God’s Own Country: Nature at the losing end of its conflict with the ‘primate’

Madhav Gadgil Committee report had recommended a ban on mining, construction and changing land use of forest land for non-forest purposes.

ByRashme Sehgal

Published Jun 21, 2024 | 4:00 PM Updated Jun 21, 2024 | 4:06 PM

God’s Own Country: Nature at the losing end of its conflict with the ‘primate’

Kerala, God’s own country, is fast losing this nomenclature. Buffeted by drought, deforestation, and its concomitant indiscriminate concretisation, which results in massive water logging, this once beautiful state is now reeling from one environmental disaster after another.

How can a state with 44 rivers supported by backwaters and lakes face drought and intense heat during April and May? The scorching months turned Kerala’s beautiful rivers, including its second-largest river, Bharathapuzha, into little more than muddy streams.

Once famous for its dense forests and prolific wildlife, the state has lost over half its forest cover in the last three decades. The Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, conducted a study called ‘Four Decades of Forest Loss’. Using remote sensing data between 1973 and 2016, the study concluded that during this period, the state lost almost one lakh hectares of forests, translating into a loss of half its forest cover. The last eight years have seen an even further reduction.

Related: Kerala’s monsoon woes

Western Ghats endangered

Much of this loss has been in the Western Ghats. Our politicians and bureaucrats, under whose noses these forests are being felled, seem to overlook that Kerala’s rainfall depends on the Western Ghats. Without forests, there is little to prevent the intensity of water runoffs, which results in landslides and flash floods.

The removal of topsoil is causing dams to silt, and during the gruelling summer months, water reserves have been seen falling below the 20 percent mark.

Former forester Prakriti Srivastava (Kerala cadre) said, “Despite warnings by the scientific community led by Dr Madhav Gadgil, the Western Ghats have been destroyed. There has been a fundamental change in the mindset of the local people of Kerala because they are no longer interested in conservation. Rather, everyone is working to convert our traditional green belts into habitations, which means more and more concretisation.”

“We are following a reckless pattern of tourism in which people today feel free to set up hotels, homestays and restaurants in green areas. Decreasing forest cover has created a host of challenges. A water-rich state has been reduced to face long and intense droughts where even drinking water is no longer available,” said Srivastava.

Related: Unusual coastal phenomenon

Gadgil Committee report ignored

The Madhav Gadgil Committee report recommended a complete ban on mining, construction activities, and changing the use of forest land for non-forest purposes. The Kerala state government did not accept this report.

A 2018 National Institute of Earth Sciences study warned that Kerala’s beautiful 580-km-long coastline is becoming eroded due to urbanisation and unscientific shoreline protection methods. The setting up of several ports, including the massive Adani-owned Vizhinjam port, at a cost of nearly ₹7000 crore, has spurred coastal erosion, with villagers living along the sea facing huge and ferocious tides, especially during the monsoon months.

Fishermen warn that “this erosion has aggravated due to the dredging of the port, on which works started in 2015. Even the sea walls set up by the state government have failed to protect the villagers’ homes, forcing them to seek shelter in relief camps.”

Also Read: Kerala’s rewilding revolution

Unchecked encroachments

Kerala-based environmentalists are also concerned about the illegal encroaching on huge swathes of forest land. The Kerala department’s administrative report for 2021-22 highlights the encroaching on over 5,000 hectares of forested land, and the figure is rising.

The largest chunk, nearly 2000 hectares, has been encroached from the Kottayam High Range circle, which includes the Kothamangalam, Kottayam, Munnar, Marayoor, and Mankulam divisions. The Palakkad Eastern Circle and the Kannur Northern Circle face the same problem.

Wayanad-based environmentalist N Badusha, who heads the Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samiti and has devoted his life to protecting wildlife, warns that “an environmental catastrophe is lurking beneath the remaining pristine forests of this district”.

Also Read: AI-powered fencing in Wayanad forest

Unregulated tourism, human-animal conflict

The Kerala Tourism Department has been promoting Wayanad as one of the world’s top 50 must-see destinations, but unregulated tourism has begun to take a toll on the biodiversity and wildlife in this district. “Real estate investors who have been making a beeline for this place are destroying the old traditional elephant corridors used by these large mammals over centuries. Obviously, this will increase animal-human conflict, but why blame the animal when humans encroach on his territory?’ asks Badusha.

The riskiest job today is of animal trackers with the forest department. Their job is to locate and track raiding elephants and tigers threatening human settlements inside the Wayanad sanctuary.

Another problem showing a spiralling trend is that despite several warnings by the state agriculture department against the widespread use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in banana, tea, and coffee plantations, plantation owners tend to ignore these warnings.

Also Read: Kerala’s endosulfan scourge

Contaminated groundwater

Several experts have warned that this widespread use of fertilisers and pesticides has damaged the state’s fragile ecosystem, affecting human health, the groundwater, and local water bodies. Wayanad tops the state in infant mortality and maternal deaths, and a study has revealed that the main cause of high infant mortality is the overuse of pesticides.

Badusha is horrified at how the overuse of pesticides and has emerged as a strong voice of opposition, insisting that farmers switch over to growing organic crops. He and other environmentalists have strongly opposed mono-crop cultivation initiated by the Kerala Forest Department Corporation.

Farmers living along these mono-crop plantations point out that several of these mono-crops comprise highly invasive species, which degrade their farmland and adjacent forests. Growing these invasive species has also led to food and water scarcity, forcing herbivores to enter farmlands for food.

Related: Sustainability initiatives

Return to Nature

Environmentalists demand felling these plantations and converting again into natural forests. The political class has finally realised just how destructive these trees are, and as part of an eco-restoration drive, the forest department has agreed to replace teak plantations wit. Conversion of natural forests to plantations in disaster-prone areas, wildlife corridors and riverine areas with natural forest.

The claims that the state’s wildlife population has increased dramatically seem highly exaggerated. The tiger population in Wayanad has declined from 120 in 2018 to 84 in 2023. The elephant population decreased from 5705 in 2017 to 2386 in 2023. The numbers of other wildlife have also come down drastically.

Our policymakers must realize that environmental issues profoundly influence the economy, employment, poverty, and health. Development is no longer about economics or GDP. Rather, it must aim at achieving sustainability. Unless the focus changes, Kerala cannot return to being God’s own country again.

(Rashme Sehgal is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal.)

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