By KA Shaji

Mananthavady, a major town of Kerala’s northern district Wayanad which shot into the national limelight in the recent months after emerging as the chosen parliamentary constituency of Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, witnessed a rare kind of protest on 24 October when over 3,000 local people formed a human chain declaring that they would not allow the conversion of a 21 hectare-pristine local forest land to a monoculture teak plantation.

The human chain comprising both adivasis (tribal people) and settler farmers was unanimous in its demand to the Kerala government’s forest department to abandon their plan of clearing the natural forest land in the Thrissilery section of the Begur forest range. What fomented the protest was a recent order issued by the chief conservator of forest (northern Kerala circle) permitting to clear-fell 21 hectares of forest in the first phase to raise a monoculture teak plantation.

“We will not allow this to happen. A dense forest had naturally developed in the area over the last 60 years after the department had attempted to raise a teak and softwood plantation in the plot. It was in 1958 when the plantation was started after clear-felling. Though the department had planted teak, elavu and matti trees in the area that time, the majority of the planted trees had perished and the area became a dense forest with native tree species far outnumbering the planted species over the years. In this age of climate change, we are keen to protect our remaining forest wealth,” said VR Praveej, municipal chairman of Mananthavady.

He said it may sound strange to outsiders when urban residents form a human chain to protect a forest in their locality.

The floods and landslides which occurred in the last two years have ruined a major portion of Wayanad. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.
The floods and landslides which occurred in the last two years have ruined a major portion of Wayanad. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.

But we have no other option as we are climate change refugees.

Mananthavady was one of the worst affected areas of heavy floods that occurred during the month of August in 2018 and 2019.

Until now, such a protest for forest protection involving the local community was a rarity in Wayanad, where the interests of the local settler farmers and green activists always remained on a collision course. Wayanad was the epicentre of the series of protests a few years ago against the recommendations of the expert panel on the Western Ghats ecology led by Madhav Gadgil.

The local community has even conducted marches and roadblocks demanding the killing of tigers and elephants which engage in crop raids as a result of habitat destruction. The district has recently witnessed a series of protests against a ban on night traffic on the forest stretch of the National Highway-766, a key route between Mysore in Karnataka and Kozhikode in Kerala, that passes through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala.

Although the night ban was first enforced a decade ago, the sudden trigger for the latest agitation that hogged national attention was a recent Supreme Court direction to the central government environment ministry to suggest alternative routes so that NH 766 could be shut down permanently. Since then, Wayanad has witnessed an ongoing indefinite hunger strike and several protest marches. The protest had ended only after Karnataka and the union government had made it clear that the permanent closure of the highway stretch was not on their agenda.

Rahul Gandhi, who was elected as a member of parliament from the constituency during the 2019 parliamentary elections, had also visited his constituency and supported the youth fasting against the night ban on traffic.

“I stand in solidarity with the youth on an indefinite hunger strike since 25 September protesting against the daily nine hour traffic ban on NH-766 that has caused immense hardship to lakhs of people in Kerala and Karnataka. I urge the central and state governments to safeguard the interests of local communities while upholding our collective responsibility to protect our environment,” Gandhi had tweeted.

In 2019 parliamentary elections, Congress-led alliance had won 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala of which Congress alone had won 15. But on this issue, all parties seem to have come together.

“As far as the lifting of the travel ban on NH-766 is concerned, there is a broader unity among political and social organisations in Wayanad. During the protests, our representative went on a hunger fast along with those from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. We will remain united in the future as well,’’ said a top leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Kerala legislative assembly member CK Saseendran.

Wayanad's climate is getting erratic

Wayanad-based environmentalist G Balagopal explains that Wayanad is one of the major places in south India where the impacts of climate change are being acutely felt.

The floods and landslides which occurred in the last two years have ruined a major portion of Wayanad.

A house destroyed by landslides in Wayanad. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.
A house destroyed by landslides in Wayanad. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.

“Here, complete recovery and rehabilitation continue to remain a mirage. So the people are anxious and now there is a renewed public affinity to conservation and environmental activities. The Mananthavady protest must be viewed in that background,” Balagopal said.

At Puthumala, a plantation area where a major landslide occurred during the floods of August 2019 killing 12 people and washing away 80 households, 63-year-old agricultural worker women Biyyathu Seidalavi said she had reasons to believe that the district once known for its rich flora and fauna is dying.

“There was no respite from rains ever since they started playing spoilsport during July last. There might not be any break between the southwest monsoon and northeast monsoon. Though the rains came very late, they continue to lash heavily on the district affecting adversely our agriculture calendar. Cash crops are getting badly affected because of the continuing rains. Landslides are now a recurring phenomenon and people are really getting scared,” she said.

Gopinath Parayil, a promoter of responsible tourism who recently shifted his base to Chundale in Wayanad, remarked that it seems that “Wayanad is now under the grip of a very serious climate crisis.”

“Livelihood and food security are getting challenged along with the safety of dwelling places and lands for cultivation. Indiscriminate human interferences on the environment and forests are turning a contributing factor. Unscientific mono-cropping, mindless tourism and greedy real estate business had ruined Wayanad already. Now climate change is making the destruction complete,” he said.

Bordering both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka on the Western Ghats, Wayanad had emerged as a tourist spot in recent years due to its unique landscapes dotted with pristine forests, coffee and cardamom estates, paddy fields and crystal-clear streams and rivulets.

