Recently, I have been interviewing farmers in the lower/middle Palanis when I came across a very interesting patch of farm lands.
About 20 minutes’ drive from Thandikudi village is the north eastern limit of the Kodaikanal Wildlife sanctuary. A ten minute walk inside the forest and you enter the village Perunganal, where 110 acres of ‘patta’ land is completely surrounded by the forest. It is home to twenty families, each owning 2 – 14 acres where coffee, pepper, beans and banana are grown.
Muthupandi, who lives in Perunganal tells me that 6 – 7 families have left their land fallow and moved out of the village. He says that they previously had to deal with gaur and wildboar raiding their crops but this year, their wildest fear had come true. About 6 months ago, elephants destroyed their crops, especially banana. This has never happened before and now its become a regular affair. According to Thavasi who owns 10 acres, a huge elephant entered his field and destroyed about 300 banana trees. Thavasi had another 500 trees removed the next day so that the elephant wouldn’t come back!
If farmers have to now protect their crops from elephants, Muthupandi says there definately won’t be any farming in the hills in the coming years!
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.
Kilanavayal, a small village 8 kilometers north of Manavanur and close to 42 kilometers from Kodaikanal town is different from all the other villages I have visited so far in the past 5 months. Agriculture being their primary source of income, 120 households and their fields are wedged between not one but two wildlife sanctuaries, Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary and the Indira Ghandi Wildlife Sanctuary. This beautiful village with stunning views of rolling hills has no bus route and feels completely cut off.
Peas, beans ,carrots and banana are the usual crops grown in this village. Crops are regularly raided by gaur, barking deer, wild boar and porcupine. Peacocks are a recent addition to the list where farmers feel they destroy the peas seeds. This is the first instance that I have come across peacocks as crop raiders in the upper Palanis. People believe that the forest department have introduced hundreds of peacocks in the forest after the wildlife sanctuary was declared. Interestingly, fields bordering the wildlife sanctuaries are cultivated only once a year, between September and January. Potato is cultivated and once it’s harvested the land is fallow for the rest of the year. Lack of water and regular crop raiding from animals is the reason for this.
During this potato harvest season ( about 2 months ago) a herd of wild elephants raided the fields bordering the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary in Kilanavayal destroying almost 75 percent of the crop as well as bringing down sheds. Elephants are not common in this area and farmers are scared that their main livelihood option might not be vialble if elephants frequent their fields too.
If you live in the Palani Hills, 'Kombai' is a word that will often hear. One interesting aspect of agriculture practiced in the Upper Palanis included the use of kombais. Villages in the Upper Palanis (above 1500 meters) usually have an assigned region called the Kombai. The Kombai is generally at a lower altitude than the village, with warmer weather and a good water source. In some cases it constitutes marsh land ideal for paddy cultivation. Since many of the villages were located at higher altitudes, land closer to the village was unsuitable for crops like finger and foxtail millet and paddy which were the main crops grown in the past. And so, people would walk to their Kombai where conditions were favourable to grow these crops. For instance Pallangi village is at an altitude of 1650m and the Pallangi kombai lies between 1400m and 1000m.
However things have changed drastically in the last 30 to 40 years. According to Shanmugam, a Mannadiar from Vilpatti, previously, crops like paddy, finger millet, little millet and foxtail millet formed the bulk of their produce. However in more recent times cash crops like carrots, potatoes and radish have taken over their fields. Shanmugam explains that cash crops can be harvested several times in a year, thereby providing a better income. Since the cash crops can be grown closer to the villages at higher altitudes, the kombai regions remain mostly unused.
For instance, Amuda, a resident from Poombarai, explained that although her family owns 2 acres of land in the Kombai and only 1 acre near the village, the kombai remains fallow at most times because it takes them 2 hours to walk to their land which makes it impractical. Residents of Poondi shared that they feared attacks and destruction of their crops by wild animals like the gaur (Bos gaurus) and wild boars (Sus scrofa cristatus) in the kombai.
However, in the past 40 years, much of the Kombai lands which were left fallow by the traditional communities are now being bought over and farmed by people from the nearby plains. Coffee, hill banana,beans and silk cotton are some of the crops which are cultivated now, with elephants, gaur and wild boar paying regular visits to these farms.
The seemingly harmless, beautiful national bird of India - the peacock is a frequent crop raider in the foothills of the Palani hIlls. Muruguvel, a farmer in kudhareyar dam village says the peacock numbers have increased over the years and there has been an increase in the incidences of peacocks destroying crops in the region. Peacocks eat a wide range of foods including berries, seeds, small reptiles and insects. Muruguvel shows me the sacks of peas seeds he had sown in his farm and peacocks destroyed almost a quarter of the seeds sown, by either eating them or digging them up in search of insects in the ground. According to a report in The Times of India in 2012, peacocks on an average destroy about 10 percent of the crops in Coimbatore district.
Unlike the wild boar and gaur, peacocks raid crops during the day. Between the birds and the animals, farmers in Kudhreyar have to watch their fields at all times to protect their crops.
