TO PROTECT AND SAVE KODAGU-LAND OF CAUVERY

Introduction

1. Kodagu, a small district of Karnataka, is situated along the Western Ghats and has an area of just 4108 sq Kms. Kodagu is perhaps one of the most important districts of India as it is the Principal catchment of River Cauvery. Kodagu provides almost fifty percent of the total inflow into Cauvery, and the three major tributaries of Cauvery also originate in the Western Ghat evergreen hill forests of Kodagu. Cauvery is the lifeline of South India and provides water to over 80 million people and 600 major industries across the region. The food, water and economic security of Southern India hinges largely on Cauvery River. It is therefore in the National Interest to preserve the Kodagu landscape and protect its ecosystems. The landscape of Kodagu comprises about 32 % forests, 30% coffee plantations under shade and 12% wetlands. The area also has numerous fast flowing streams in the hills with more gentle rivulets and rivers in the valleys. The forests are rich in both faunal and floral diversity, while the coffee estates with over 300 trees per hectare, produce almost 40% of India’s coffee. It is for consideration that apart from being the principle catchment for River Cauvery, Kodagu also regulates and influences the climate of the region.

It is a matter of deep concern that this diverse and unique landscape of Kodagu is under severe stress due to a variety of factors. Protecting Kodagu throws up several challenges and also provides splendid opportunities that could be replicated in similar eco regions along the Western Ghats. For ease of explanation, the eco-systems of Kodagu could be dealt with separately and the problems and the possible solutions could be enumerated accordingly. The Kodagu landscape may be listed as below:

[a] Forests
[b] Coffee plantations
[c] Wet lands
[d] Rivers and streams

2. The forests of Kodagu can be further subdivided into the Western Ghat Evergreen Forests and the moist deciduous forests or the Eastern Belt Forests.

Evergreen forests in the west have to be protected from timber smuggling, from across the Kerala Border. There is also the threat of Hydro electric projects coming up on the fast flowing streams that flow down from these hills. Pressure of invasive tourism is also taking a toll on these forests. The forests must also be protected from linear projects such as national highways and railways that will cut large swathes through these precious evergreen forests.

The Eastern Belt forests have largely been converted to teak monoculture and the moist deciduous regime has been replaced largely by a dry deciduous regime. This has led to reduced fodder for wildlife, resulting in increase of Human elephant conflict, increased incidence of Forest fires, change in the micro climate of the area and depletion of ground water tables. Heavy traffic through the forest roads of Nagarahole cause severe disturbance to wildlife.

Forest dwellers act has not been implemented in the true spirit of the Act. The number of ‘forest dwellers’ has swelled dramatically. The forest department is unable to keep a proper control on the amount of land that is actually being occupied in the forests. Moreover, many of the settlements are deep inside the forests and further damage is done to the forests for constructing roads, electricity lines etc to the settlements. The increased disturbance caused in the forests due to faulty implementation of the Act has resulted in a steep increase in Human Elephant Conflict in Kodagu during the past decade.

As in the case of the Western Ghat evergreen forests, the Eastern belt forests are also set to lose large areas owing to linear development projects. A 5Km corridor has been felled for the sake of a 400KV Mysore-Khozikode Power line last year. In the Somwarpet taluk area North of Cauvery, forests have been decimated and fragmented due to human pressure combined with the construction of the Chiklihole dam and the Harangi dam. This has led to severe Human elephant conflict in the Somwarpet area. A herd of about forty elephants roam the area, without access to proper corridors for movement. There is now a cry to trans-locate the entire herd. In effect, the emerging trend is to target the species rather than manage the habitat.

Measures for better forest management

The precious forests of Kodagu cannot be subjected to further degradation. Some of the important measures to taken are as follows:

There has to be a strict ban on any further development project through the Evergreen Western Ghat forests of Kodagu. The entire stretch of the Western Ghat forests of Kodagu should be notified as one contiguous Wildlife Sanctuary to enable better management and protection.

Forest Land Restoration and Forest Protection

Teak monoculture in the Eastern Belt forests of Kodagu has to be phased out through a time-bound project of Forest Land Restoration, so that the original forest regime is reinstated. There is both a need and scope for stationing an Ecological Territorial Army Unit in Kodagu. About 50acres of army land is available at Galibeedu near Madikeri. The unit could be based here and sub-units could be deployed in different areas of Kodagu as well as adjoining Western Ghat districts for the purpose of Forest Land Restoration and Forest Protection. The Ecological Territorial Army Unit can play a major role in prevention of forest firest.

Forest Dweller’s Act

There is a need to review the implementation of the Act. Forest Department staff should be provided adequate resources and police back up to ensure that the Act is not misused. It would be ideal if the forest dwelling communities were persuaded to voluntarily shift to other areas outside the forests or to relocate to areas along the fringe of the forest boundaries.

