In 2010, when Meera Chandran went to see her family land in Wayanad in Kerala, she found it covered with Lantana Camara, an invasive weed that kills native plants and hurts ecological balance. But Meera did not call an earthmover to get the weed removed which had spread over her 8-acre plot. She knew that thousands of Lantana seeds lie dormant under the soil and only germinate when disturbed (by using an earthmover) and getting exposed to sunlight.
It involves cutting the weed’s root 2-3 inches below the soil and eliminating its ability to multiply without disturbing the dormant seeds. Once a patch was cleared, she began planting native species to restore the natural flora of the area.
“It took us three years to remove the last Lantana plant from the land. The native varieties we planted alongside established themselves in about five years,” says Meera, who then co-founded Forest First Samithi to conserve native plant species and eco-restore degraded lands.
Meera, who studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the University of Calicut, worked in Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) for 16 years and also pursued law from the Karnataka State Law University.
Sowing seeds of restoration
Forest First, a non-profit, was set up in 2010 when she was still working with TCS. “I juggled work at TCS with Forest First for four years. In 2014, I quit to devote all my time to forest restoration, conservation and supporting local livelihood in the Western Ghats,” she says.
So far, Forest First Samithi has restored over 300 acres of land in Wayanad (Kerala) and Kodagu in Karnataka in the Western Ghats. “We are working in the catchment of river Kaveri in Kodagu and Kabini in Wayanad. Topographically, they are similar with commonalities among the flora and fauna. Our learning in one landscape can work on the other,” she says.
Forest First began with work towards the restoration of private lands and coffee estates. Over the years, the NGO began working on degraded forest lands and sacred groves.
“From 2017, we started working on sacred grove restoration. There are sacred groves all along the Western Ghats but the conservation efforts are often lacking,” she points out.
Many of the groves have been cut down for growing timber and a lot of invasive species have come in. Invasive plants are not native to a region but proliferate in the area after being introduced. They hurt native biodiversity, harm human health and can lead to man-animal conflict.
“We worked on groves of 10 to 20 acres and restored the areas degraded by invasive species by working closely with local communities and collaborating with local NGOs like Kodagu Model Forest Trust,” Meera says.
The non-profit has signed an MoU with the Kerala Forest Department with permission to work on 78 sq km Tholpetty Range in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.
Over a span of 2 years with the support of CSR partners, Forest First Samithi has worked on approximately 1 sq km (200 Acres) of forest land under restoration. Wayanad has seen large-scale destruction of its old-growth native trees in the past few decades for monoculture plantations.
The threat of Lantana and Senna invasives
Over 15 sq km of the Tholpetty range is covered with the alien invasive Lantana and Senna Spectabilis species.
This reduces the number of natural pollinators as well. Plus these plants are inedible for animals.
A 2020 study by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, says Lantana occupies 154,000 sq km of forests (44 percent by area) in India's tiger range. This is threatening the animal’s habitat. Since Lantana kills native plants on which herbivores thrive, there isn’t enough food for wild animals. They often move out of forests and their predators follow, creating man-animal conflict.
Similar is the case with Senna, an alien invasive species that not only reduces fodder availability for wild animals but also decreases the diversity and density of native floral species. For decades now, scientists have been warning that the world is headed for a new geological epoch, called the 'Homogecene' when unique life forms become overshadowed by more adaptable species that can live alongside humans.
It is here that Forest First Samithi’s work gains importance. Restoring the natural flora brings back the herbivores and other animals that thrive on them. Alongside, it helps in the conservation of rare, endangered and threatened species (RET) of plants which Meera terms as “tigers of the floral world” due to their endangered status.
Many of these plants are medicinal. The Western Ghats, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site given its unique forest ecosystems, flora and fauna, is home to over 7400 species of flowering plants and 1,814 species of non-flowering plants. Of these, many are globally threatened.
Forest First works with local tribal people who have a rich traditional knowledge of local flora and fauna.“We combine scientific methods with traditional knowledge to create the right strategy for the restoration of degraded lands,” she says.
Right now, the NGO employs 20 tribal people for 10 months a year and hires more depending on the seasonal workload. “We trained 45 people in restoration last year thus supporting livelihoods in the forest fringe villages. We want to involve more and more indigenous people who can support our work,” Meera says. The NGO’s work during peak Covid19 in 2020 employed rural youth.
Methodology of degraded land restoration
Forest First’s activities can be divided into three groups - those done during monsoon, post-monsoon and summer. “We give a two-month break in April-May because of elephant movement from Karnataka to the Kabini region of which the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is a core area and also a high conflict zone,” Meera explains.
Last year, the NGO uprooted thousands of Senna trees in the Tholpetty area. “There were about 3,000 trees in an acre alone. We cleared one area and have to work there for three years to uproot the secondary germination from seeds,” she says.
Forest First uses simple techniques of ropes to bring down big trees. They are then pulled out and then lateral roots are removed.
“You need to ensure that whatever you are planting can establish itself. If it is highly browsed by deer, then it won’t survive. So while we select species that are inedible for animals, we also remove invasives from areas closer to the stream courses to help regenerate natural grass, shrubs and other plants that they can consume,” she says.
So the land is looked at in totality instead of just removing the exotics and planting the natives. “Like we plant 25 species of riparian trees along river courses and species that can survive in high flood as well as low water conditions,” Meera explains.
For its work, the NGO receives CSR funding from corporates, including a Tata Group company and US Technology (UST) and also raises money through crowdfunding. It hasn't received funds from the government. “We ensure that the forest communities get money for planting, uprooting, mulching and monitoring the plants,” she says.
From the places where Lantana is being removed, like from the riverside, the overall ecology will improve. “Moreover, after 10-15 years, when these trees start fruiting, the local communities can collect and benefit from the edible fruits. This way, we are also creating a native seed bank,” Meera says.
And her land, which was the starting point of the journey, is now a flourishing nursery which provides native species for the restoration work of Forest First Samithi. “We can hold 20,000 saplings in our nursery and we also support a network of nurseries by buying saplings from them,” she says.
“We take care of the land for three years, especially during summer, after planting,” she says.
With a tried and tested conservation and restoration model in place, Meera now wants to spread the message. Forest First Samithi wants to expand its scope by restoration of more degraded areas, training more people in Wayanad and Kodagu regions, promoting native floral species knowledge, and helping establish more nurseries of native plant species in the region.
“We want to be the fulcrum for spreading these practices across other districts and degraded areas of Western Ghats and institutionalise the work with other forest and tribal departments,” she says.
Forest First distributed fuel-efficient cookstoves in 118 homes and installed 80 solar home lighting for forest fringe villages in 2021 with CSR support. “We have extended this support to include temporary forest watchers along with our team of restorers,” she says. Solar home lighting has reduced their power bills by 30 percent aiding the community to have basic lighting and cell phone charging during monsoon when power cuts are more frequent.
“With more companies joining hands we hope to extend our impact in Wayanad and Kodagu districts on forest land restoration supporting rural livelihoods,” Meera adds.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)