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Tribute: A mountain and a movement: the Save Western Ghats March

From The Hindu:  Straddling six states, the 1600-odd kilometre-long Western Ghats is home to an astonishing diversity of life and supports innumerable communities and cultures. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the remarkable 100-day ‘Save Western Ghats March’, a landmark event in Indian environmental activism, which became the model for numerous campaigns to follow.

Pankaj Sekhsaria, The Hindu

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the remarkable but relatively little known ‘Save Western Ghats March’ , a response to the socio-ecological challenges the area grappled with. A diverse set of people—scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, activists, journalists and local communities—marched together for 100 days along the length of ghats and met at a conference in Goa to discuss the issues.

The march was as much an exercise in envisioning the future as it was an acknowledgement of the past—of the extreme richness of this ancient mountain range that extends from River Tapti to Kanyakumari.

Straddling six states, from Gujarat to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the 1600-odd kilometre-long Western Ghats is home to an astonishing diversity of life and supports innumerable human communities and cultures. It is an ecosystem that is 50 million years old; humans made an entry here only 12,000-15,000 years ago.

Home to hundreds

The beauty of the landscape is unmatched, endemism in the forests is high, and nearly 250 million people living in peninsular India are nourished by the many rivers that originate here. The forests are also home to hundreds of globally threatened species, including rare and unique ones like the Malabar torrent toad, the Nilgiri langur, Wroughton’s free-tailed bat, the Nilgiri laughing thrush and many species of caecilians, the limbless amphibians.

The Western Ghats are recognised today as one of the world’s top 35 biodiversity hotspots and for very good reason. What the march did way back in 1987 was to offer a unique opportunity to understand the place and its people. It was an exercise in creative activism that might also be considered prescient, predating as it did the international recognition the Ghats have achieved in the last three decades. The idea of a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ was first articulated only in 1988.

Conservation efforts in the Western Ghats have indeed been varied. The mountain range is dotted by a number of wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, tiger and elephant reserves and traditional sacred groves (devrai in Maharashtra, deverakadu in Kodagu and kavu in Kerala) that have existed for centuries.

It is important in this context to recognise that the Western Ghats are, perhaps, the most intensely studied system in the country and one where maximum initiatives and efforts towards conservation have been attempted. While some have been small and localised, others have had appeal and relevance cutting across State and political boundaries.

These include the 1970s agitation to save Silent Valley in Kerala from a dam project, the large conservation research and action project initiated here under the aegis of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) a few years ago, and the much more recent (but mainly unsuccessful) effort to declare large parts of the ghats ecosensitive.

Unending troubles

Its richness, wealth and conservation efforts notwithstanding, the Western Ghats continue to host a whole range of serious and complex challenges: unregulated mining is ravaging large parts; a number of rivers have been (and continue to be) dammed, resulting in the loss of riverine ecosystems and the submergence of pristine forests; a rapidly growing network of roads and rail lines is fragmenting forests; there’s habitat loss due to urbanisation; agriculture, plantations and the introduction of exotics is leading to a rise in human-wildlife conflict; and tribal communities continue to be marginalised with the loss of access to resources and livelihoods.

It is estimated that only a third of the mountain range is still under natural vegetation, and this too is highly fragmented and degraded. And in spite of this state of affairs, there is much here to be learnt and found.

Frogs are an excellent example of this. In a phenomenon that has taken many by surprise, more than 160 new species of amphibians, mainly frogs, have been discovered in the Western Ghats in the last decade. Fourteen new species of dancing frogs were discovered in 2014, and 12 new frogs have already been discovered this year.

The frogs, both old and new, could be hugely useful for humans too; researchers, for instance, have recently found an antimicrobial peptide on the skin of the frog Hydrophylax bahuvistara that might be the next medicine for flu. Frogs are also one of the most sensitive creatures and among the first affected by changes such as forest loss or climate change. They are critical ecological indicators and their discovery in larger numbers only suggests we have a larger responsibility.

The Save Western Ghats March from three decades ago remains hugely relevant—the Western Ghats are unique, important and still under threat.

Pankaj Sekhsaria researches issues at the intersection of environment, science, society, and technology.

Save the Western Ghats Movement
Peaceful Society
The Save the Western Ghats Movement (SWGM) was a landmark event in environmental activism in India. It was one of the first of its kind in the country and became the model for numerous campaigns all over India. In October 1986, Peaceful Society organised a national consultation on environment, during which it was decided to organize a march along the entire length of the Western Ghats, to focus attention on the urgent need to halt the process of degradation that was threatening to create irremediable damage to the entire area. The goal was to create an integrated Ecological perspective providing for both environmental protection as well as the rights of the rural communities.

People power
India Environment Portal
The Western Ghats, spread from Kerala to Maharashtra, has witnessed several environmental movements and struggles. The region has been notified by the United Nations as an environmentally-sensitive area. The Nilgiris Biosphere has been the focus of extensive development activities such as the setting up of industries and hydroelectric projects. However, since this region falls within the ecologically fragile belt, the conflict between the twin goals of development and conservation has resulted in several environmental agitations.

Sounds of silence: a forest that survived ‘development’
Jemima Rohekar, Down to Earth
So secluded is Silent Valley that there is no written record of any human habitation in its core area. It is also the site of the first and most bitterly fought ‘environment vs development’ debate in India. Silent Valley reinforces the fact that forests and their resident biodiversity are our greatest wealth.


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