- Now famous as the second constituency of Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi, in the Lok Sabha elections, Wayanad is an environmental hotspot and its fragile ecology is a matter of urgent concern.
- Forming part of the highly sensitive Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Wayanad has an almost unbroken link with tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries of Bandipur, Mudumalai, Nagarholai, BR Hills, Sathyamangalam and Silent Valley in neighbouring states.
- A focus point of last year’s floods in Kerala, Wayanad is also passing though a number of environmental issues created mainly by deforestation, irresponsible tourism, tribal land encroachments, human-animal conflicts and unscientific developmental initiatives.
Despite a scorching summer that rendered normal life miserable across Kerala, there are endless vistas of hillocks that remain draped in a canopy of green in the state’s north-eastern district of Wayanad. Ample shade cover is seen in many parts of the national highway stretch that goes through the scenic Wayanad hills, connecting the old lair of the Indian dacoit Veerappan, Kollaigal, in Tamil Nadu with Kerala’s coastal city Kozhikode. Even when the sun is at its peak, tourists stop their vehicles in these shaded areas, inspired by the picture postcard-like frames of the undulating hills and valleys.
The contrast between the lush district and the rest of the south India is seen right from Ponkuzhy, the entrance to Wayanad. February’s massive forest fires which erupted in the neighbouring states at Bandipur tiger reserve in Karnataka and Mudumalai tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu, devastating hundreds of acres of pristine forests and killing scores of wild animals, had not entered into the Wayanad forests of Kerala, which are in fact a continuation of the same reserves beyond state boundaries. Forming part of the highly sensitive Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Wayanad has an almost unbroken link with tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries of Bandipur, Mudumalai, Nagarhole, B.R. Hills, Sathyamangalam and Silent Valley.
“Undoubtedly it is one of the last remaining true wildernesses of India. The district still retains 30 percent of its total area as virgin unoccupied forests with amazing biodiversity in flora and fauna,’’ reminded Wayanad’s noted environmental activist N. Badusha.
However, he was quick to add that an environmental catastrophe is lurking beneath the green canopies.
Rahul Gandhi’s chosen turf
Now famous as the second constituency preferred by Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha elections, Wayanad and its fragile ecology are matters of urgent concern, said Badusha. “The region is now facing severe duress mainly as a result of change in land use patterns and large scale deforestation. A major focal point of last year’s floods, Wayanad is also passing though a number of environmental issues created mainly by deforestation, irresponsible tourism, tribal land encroachments, human-animal conflicts and unscientific developmental initiatives,’’ he added.
In fact, Wayanad is an integral part of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the eight “hottest hot-spots” of biological diversity in the world. “The election and Rahul Gandhi can divert national attention to the region. But as the residents of the region, we are concerned about the need of evolving a political initiative. That would help safeguard this beautiful ecosystem for future generations. The diverse wildlife and people the ecosystem supports must not be martyrs of the greed of tourism and land mafias,’’ said writer and filmmaker O.K. Johnny, who researched and published a set of books describing Wayanad’s ancient, medieval and contemporary history.
For long, the major threat to Wayanad’s ecology was the commercial supply of bamboo to a factory of Gwalior Rayons in Mavoor on the banks of Chaliyar River in Kozhikode. Gwalior Rayons was established in 1963 for the production of pulp and fibre and the Kerala government supplied bamboo at a special price of Re. 1 per tonne for three decades. This had wiped out the bamboo forests of Wayanad.
Shedding the ‘backward region’ tag
Though they have different political perspectives, a number of people in Wayanad are welcoming the arrival of Rahul Gandhi to their constituency hoping that it would help the region shed the ‘backward’ tag attached to it for decades. It is the only district in Kerala that found a place in the list of 115 backward districts of the country under the Aspirational District Programme of NITI Aayog.