Landslide have become an annual affair in Wayanad. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.
Landslide have become an annual affair in Wayanad. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.

As per the Kerala government’s tourism department, 8,995 foreign tourists and 815,624 domestic tourists visited Wayanad during 2018.

Known for large scale human-wildlife conflicts, Wayanad has a long story of settlers from other parts of the state arriving and encroaching on precious forest lands to set up plantations filled with cash crops. Now farmers state that all are in crisis because of the unpredictability of rains and dry days. While heavy rains are showering in most of the areas, some parts of Wayanad are facing an acute shortage of drinking water.

According to Najal Kumar, a Supreme Court lawyer who hails from Neervaram in Wayanad, it seems the normal rain pattern has been destroyed forever. “Farmers across the region had maintained a monsoon calendar intact for over 100 years to decide on the cultivation of crops. That calendar now remains completely irrelevant,” he said.

“The situation seems frightening. Climate change is a reality in Wayanad and it is increasing the magnitude of extreme weather events. The rains may be followed by droughts. Areas like Pulppally and Mullankolly which share a border with Karnataka are already in the grip of drought. We have to use our natural resources judiciously,” says PU Das, district soil conservation officer of Wayanad.

Rainfall pattern has changed

Among the farmers in Wayanad, there is an old tale that involves both the representatives of British East India Company and Zamorin, the then ruler of Northern Kerala to which Wayanad belonged. When the company officials attempted to take away pepper vines from Wayanad to replant in their native land, the Zamorin said to have told the officials that only the vine they can take away; not the climate. He was indicating about the peculiar climate situation of Wayanad with equal amounts of rain and shine that facilitate the easy growth of pepper.

In Wayanad, agriculture has always been climate dependent. Even small changes in soil temperature and moisture levels can adversely affect the yield. In the last two years, the production of cash crops such as pepper, tea, coffee, areca nut and cardamom in Wayanad have taken a major hitEven the cultivated areas are shrinking. Most of the plantations located in the high-altitude valleys are under the threat of landslides.

“As per the pattern visible in the last few years, there would not be any rain in the early phase of the south-west monsoon in June and July (southwest monsoon begins in Kerala on 1 June every year). Then the rains are happening by August with a high frequency which impacts the maturation of a variety of crops. The rains are continuing till the end of December and a dry season would start after that,” said Balagopal.

According to Gopinath, the climate crisis is now a reality and it would be very difficult for Wayanad to escape from its grip.

Annual floods and landslides in Wayanad have made complete recovery and rehabilitation a mirage. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.
Annual floods and landslides in Wayanad have made complete recovery and rehabilitation a mirage. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.

“We have no option other than adapting to the given situation. The government and social organisations are duty-bound to ensure climate literacy for the local community. Everything must change and that includes our attitude to land use, tourism promotion and farming practices. Sustainable models that survived climate change threats in other parts of the world must be replicated here. Floods and landslides are now turning an annual affair. So a permanent risk reduction facility must be ensured here,” he demanded.

Implement district master plan

Experts are demanding a strict implementation of the Wayanad Master Plan which is in cold storage at present. Prepared by the district administration after consulting experts, it demands a blanket ban on multi-storeyed buildings, mainly apartment complexes and posh hotels.

In the case of tourism, there is increasingly a demand to study the carrying capacity of the district. Wayanad remains overcrowded with tourists and their vehicles mainly on weekends. The tourism infrastructure development also must be at par with the normal genuine requirements of the local community, experts say.

“There are several factors that need to be seriously addressed if we have to reduce the occurrence and intensity of natural calamities in Wayanad. Studies indicate that the inter-annual variability of the monsoon rainfall is likely to increase in the coming years. They would cause both floods and droughts erratically. In addition to this, the duration of monsoon is also likely to change. The onset could be early and retreat can be delayed, leading to a longer duration of rainfall,” said climate researcher Abhijith Venugopal, a native of Wayanad and working presently with Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Venugopal stated that significant portions of Wayanad comprise of structural hills and eroded plateaus, two geological features that rank high across the world in the landslide susceptibility estimation. “In addition to this, changing monsoon with extreme precipitation becoming more frequent, and the presence of steep slopes, can aggravate the debris flow and landslide in the next coming years,” he added.

Experts also believe that open-pit quarries in the area are another cause of concern because they act as a trigger for landslides and thus they feel vigilant quarry maintenance is crucial.

Unscientific mono-cropping, mindless tourism and greedy real estate business had already ruined Wayanad and now climate change is completing the cycle of destruction. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.
Unscientific mono-cropping, mindless tourism and greedy real estate business had already ruined Wayanad and now climate change is completing the cycle of destruction. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.

As Wayanad is a place where nature and the livelihood of people are intertwined, displacement of the people from the hillsides may not be a proper solution.

“The best way is helping them to adapt to the changes. Measures for this can be of both short-term and long-term. An immediate requirement is the zonation of the landslide hazard areas in the district. By doing this, a clear idea of the most vulnerable to least vulnerable areas can be derived. Another measure is to have a firm building protocol based on the zone of hazard. The success rate of all these measures depends on how effectively people, and the various departments such as geology, soil conservation, meteorology, civil engineering and agriculture are coming together and taking each other into confidence,” observed Abhijith.

Banner image: A banana cultivator’s plantation destroyed by floods in Wayanad. Photo by Abhijith Madhyamam.

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This article was originally published on Mongabay.com.

Mongabay-India is an environmental science and conservation news service. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons licence.

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