Protecting The Landscapes of The Western Ghats

How can one extend the reach of conservation into landscapes outside protected areas? Protected areas have been a cornerstone of conservation for long, but are increasingly isolated in landscapes as fragments surrounded by agriculture and various forms of development. Conservationists around the world are now working to extend conservation to such landscapes, especially lands under productive agriculture and plantations, by linking production with the market for products certified as coming from farms that follow sustainable and ecologically-friendly practices. In this project, the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) joins hands with the Rainforest Alliance (RA), a leading international non-profit working for sustainability, to promote the adoption of sustainable agriculture in tea and coffee plantations in the Western Ghats.

The Western Ghats has witnessed much landscape change. Studies have shown that between 1920 and 1990, 40% of the original natural vegetation of the Western Ghats was lost or converted to open/cultivated lands, coffee plantations, tea plantations, and hydroelectric reservoirs. Much large-scale conversion to tea and coffee plantations had already occurred in many areas prior to 1920. Tea plantations now occupy over 119,000 hectares, coffee plantations over 340,000 hectares and small cardamom over 73,000 hectares, largely in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. Despite their considerable extent, often adjoining important conservation areas of tropical forest and grassland, there has been little direct effort at incorporating these landscapes in conservation policy and management.

Many conventional practices associated with plantations threaten the region’s biodiversity. Examples include the conversion or degradation of rainforest fragments and grasslands that cannot sustain endemic species, use of monocultures of exotic tree species as shade or as fuelwood and timber plantations, poorly regulated use of agrochemicals, including paraquat, which is on the dirty dozen list of the Pesticide Action Network, waste water run-off into fresh water sources and absence of a conservation management plan on estates. Most plantation owners are focused solely on production, and require activities to raise general awareness around conservation issues and understand their farming’s impact on the environment. There is an urgent need to change these practices without damaging economic development and livelihoods. Yet, there has been little effort to minimise negative impacts and enhance beneficial aspects of plantations for conservation through appropriate landscape- and farm-level management and agricultural practices in the Western Ghats.

There are many ways in which plantations can enhance their sustainability and contribute to conservation. A large number of natural habitat remnants including rainforest fragments, shola-grasslands, and streams exist within these plantations, in crucial conservation areas such as the Anamalai hills and Nilgiris, containing a great diversity of plants and animals including many highly charismatic and globally endangered and endemic wildlife species. Properly conserved, these fragments can act as valuable refuges for plants and animals and corridors of movement for wide- ranging animals. Plantations can increase their value for wildlife if native forest trees are used as shade trees instead of exotic monocultures. Integrated crop management and reduction in agrochemical use, minimising soil erosion, and proper waste management, coupled with attention to health, safety, and welfare of workers will all help improve the sustainability and social responsibility profile of plantations.

This project, supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), is a collaborative effort between NCF and Rainforest Alliance to link farms that follow sustainable agricultural practices with markets for their produce. This will be achieved by the use of the Sustainable Agriculture Standard, a comprehensive set of standards and criteria that includes the conservation of natural ecosystems and wildlife, which forms the foundation of the Rainforest Alliance certification process. The Standard is widely accepted in the tea and coffee industries, with 350,000 hectares of tea and coffee farms globally already certified as compliant with the Standard’s criteria and supplying international companies who take it to the market with the Rainforest Alliance certified seal. With a focus on the Anamalai hills and Nilgiris landscapes, we hope to raise awareness about sustainable agriculture and good land-use practices, develop guidelines in the form of a local indicators document and other online resources and publications, connect estates to markets and eco-conscious consumers, and help in training and building capacity within the region for conservation linked to sustainable agriculture.