“The arrival of a heavyweight politician can help us remove the tag. In a way, it is Kerala’s Vidharbha,” said K. Raveendran, a senior official at a public sector enterprise who returned to agricultural practice post-retirement, likening the agricultural situation in Wayanad to that of the drought-ridden region in Maharashtra that is infamous for farmers’ suicides.
“Hundreds of farmers here had committed suicide in the recent years because of indebtedness caused by the falling prices of cash crops, especially paddy, pepper, ginger and coffee. We are badly in need of a recovery,” he said. Untimely rains, rising heat, vanishing mist, disappearing birds and animals, and dying rivers have made the situation extremely bad in Wayanad.
Tourism and its impacts
Other than Rahul Gandhi’s chosen political turf, what brings national attention to Wayanad is tourism. The Kerala Tourism Department has been promoting Wayanad as one among the top 50 must-see destinations in the entire world and it has found a mention in international tourism lists as well. However, a number of experts say unregulated tourism can have harmful impacts on Wayanad.
A recent comprehensive study conducted by two social anthropologists from Germany has found that nature tourism is turning a severe challenge not just to the Wayanad region’s biodiversity and wildlife but also to its highly vulnerable tribal community. “As per the 2001 census, the population of scheduled tribes in Wayanad district is 17.43 percent of its total population as compared to 1.14 percent for Kerala overall. Introduced as a panacea for Wayanad’s agrarian and ecological crisis, tourism has resulted in ‘zooification’ and ‘exoticisation’ of tribals and that verges on racism,” observed the researchers Daniel Munster of Martin Luther University and Ursula Munster of Ludwig Maximilians. The findings of their six-year-long research activity reveal the other side of nature tourism, which has exploited tribal people and the environment in Wayanad.
Farm crisis in Wayanad
The study also finds that the settler cash-crop farmers of Wayanad “who hitherto used environmentally destructive capitalist farming processes, struggling against wildlife, Adivasis and the forest department, are now partially shifting to a post-agrarian economy that includes non-agrarian livelihoods and large-scale investment in tourism.”
“In their practice of nature tourism, they ironically value and commodify the same forests, wildlife and tribal people. These three elements were seen by them for many decades as obstacles to capitalist development,” said the study.
The prevailing agrarian crisis in Wayanad is the outcome of ‘de-peasantisation’ or transition from land-based livelihoods to market-based ones, say experts. The low productivity of degraded agricultural fields forces small holders to sell their land, making it available for real-estate investors, who have been responsible for the mushrooming of cottages and resorts that block elephant corridors and water sources.
Moreover, ginger cultivation has brought new agrarian capital which is further invested in tourism that has landed up being exploitative to local communities. Ginger cultivators from Wayanad have expanded their cultivation to southern and western Karnataka regions (especially Kodagu, Hassan, Mysore and Chikmangalur regions). They take land on lease there to cultivate and it takes just about six months for a bumper harvest of ginger. The profit they earn in these places returns to Wayanad in the form of investment in tourist resorts.
According to multiple studies, the land reforms initiated by successive governments in the state had very little redistributive effect in Wayanad. “It legalised large-scale land grabbing by settlers and bypassed claims of the Adivasi population. Now tourism is helping commodification of Wayanad’s nature and culture for middle-class consumption,” reported Daniel Munster in his study.
Farmers committing suicide is not even news here anymore. It happens every year. The latest one was that of 55-year-old Krishnakumar at Kattikulam on March 24. Only large-scale coffee growers are assured of a safe crop.
The tribal hamlets of Wayanad are now turning into ‘ethnic village zoos’ where Adivasi images are preserved on the same conceptual level as elephant encounters and other wildlife adventures, said Sumesh Mangalassery, founder and promoter of Kabani – The Other Direction, a responsible tourism initiative that exposes social and cultural implications of large scale tourism.
Unlike in the past, Wayanad is now prone to large scale landslides, landslips and land subsidence which result in disfiguring slopes and making large tracts of land unstable. The last year’s flood was the first of its kind that thrown normal life out of the gear in almost all parts of the district. Geological experts confirm that the nature and intensity of the calamity last year in the district was alarming.
