In the past few months, I have covered areas which include the Paliyans, the indigenous population of the Palani Hills. When I was surveying in the Adukkam area, two Paliyan villages – Palamalai and Thamarakulam were enroute. I had to walk through these villages to agriculture fields which were bordering the wildlife sanctuary. I had to cross Manathevu while surveying Poolathur area and Kadagathadi village for the Thandikudi survey. I stayed very close to a Paliyan village while surveying Kudereyar and many nights were spent talking to Mariamma akka, a middle aged Paliyan woman.
It is clear that these indigenous communities continue to depend on the forest for both sustenance and income. However this dependence varies from village to village due to several reasons. For instance, factors like market forces, dynamics with local forest department officials and availability of land for agriculture all affect the communities’ interactions with the forest.
Villages like Palamalai claim little or no dependence on forest produce collection whereas in villages like kadagathadi, MFP collection is one of their major sources of income. Palamalai and Tamarakulam, two Paliyan villages are inside and bordering the St Michael’s estate respectively. While the estate remains the biggest employer for both villages, people of Tamarakulam are engaged in MFP collection and people in Palamalai are not.
According to Christer Norstrom, 41 different MFPs were leased out to private contractors in the Kudhiriyar area in 1994. “The collection of MFP became the most popular source of cash among the Paliyans. If we include firewood collection, 26 families out of a total of 31, obtained their main income, or a substantial part of it, from this source in 1994.” (2003, 62-71)
Collecting lichen from trees is a year round livelihood option and both men and women go for moss collection. The Lichen is sold to private buyers in Pachalur town or Thandikudi town for Rs 150 – 200 per day. On a good day, a single person can collect about 3 to 4kgs of lichen. Once collected, it is sun dried outside their homes and sold.
During the months of May, June and July, honey collection is a huge source of income. Honey is collected from 4 species of honey bees – Apis Dorsata (Giant rock bees), Apis Cerana (Asian Honey Bees) Apis Floria (Little honey bee) and Trigonna spp (Dammer or stingless bees). Although all 4 are collected, only the first two varieties are traded. The rock bee honey is sold at Rs 250 – 350 per litre and the cerana honey is sold at Rs 400 – 500 per litre. Honey is sold locally to people from other nearby villages. It is also sold in bulk to people from Madurai, Chennai and Bangalore.
45 Paliyan families live in Kudereyar dam village. At any given time, except the monsoon months, 25 – 30 families trek into the forest to collect phoenix grass. Phoenix grass is collected to make brooms and is sold to nearby traders in Palani village. They stay in the forest for upto 20 days, collect enough grass and send it down on donkeys.
Every morning, on my way to a village, I pass groups of women walking to the forest. If Poombarai falls on the route, a large group of about 15 – 20 women always stop me and invite me for tea and now I make sure to take some biscuits with me. Collecting firewood is almost always done by women in fairly large groups. In one of the tea meetings, I was told that a gaur had attacked a woman while collecting firewood about 2 years ago and she had succumbed to her injuries a few days later. Large groups provide safety from animals in the forest. The spot where I usually meet them in the morning is about 45 minutes to 1 hour walk from Poombarai town and from there it is easily about an hour to where they collect firewood from. Every day these women walk about 3 – 4 hours and half that distance is with 35 – 40kgs on their heads. Most of the women in this group collect firewood for their own consumption, but a few women collect to sell as well. A typical ‘katta’ (bundle of wood weighing about 35 to 40kgs)will fetch about rs 200 – 250. They tell me that they leave their homes at 9 in the morning and come back at about 2 in the afternoon. This is better than the full day’s work if they were working as agriculture labourers in others fields where the same amount of money is paid for more work.
Firewood is the biggest source of cooking fuel in the villages in the Palani Hills. More than 70 percent of households surveyed depend solely on firewood for their daily cooking requirements and only less than 16 percent say they use other options like gas and induction stoves. A household with upto 4 people on an average use 6 kattas ( approximately 200kgs) a month, 5 to 8 people use 7.5 kattas ( approximately 260kgs) a month and 9 – 12 people use more than 9 kattas(315 kgs) a month. There for each household on an average uses anywhere between 200 – 300 kgs of firewood every month.
In the upper Palanis, in addition to cooking, firewood is used as heating at night in cold winter months. Also, Garlic is an important crop in the upper Palanis. Firewood is also used to produce smoke to cure the garlic. These dependencies are not seen in the lower and the middle Palanis. The most preferred wood for the upper Palanis is wattle and eucalyptus. Although most dried wood is collected, these are preferred. Lantana and silk cotton are more common source of firewood in the lower and the middle hills.
1. Dhruv Athreye in February 2018 began a survey of mammals in the Palani Hills and is publishing notes of his field work.