Longwood Shola

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
 Kothagiri, Tamil Nadu  Forest  Ecosystem Conservation  116  Reserved Forest


Longwood is a typical shola that is found in the higher ranges of the Western Ghats. The sholas are patches of evergreen tropical rainforests in the valleys of the southern end of the Western Ghats, surrounded by natural grasslands. Sholas are rich forests with two or three wood strata, and are usually rich in epiphytes like moss, orchids and ferns. The herbaceous cover on the ground varies according to soil moisture. The ground is usually covered with high humus content and leaf litter. Their expanse is restricted by the extreme climatic conditions of frost in the morning and strong sun during the day. There is an intense competition for sunlight among the trees in the sholas, and trees take a long time to mature. Sholas are like sponges that retain moisture and provide a continuous source of water.

Longwood is located in the Nilgiri mountains. It is a biodiversity hotspot and believed to be the richest in amphibian diversity in Asia. The conservation effort of the local people at Longwood Shola can best be understood in the context of the rapid rate of forest destruction that is taking place though most of the Nilgiris, mainly for extraction for fuelwood or conversion into plantations. The Nilgiris were among the most favoured hill stations of the European settlers who came here 150 years ago. The early settlers cleared large patches of natural vegetation for planting tea, coffee and cinchona. Destruction was so evident that towards the end of the 19th century concern were being raised about saving the sholas and other forests in the Nilgiris. Thus, large areas of forest land were reserved by the government under the Madras Forest Act of 1882. As early as 1905, some people were concerned with the degradation of forests and urged local people not to convert natural forests to plantations. In particular an Englishman, Mr. Bracks, had tried to organize people against deforestation. His initiative did raise awareness but the conversion to plantations continued. In the latter half of the 20th century, afforestation attempts were made by the FD by planting nilgiri and wattle to meet fuelwood needs.

Longwood Shola is located near Kothagiri town (about 50 km from Coimbatore), located at an elevated level close to the junction of Eastern and Western Ghats. This town is easily accessible by bus from Coimbatore town. Legally a Reserved Forest, this small shola of 116 ha is administratively under the control of the FD.

Longwood Shola is the source of three perennial streams with a few seasonal ones. Two of the main streams join in the central swamp and the third joins them in a pond below an old nursery. Longwood Shola has many endemic species of flora and fauna.

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.

Within a year from the time that LSWC was formed, the incidents of illicit tree felling have reduced by 90 per cent. In addition, there has been spontaneous regeneration of shola species in the open and degraded areas within the shola.

Often picnickers used to visit the shola. Often groups of people would come here and litter the place and also scare the animals. Large amounts of plastic packaging could be seen strewn in the forest. LSWC has been able to control these harmful activities of the tourists to a great extent.

As has been mentioned above, Longwood Shola is the water-catchment area for several streams in the area. Protection of this shola has ensured drinking water to the surrounding villages of Kerbetta, Hosatti, Aaravenu, Jackaranai and 16 associated hamlets. There are many villages situated far away which also benefit from the streams originating at Longwood Shola.

This initiative also encouraged the forest department to focus more actively on conservation of sholas in the area. To this end, they have created nurseries at Bandishola, Aramby and Thalaikundah.

The FD has a budget allocation for maintenance of the fence and for conducting camps for children, teachers, etc. Usually these funds are released at the end of the financial year. By this time the members of LSWC carry out the required work by contributing personal funds. However, recovering their money from the FD means a long follow-up and running around.

This initiative has evolved slowly, starting with one individual’s attempt at conservation. The effort of the concerned people has been purely voluntary and there is no commitment by these individuals to any particular group/organization. Also, the entire community is not involved in this conservation attempt. The lack of structure is both the strength and weakness of this initiative.

Many people recognize that they need to protect this shola as a watersource, and implicitly support this conservation initiative. Neither the constitution nor the mandate of this group (the constitution keeps changing) has the explicit consensus of all the people living around Longwood Shola in the form of any referendum. At the same time there has been no opposition to the effort put in by this group.

There are many tea factory workers in this area who take fuelwood from Longwood Shola, as they have no other cheap means of fuel. With the tea market slump, there has been more pressure on the forests, as the workers who had switched to gas/kerosene are no longer able to afford gas cylinders. There are also recent settlers (such as refugees from Sri Lanka, migrant workers) who have put added pressure on this fragile forest. The LSWC has been lobbying for a fuel depot to meet the fuelwood needs of the people of this area but the Forest department has not been able to arrange this.

The LSWC has no authority to prosecute offenders and therefore the cooperation of the FD is crucial. The relationship between LSWC and the ranger determines whether the ranger will actually register the complaints. Recently there have been reports of conflict between the ranger and some members.

There has been a sharp increase in the crow population, possibly because of the increased human population and garbage in the surrounding area. The crows are reportedly affecting the population of other birds, as they feed on them. They have even been seen chasing raptors like eagles.

The second problem has been that of an aggressive weed called orange cestrum, originally from South America. It is a fast-growing shrub that can reach a height of about 6-8 m and with a girth of 1 m, with clusters of orange trumpet-like flowers and spherical creamy seeds. The plant is identifiable by the bad odour that its crushed leaves produce. This weed is difficult to eradicate and since it grows about 20 times faster than shola species, it suppresses the regeneration of other saplings. The LSWC and other individuals have been manually removing these weeds, often with help from students and other volunteers.

  This case study has been contributed by Shantha Bushan, member, Kalpavriksh, in 2002. The author is deeply grateful to Coastal Action Network (Ossie Fernandes, Jesu Ratinam and others), DHAN Foundation (Seenivasan, P. Anand Kumar and Karrupusamy) Tamil Nadu Green Movement (Jayachandran), and individuals such as Michael Danino and Bhojanam who took time out to help us understand the issues in community-based management in Tamil Nadu.

Shantha Bhushan
Apt. No. 5, Shri Dutta Krupa,
908, Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411016, Maharashtra
Ph: 020-25654239
E-mail: [email protected]

K. Senthil Prasad
Secretary, KWEA,
5/112, Jackanarai Aravenu,
PO Kotagiri, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu.
Telephone: 04266-371345

1 For more details on the initiative, also see Roy Lajapathi, ‘Treasure of the shola’, The Hindu, 25 March 2000; D. Radhakrishnan, ‘Infusing new life into the Nilgiri sholas’, The Hindu, 3 July 1999; Harry Miller, ‘Halt desertification of the Nilgiris’, Indian Express, 26 October 1984; Report of the Longwood Shola Watchdog Committee, 2001.

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

Recent Updates

‘Protect Longwood Shola’

A summary of the water shortage of the Nilgiris and how the sholas could help to resuscitate this water supply.

Saving the Sholas

An article about how the conservation of Longwood Shola is necessary to meet the water supply requirements in South India.

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