The forests in and around Longwood Shola have been getting degraded, leading to problems such as water depletion and erosion. The main reasons for this degradation have been cutting of trees for fuelwood and the timber market. The women and children would come here to cut fuelwood and the men would cut the bigger trees, which were then sold at local timber market. There were and perhaps are still several ‘illegal’ firewood dealers in Kothagiri town and adjoining areas.
What is now a community effort at preserving the shola started as an individual’s determined effort to protect this rich patch of forest. In the early 1980s, Michel Danino (a French national), a researcher at the Mother’s Institute of Research, started to create awareness about the need to protect this shola. He especially tried to get the forest department to protect this reserved forest, which is an important source of water for the residents of the adjoining area. In 1984, he sent a petition to the DFO (Udhagamandalam) regarding the rapid deforestation that was taking place. The forest department officials did provide help at this point, but it was not a sustained effort at prevention of tree cutting. Gradually, in the 1990s, many individuals from the villages around the shola started taking an effort in creating awareness among the local people. They also started patrolling the shola on a regular basis. They would take turns in patrolling and made sure that there was somebody patrolling everyday. This patrolling involved sometimes confrontation with men and women who came for fuelwood or timber. Many times the tree-cutters ran away on seeing the patrollers. By 1997, the effort put in by this group of individuals had gained recognition. The group included nearly 40 people, who would take turns to patrol regularly. There were some determined and earnest members who would patrol everyday, while there were some who would come once a month to patrol. This informal but regular patrolling continues even today.
Apart from controlling illicit felling, these individuals also prevented encroachments, including encroachments for religious purposes. Finally a chain-link fence was erected around the shola to prevent trespass. In 1998, the new DFO Doraiswamy started taking interest in the shola. Since there were so many individuals trying to protect it, the forest department felt that formation of an officially recognized committee could institutionalize their efforts. In May 1998, a Longwood Shola Watchdog Committee (LSWC) was formed. It comprised Danino, Balamurugan (headmaster), Raju (mathematics teacher and social worker), and Michael Ezeikel (music teacher). The members of LSWC were chosen at a meeting where forest department officials and some members of the local community were present.
The primary responsibility of the LSWC is to prevent tree cutting and report offences to the forest department. On some occasions the FD has actually levied fines from the tresspassers, but usually the fact of being caught has itself served as a deterrent and tree cutting has reduced. The LSWC has also been trying to find alternative sources of fuel so that fuelwood pressure comes down. They have been lobbying for fuelwood depots to be opened so that the long-time residents as well the new settlers have an official source of fuel.
The LSWC has been conducting regular awareness camps in nearby villages, and also seminars for teachers and headmasters. They also have eco-awareness camps at the interpretation centre constructed at the entrance (close to Kerbetta village) of the shola. This was financed by the forest department and several interested individuals helped. They also hold regular nature camps for children, giving the children actual field experience apart from lectures. The children also help in cleaning of the shola. In 1998, the LSWC printed about 4000 pamphlets describing the importance of the shola and distributed this to all the villagers. They also went door to door to about 700 houses in nearby settlements and villages to create awareness about Longwood Shola and its role in protecting their water supply. This campaigning has had an impact and reportedly villagers are more aware of the saving the shola for their water.
The LSWC has no legal powers and prosecution of offenders is done by the forest department. The role of the LSWC is purely in patrolling, informing the FD of any problems that might adversely affect the shola, and creating awareness. For the LSWC, the main motives for protecting the shola are water and biodiversity.
The LSWC has been maintaining the chain-link fence. They undertake repairs and many times put in their own money as the FD funds are released only at the end of the year.