June 6, 2007

Honey Trails in the Blue Mountains

The Introduction to my new book... Honey Trails

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) is a massive physical, ecological and cultural complex merging some of the most forested regions of the three states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka into a single ecological block. NBR is spread over eight districts - Nilgiris, Coimbatore and Erode in Tamil Nadu, Palakkad, Malappuram and Wyanad in Kerala, and Coorg and Mysore in Karnataka (Daniel, 1996).

The Biosphere Reserve is home to major honey-producing zones in the overall context of South India, with massive honey cliffs or ‘bee nesting’ trees present in large numbers. Forest sanctuaries have been accorded a high degree of protection resulting in abundance of floral and faunal species and a subsequent enduring tradition of honey harvesting. The dense forests and steep escarpments that abound in the Western Ghats provide a natural resting place for the Giant Rock Bees and ancestral dwellings of adivasis. These bee habitats are critical for the survival of the diversity of these forests having ecological, economic and socio-cultural foundations for adivasi groups.

The honey hunters of the NBR are renowned for their skill of collection from highly treacherous settings. Several adivasi groups hunt honey and each have certain methods peculiar to them. The Aalu Kurumbas in the eastern and southern parts of the Nilgiris and in Attapady are renowned for scaling cliffs more than 500 feet in height while the Kasavas and Irulas are adept in harvesting large quantities from giant trees. The Kattunaicken is an expert hunter in and around Mudumalai and Muthanga forests just as the Jenu Kurubas are eminent in Nagarhole and Mysore regions. In addition, the Cholanaicken is renowned for his legendary skills in New Amarambalam using basic equipments to scale high trees and cliffs. (Keystone, 2006)

The close link of bees to adivasi people is synonymous to linking ecology with livelihoods. This study has thrown open several aspects of forests, people and governance. Issues related to declining bee populations, NTFPs, traders and the thin boundaries between `legal and illegal’, came to us in different forms – in different places. This book explores these issues and presents facts as were seen during the travels to these areas.

After a decade of work in the field of conservation and development with adivasi people of the Nilgiris, this programme gave our team an opportunity to explore the whole Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR). This has meant an exposure to different adivasi communities, different forest types and environs. This knowledge has made the team aware that their work is `still not over’ and there are several issues that need to be addressed. Our work and perspectives have since then grown and extended to different parts of the NBR, especially in parts of Sathyamangalam Taluk, Nilambur and Wyanad.

Working in the larger Nilgiri region for several years now, we realized that the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, though intensively studied, is largely not clearly understood. Aspects of the forest, of the people, of the degradations occurring in many parts and of the uniqueness of the region are hardly presented coherently.

With our experiences from the study, it was a keenly felt opinion of the team members that the project should move ahead and primed for visibility for larger sections of the society and interested readers. The natural progression was a publication that would in effect, comprise surveys undertaken during the programme, our travails and outputs into a single unit for a varied viewership. The book thus, is a study on a unique and ecologically fragile region of the nation and an examination of the lives of the indigenous people who live here, in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The book puts forward the interlaying complexities involving bees, forests and various stakeholders. Besides primary findings, this book integrates information from secondary sources and from discussions with different people of the region. The book introduces in detail, the whole region of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, encompassing the issues it faces and present state of affairs of its indigenous population, called `adivasis’ or ‘indigenous people’ throughout this publication.

The book is divided into two distinct sections. The first part describes the entire Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve with respect to the study. The second part of the book details out the regions within the large Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and focuses on their specific issues.

The importance of this region in terms of biodiversity is elaborated in the first chapter in section A of the book. The second and third chapters cover the diverse people and forests of this region. Honey collection in the NBR is a traditional activity of the adivasis. From pre-historic times to barter to its commercialization, honey plays an important role in the lives of people. A comprehensive perspective of honey collection, its different traditions, the methods, techniques & resource use and the contemporary issues of market, pricing and quality are covered in the fourth and fifth chapters. The sixth chapter presents Keystone’s experiences and summarises the issues related to honey, people, market, forests and trade in the overall context of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. It also provides some ideas for the future from our perspective and addresses some crucial development and conservation concerns.

The main issues facing the region are covered in detail by a representative subregion. This also elaborates the forests and people of that subregion and its ecological history. Each subregion within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve therefore gets its focus. This method integrates the various aspects of the region and is like a `ready reckoner’ for issues related to people, biodiversity & related livelihoods, changes within the society and the surrounding environment.

The final chapter discusses all these issues in its broadest perspective, drawing from the intricate aspects of honey and related issues and suggesting efforts for the future. This will also act like a guide for idividuals and other organizations in the area to plan their work around the issues described. The perspective from the adivasi point of view is different vis-à-vis that of other populations and stakeholders in the region. A large extent of forest land and its implications for the ecology are some of the issues discussed in this concluding chapter. This also throws up policy implications for this ecologically sensitive area and calls for improved measures for management of the land and its people.

The book, in its present form strives to be informative, easy to read and thought provoking. It is aimed at policy makers, forest managers, adivasi organisations, NGOs and other role players of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. It is also useful for students and researchers of environment and livelihood studies.