Tourism

There is a very heavy influx of tourists especially during week-ends. Certain areas such as Iruppu falls and Thadiandamolu peak see huge mass of tourists and this causes disturbance to wildlife. There is also a huge quantity of garbage due to tourists. The tourist vehicles through Nagarahole also cause major disturbance to wildlife and this escalates Human-elephant conflict in the areas close to the forests. There is a need to regulate traffic through Nagarahole. The number of tourists at the prime tourist spots will need to be restricted by a system of issuing a specific number of passes for each day. This system is being successfully implemented in order to protect the Gangothri Glacier in Uttharakhand State.

3. Coffee Plantations

Coffee plantations play a crucial ecological role across Kodagu. The coffee in Kodagu is grown under shade, and the shade trees include several indigenous species. However, there is no incentive for the shade grown coffee. This has resulted in proliferation of Silver Oak which has little ecological value. There is a need to provide incentives for growing indigenous varieties of trees and also a premium for the shade grown coffee.

The coffee economy is sometimes hit by vagaries of weather and by fluctuating international prices. Local communities are tempted to sell the land and move away to cities. Conversion of Coffee plantations for commercial purpose for setting up resorts and layouts is also rampant. A large number of Coffee planters have also set up ‘Home Stays’ for tourists and this has led to invasive tourism. Kodagu is fast heading to becoming a ‘tourist dependent economy’ which is not in consonance with the socio-ecological environment of Kodagu. Hence there is a need to introduce the system of ‘Payment for Ecological Services’ for Kodagu. This will help the local people to live with dignity and with a sense of financial security. The College of Forestry at Ponnampet has prepared document on the scope of PES for Kodagu. This can form the basis of a policy for Kodagu. The PES model for Kodagu could then be replicated across other Western Ghat Districts of Karnataka.

4. Wet lands

The paddy fields of Kodagu are able to impound an estimated six million cubic meters of water over a four month period during the paddy planting season. This huge reservoir of water is of vital importance in maintaining the sub-surface water levels and ensuring a gradual release of water to the rivers and streams. Most of the local festivals and cultural events are also based on the practice of paddy cultivation in Kodagu. Due to non-remunerative prices and other factors, paddy cultivation in Kodagu has declined drastically over the past two decades. Paddy fields are being converted to other cash crops or sold as sites for constructing residential layouts.

This trend needs to be stopped immediately through a mechanism of better payment of paddy, and availability of farming machinery at concessional rates. There is also a need for a strong regulation on a total ban on conversion of paddy fields for commercial non-agriculture purpose. A regulation on the lines of the Kerala model is urgently required.

5. Rivers and Streams

The riverine ecology of Kodagu is under serious threat due to massive unregulated sand mining. For example, the Lakhsmantheerta river, a major tributary of the main Cauvery river is almost twice its original width due to sand mining! The rivers of Kodagu will be killed by sand mining if adequate measures are not taken in time. Most of the sand is used for construction work in Kerala and other areas outside Kodaagu. There is a need for a total ban on transportation of sand outside the district.

The rivers in Kodagu are also subject to direct discharge of sewage and waste. This is mainly due to rampant encroachment of river banks. The river banks in Kodagu must be cleared of encroachments to ensure that the tributaries of Cauvery are not polluted at the very source.

6. A development model for Koadgu

The question that needs to be answered is, if the degradation of the Kodagu landscape continues as of now, what will be the state of Kodagu fifteen to twenty years from now? What would be the consequent effect on River Cauvery, the life line of Southern India? What would be the effect of the numerous stake-holders down-stream? These very questions will provide us the answer.

Without doubt, the Kodagu landscape must remain dominated by forests, coffee plantations and paddy fields, with sparkling streams and clean rivers flowing through them. The Kodagu people must be able to live with dignity and in an environment of social and financial security.

The precious forests of Kodagu need to be protected and preserved. Coffee and paddy cultivation must be encouraged with a slew of incentives based on PES. Subsidies must be provided for floriculture and bee-keeping. Well planned industries such as coffee processing, pepper processing and fruit canning industries should be set up in Kodagu. These will generate employment to local communities, and provide value addition to the agriculture and plantation produce of Kodagu

There should be strict regulation on conversion of paddy lands or coffee plantations for non-agricultural commercial purpose. Tourism in Kodagu needs to be regulated and not encouraged. This small district must be kept free of ‘Development Projects’ for the benefit of neighboring areas ripping across the landscape, fragmenting forests and destroying coffee plantations, trees and paddy fields

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, Kodagu is a land of challenges as well as splendid opportunities. This land of Cauvery could well end up as a basket case, or it could shine as a beacon of hope for other Western Ghat regions in India.

Col CP Muthanna
President,
Coorg Wildlife Society

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Disclaimer: The views expressed here are of the author and not of KSPCB. The article is published only in the interest of a public understanding of the issues involving Climate Change and should not be construed as the policy guidelines of KSPCB.

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