This month, I made a trip to the foothills of the Palani Hills, about 100kms from Kodaikanal and 30kms from the town of Palani – Kudareyar Dam.
Fields surrounded by forests on three sides result in a wide variety of animals interacting with people, much more than the hills. About 30 interviews have been mapped in the picture below. Apart from gaur and wildboar, which are common in the hills, Elephants, spotted deer, sambar deer, barking deer and peacocks also contribute towards crop raiding.
The above picture shows the pattern of crop raiding by wildboar, gaur,elephant and deer.
The Palani Hills, besides having a variety of natural landscapes, is also home to a wide range of agricultural practices. Understanding these practices is crucial to understanding the local human wildlife interactions.
The early inhabitants of the Palani Hills cultivated various types of millets and paddy, mostly for their sustenance along with cash crops like garlic and banana. These crops would be carried down the hills by horses or as head loads for trade to the plains and en route villages.
However things have changed drastically in the last 30 to 40 years. According to Shanmugam, from Vilpatti, in the olden days, crops like paddy, finger millet, little millet and foxtail millet formed the bulk of their produce. However in more recent times, in the upper Palanis, cash crops like carrots, potatoes and radish have taken over their fields. Shanmugam explains that cash crops can be harvested several times in a year, thereby providing a sustained income.
Agricultural practices in the middle and lower hills differ somewhat from those in the upper hills. Although crops like millets and paddy did form a part of their produce, these areas were also largely taken up by big plantations which grew coffee and banana.
These plantations were first established under colonial rule in the mid nineteenth century. The first coffee plantation was established in 1836 in the lower Palanis. Although cardamom was being cultivated in small quantities by people in the villages, they became a part of big plantations by the end of the century (Norstrom, 2003, 29). Influenced by the plantations, people also took to growing crops like coffee, banana cardamom and pepper. Today, traditional crops have disappeared both from the upper and lower hills and have been replaced by a variety of cash crops.
Typically, in the upper Palanis, crops like carrot, potato and peas need no canopy. Below is a picture of Kukkal village and the agricultural fields surrounded by the KWS. Gaur, sambardeer, wild boar and monkeys are frequent visitors to agriculture fields. Although wild boars and monkeys come to fields close to the village and venture much further from the forest, instances of Sambar deer eating crops is restricted to fields adjoining the KWS border. Gaur on the other hand venture further than the deer but are chased away much before the fields nearing the villages. According to Murugan in Poombarai village, Gaurs are spotted much before wild boars and are chased into the forest.
Adukkam village on the other hand is lower than Kukkal village ( about 1300m). Coffee, pepper, banana, orange and lemon are the main crops grown here. The fields in Adukkam closely resemble the forest around them in terms of tree cover and canopy. The picture below shows no distinction between agriculture land and the forest. Here, although sambar deer and barking deer are seen raiding crops adjoining the forest they rarely venture past that, Gaur and wild boar are able to easily venture into the fields, move from one field to another with less chance of being spotted, and therefore are able to enter fields very close to the villages.
In the coming months, we hope to find many more correlations to better understand the interactions between humans and wildlife in the Palani hills.
The town of Kodaikanal situated in the Palani Hills, is surrounded by villages, some which are about 500 to 600 years old. Agriculture was and still is the primary revenue source for the inhabitants of these villages. An hour’s drive from the hill station, in any direction, will get you to beautifully cut terraced fields of carrots, radish and garlic to name a few. Palani Hills is also home to many animals that find these crops irresistible! So what have local communities done to protect their crops?
Today there are many different kinds of fences farmers use to protect their crops. Rich farmers use electric fencing or chain link fences, smaller farmers however, use traditional, low cost options to keep away wild boars, gaurs and deer from raiding crops. Interestingly, one of them is a sari! Saris are often seen tied along the fence in many villages in the region. According to Chedumani, who owns 2 acres of land in Poondi village, colourful saris blind wild boars and they run away. Another farmer, Vijayan from Kukkal, says animals look at the saris and mistake them for people and run away.
In fact, this unique use of a sari has given rise to a new market in places like Kodaikanal and Palani. Old saris are sold for as little as Rs 5 just so they can be used for fencing. Farmers say, this method costs less than half the cost of conventional fences liked barbed wire or chain link fencing. A 2 acre farm would cost approximately Rs 20,000 to fence. But a sari fence would cost less than Rs 5000.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), New Delhi too agrees with the experience of farmers. In fact they claim that this technique can minimize damage by wild boars to crops by 45%-60%. (Pawan Kumar Agrawal, Abraham Verghese, Sindhu Radhakrishna, Kesavan Subaharan: Human Animal Conflict in Agro-Pastoral Context: Issues & Policies, ICAR 2016).
However, Prabhakar from Kukkal disagrees. According to him no fence can really stop wild boar or gaur from entering a field if they really wanted to. All fences do is to temporarily halt the animal by which time domestic dogs bark to alert the farmer, so he/she can chase the animal away. Prabhakar thinks, in this regard, the sari fence is as good as any other.
1. Dhruv Athreye in February 2018 began a survey of mammals in the Palani Hills and is publishing notes of his field work.