Written by RWC, photograph from Wikimedia Commons

Researchers for Wildlife Conservation (RWC) supports the Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP; henceforth ‘the Report’) prepared by a team headed by Dr. Madhav Gadgil. Based on our experience with research and conservation in the Western Ghats, we believe the Report provides a solid foundation for the future of ecosystem conservation and human welfare in the Western Ghats. The key components to this desirable future, according to us, are summarized below:

1. The proposed framework places more decision-making power in the hands of local stakeholders. This is extremely important because at the moment the Western Ghats are most threatened by large-scale development (e.g. mines, dams) orchestrated by decision-makers and fuelled by resources from well outside the region. Within the alternate framework, local opposition to such projects, which is frequently witnessed, will be given a stronger footing. This model does necessitate major reforms across institutions, and therefore warrants careful and meticulous planning along with extensive field testing. In addition, the ecological impacts of local-level decisions should also be assessed by qualified ecologists and wildlife scientists, especially with regard to issues of connectivity and landscape-level ecological processes.

2. The Report makes a strong case for transparency and sharing of information – an endeavour which we fully support. An additional suggestion that might help in making the decision-making process more open and transparent, is in case of a disagreement between members of the District Ecological Committees, Western Ghats Ecological Authority, or researchers from Western Ghats Conservation and Management Foundation, there should be a provision to ensure that each member should be able to write a report that can be independently submitted to the National Green Tribunal or the Central Empowered Committee.

3. There are now researchers working on a diversity of topics related to ecology and conservation in various parts of the Western Ghats. We suggest that the Western Ghats Conservation and Management Foundation build a database of such researchers working on ecology and conservation-related issues in the Western Ghats and encourage their input and participation during consultation and evaluation of projects in the Ghats. Such scientific inputs from qualified, independent, non-member experts who have worked in the locations concerned should be made public in any reports of project evaluations. Maximum involvement of independent scientists and practicing conservationists with a variety of specializations, both basic and applied should be ensured in the Foundation.

4. The Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) mapping of the Western Ghats in the Report is an immensely useful tool that not only showcases the natural wealth of the Western Ghats but also serves as a basis for landscape planning. Importantly, the permitted activities within the different ESAs are only suggestions to guide (local) decision-makers, rather than impositions. We suggest in case an entire Taluk does not fall into a single dominant ESA class, the Report provide a table of Taluks with data on percentage cover of each of the three ESA classes as columns (else this might lead to confusion and resentment). Top priority should also be given to incorporating ecological units – watershed boundaries, natural features – along with jurisdictional boundaries to define ESAs, as suggested by Gadgil et al. (2011). Priority should also be given to strengthening the knowledge base on several lower taxonomic orders (e.g. fish, spiders), and to including these taxonomic groups in ESA classification.

5. As has been highlighted in the report, tourism activities need to be strongly checked and strictly restricted to carrying capacities. Many resorts operating under the banner of eco-tourism, increase the movement of people into some of the most sensitive habitats within the Ghats, resulting in habitat degradation, pollution and littering. Many such projects manage to obtain clearances in spite of local opposition because they are proposed in lands that do not fall under the Protected Category as per the Wildlife Protection Act or the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, e.g. the “gomal” lands of Karnataka. These high-end projects meant for the elite tourist, use water and forest resources, and are becoming a significant cause of fragmentation and natural resource depletion in the hilly landscapes of Western Ghats due to the intensity of infrastructure construction involved. There have been a few landmark decisions in Karnataka to stop such tourism ventures based on local opposition, and all future projects within ESAs should be evaluated as per their ecological impacts, even if not falling in Protected Areas (Sanctuaries, National Parks, and Reserve Forests).

6. Many of the Wildlife Sanctuaries, National Parks, and Reserve Forests still do not have their boundaries delineated and verified. We suggest that a comprehensive exercise be undertaken to ensure that all Protected Areas have their boundaries ground-truthed, mapped, and marked. This will also help assess and monitor encroachments, proximity of proposed projects to PAs, and enable clarity during field visits.

7. When rationalizing the boundaries of the Western Ghats, it would be desirable to include within the boundaries biologically important areas that are ecologically connected to the Western Ghats but at present fall just outside the boundary. Examples of these are Tansa and Tungareshwar (Raigad district, Maharashtra) on the western slopes of the Ghats. Future studies should focus on the effects of habitat fragmentation and connectivity, especially for States such as Goa, where mining pressure has reached the boundaries of most wildlife sanctuaries. Also in case of conditional clearances given to project proponents, we suggest the inclusion of an additional provision for independent members with relevant scientific and social expertise to be able to monitor whether the imposed regulations are being met. This is particularly important in the context of increased development outside the boundary of the Western Ghats – a threat which the Report cautions of.

8. The Report identifies the importance of strengthening conservation outside the Protected Area network of the Western Ghats. As suggested by the authors, payments for ecosystem services and other instruments to reward ecologically-friendly land management need to be more-widely implemented in the region. Practical advice from practitioners who have tried these methods in the Western Ghats, is desirable. Also encouraging sustainable agricultural practices which provides benefits to both farmers and the local ecology, in existing agricultural lands in the Ghats, as suggested by the Ecoagriculture India forum, can motivate more agriculturists to improve land-use patterns.

9. The report rightly mentions the issue of conversion of large tracts of Western Ghats forest land in the past into stands of Eucalyptus, and more recently, Wattle (Acacia mearnsii) and recommends that existing plantations should be replaced with native endemic species or that the sites should be allowed to revert to grasslands, as appropriate. The WGEEP may consider constituting a Work Plan within the purview of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority to initiate these activities. Currently existing government forestry schemes would benefit from employing skills developed by successful restoration pioneers in the Western Ghats such as the Nature Conservation Foundation (Anamalai Hills), Vattakanal Conservation Trust (Palni Hills) & Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary (Wayanad), by making them active consultants in forestry activities across the Ghats. The WGEEP may also consider within this Work Plan addressing the issues of invasive shrubs such as Chromolaena odorata, Lantana camara and Mikania micrantha that have been reported as gregarious in disturbed forests as well as Protected Areas in the Western Ghats.

10. There are still many mini- and micro-hydel projects pending approval. In the context of habitat fragmentation in the Western Ghats, the Environmental Impact Assessments of these projects should be undertaken as per the consideration of ESA and ESZ outlined in the WGEEP Report. Although the report suggests that small hydro projects be allowed in the ESZ 1, we believe that in some areas such projects cause significant habitat damage through roads, power lines, and the dam infrastructure. Many of these projects are also opposed by local communities.

The fragile ecosystems of the Western Ghats face innumerable pressures and are invariably in decline. We stress the need to act fast to save this important part of India’s natural heritage. While the WGEEP Report does not contain all the answers, it does a wonderful job of outlining the key steps that need to be taken to sustain the ecosystems, landscapes and welfare and livelihoods of people of the Western Ghats in the long term.

Inputs provided by Girish Arjun Punjabi, M.O Anand, Karthik Teegalapalli, Nandini Velho, Robin Abraham and Meghna Krishnadas.