According to soil conservation officials, analysis of the geological calamities shows the vulnerability of the 80 km-long Western Ghats mountain ridge from Brahmagiri in the north to Sugandhagiri and Vythiri in the west. These reaffirm the findings of the Madhav Gadgil Committee report which said that unscientific constructions had caused enormous damages to the flora and fauna of Wayanad.
Majority of the areas deluged in last year’s flood in Wayanad were cited as fragile by the Madhav Gadgil Committee report eight years ago, recommending a complete ban on mining, construction activities and use of land for non-forest purposes. But the report of the committee, known as the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), was junked by the policymakers.
Post floods in Kerala, what is most worrying is the large number of land subsidence, or sinking or settling of land due to loss of sub-surface support, which has destroyed houses and caused long cracks on hill slopes.
While land subsidence is caused by the high-intensity rainfall during monsoon days, landslides were exacerbated by man-made factors like unscientific land use and cutting the toe of the hills for construction and land mining, making them unstable. Additionally, first and second order streams, 70 percent of which have vanished over the past 45 years due to encroachments, also contributed to the occurrence of natural hazards, according to Wayanad district soil conservation officer P.U. Das
Indiscriminate construction, road formation and filling up of paddy fields is also contributing to the worrying situation in Wayanad.
Increasing human-wildlife conflicts are another matter of concern in Wayanad. Large scale protest marches were organised in the last three years demanding government permission to shoot down tigers and elephants. The riskiest job in Wayanad is now that of animal trackers under the forest department, who set out to locate raiding elephants and tigers that threaten human settlements inside Wayanad wildlife sanctuary.
In the last eight months, half a dozen people were killed in tiger attacks in Wayanad. Lone tigers were sighted in human areas 18 times and nearly a score of cattle was reported lost to them, according to environmental organisation Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithy.
According to district officials, Wayanad used to receive 2,322 mm average rainfall annually. Now it has reduced significantly.
The tea and coffee plantations over pristine forests, started by Britishers post Second World War, had started altering the land use patterns in Wayanad. The migration of settlers from central Travancore since 1950, searching for agriculture land, had turned the situation worse.
Though pushed to the boundaries, tribal people constitute 17.1 percent of the population in Wayanad, the largest tribal area of Kerala, as per the Kerala government’s official figures.
“Many plantations in Wayanad remain toxic hubs due to the indiscriminate spraying of hazardous pesticides. It has been found that the use of banned pesticides has gone up considerably in the ginger farms of Wayanad,” said S. Geetha, a social worker in Kalpetta.
Even as the Agriculture Department had laid down guidelines on the safe use of pesticides, plantation owners tend to ignore this. Vengoor in Sulthan Bathery Municipality, Varayal in Muttil panchayat, Periya, Thavinjal and Alattil in Mananthavady Municipality are reportedly some of the localities where excessive use of toxic pesticides is common place.
The widespread use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has resulted in irreparable damage to Wayanad’s fragile ecosystem, resulting in a plethora of problems ranging from health issues to toxic pollution of local water bodies, soil, air and groundwater. Incidentally, Wayanad tops the state’s infant mortality and maternal death rates and a study had revealed that the overuse of pesticides was the major reason for the infant mortality rate.
Additionally, the use of pesticides is linked to disappearing wildlife prey. Many farmers confirm that foxes which once roamed around in the region have simply vanished from Wayanad. “Overuse of pesticides in banana plantations might have killed the prey of foxes resulting in their disappearance. We have not seen foxes in local forests for 20 years,” said P.V. Dinesh, a farmer in Kalpetta. According to him, certain species have vanished but some new varieties of birds and animals, normally seen only in warm weather, have arrived.
Banner image: Rahul Gandhi’s choice for the Lok Sabha elections is Wayanad, an environmental hotspot in Kerala. Photo by Rasheed Image.