventual financial support toward the setting up of strategic elephant fences around the most exposed farmland in the area. Needless to say there were a lot of feelings invested in the meeting, considering the heavy losses inflicted by the animals. The meeting was held at the local Keystone-supported production center and a number of farmers attended. Women did attend but it was clear who held decision-making power. The gender dynamics of rural life in this part of India and how Keystone works with gender issues would be interesting to explore further, but I will leave that subject for now.
When it comes to these types of challenges the need for a holistic approach which cross cuts programmatic and thematic areas is apparent. The meeting therefore provided a positive insight into Keystones capacity and willingness to contribute with solutions to a marginalized community in order to come to terms with a massive problem in a sustainable way.
Other short updates: It has rained for five days straight, the fog is so thick that we invented a new game – “cow or Gaur” – when walking past bovine shadows in the mist, my clothes are getting moldy, the rats in my room have replaced the community alarm as my wake up call. Finally, tomorrow is Diwali so hopefully we can go somewhere to escape this rain cloud that we are literally living inside of right now. Despite the severe lack of dryness I am loving the Nilgiris and all it has to offer.
Exploring the nature in the Nilgiris is tremendously exiting for me. I have hardly been out in the forest at all but since everything from plants in the office campus to bugs and birds in my back yard are new acquaintances I have a nature experience everyday. In the Keystone campus there is always someone close by with a book on the endemic birds of the Nilgiris or stories of encounters with some of the local mammals. My knowledge of my surroundings is humble but thanks to all the knowledgeable staff of Keystone I’m learning bit by bit. Another source of information is the Newsletter of the Nilgiris Natural History Society.
In the first week in Kotagiri I read a piece written by Anita Varghese, working with the conservation programme at Keystone in the issue from June 2014. It was centred around trees and plants whose young leaves are red. In tropical climate the young leaves of plants are often red while turning green when aging. In temperate regions it is the other way around, the new leaves are green while the old ones turn red in the fall. The text described how the red colour works as a protection against animals that would want to eat the new leaves. You see, the red pigment makes the leaves less tasty for insects. Also, the insects cannot see colours in the red range of the light spectrum which would make the red leaves appear as dark or dead. After I read this article I see trees with young red leaves everywhere (and photo document every one of them naturally). I’m not sure why I find this particular little piece of the plant cycle so fascinating. Perhaps because the process is seemingly reversed from the deciduous trees of my native habitat.