Food for Thought : NTFP-EP’s Regional Meeting at Kotagiri

19 January 2017, Kotagiri: The Non-Timber Forest Produce-Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP) held their regional meeting in Keystone in the beginning of January. Partner organisations came from Laos, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and India came for the 3-day meeting, the last day of which coincided with the Wild Foods Festival at Keystone. Femy Pinto, Executive-Director, NTFP-EP Asia, said the Network started thinking about wild foods and the link to the community’s health and wellbeing about 7-8 years ago. This meeting, on the theme of “Coming Home to the Forests for Food”,  had 20 participants from five countries coming together to discuss the close links between indigenous people, their heritage of forest foods, and how it directly links human and environmental wellbeing. The meeting did indeed leave everyone involved with plenty of food for thought.  Femy also spoke on the significance of the logo. The Penan are one of the last remaining hunter-gathers tribes in Malaysia and they are a small population. The logo shows a Penan man using his blowpipe. This stands for tradition and way of life in the forest and shows how NTFP-EP identifies itself with the community. Prof. Ramon A. Razal, Trustee – NTFP-EP, spoke on the importance and linkages of wild foods to the overall NTFP scenario. He spoke about what characterises forest foods and also presented reports of nutrient compositions on some forest foods such as pako (Diplazium esculentum) and bignay (Antidesma bunius) that are commonly used by indigenous communities in Philippines. He discussed statistics that showed the greater the anthropogenic pressure on forests, the less healthy the indigenous population is. Forest foods have a special place in the lives of indigenous people. There are greens, fruits, staples, tubers, bulbs, shoots, mushrooms, and blossoms that yield spices, beverages and oils. The communities also collect animal products like honey, fish, snails, crabs, bushmeat, birds and bird eggs. In Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia alone, there are more than more than 50-60 plant families that are common forest foods prepared in many ways. For example, Bignay (Antidesma bunius) fruit can be eaten raw or made into jams and jellies or a refreshing drink, while the leaves are used to flavor fish and meat stews, vinegar, and salads. The participants concurred that is the need for studies on nutritional values and toxicology of wild foods and that forest dwellers are blessed with the traditional knowledge of what to eat, how to eat and when to eat. Madhu Ramnath presented an overview of wild foods and the origins of cultivated food. As man settled into farming, wild strains of many plants, eg maize and peanuts, disappeared. Farming increased and farmers shifted to sunlight demanding plants, more and more forest land was cleared and indigenous people wound up working on these farms. Lack of time combined with easy availability of subsidised rations from Public Distribution System had them venturing less and less into the forest to gather seasonal fruits and other wild food which offered essential nutrients. Over the years, this has resulted in reduced health in indigenous people as many communities have themselves observed. Divya Devarajan, District Collector, spoke on the link between governance and wild food in trying to find answers to the question of why indigenous people are having to relearn the use of forest foods. Divya spoke of processes working in parallel that were bringing about this change, the first being the residential form of education that takes the tribal children away from their families and their culture. Along with the displacement of the child during its formative years from its community, comes with the dichotomy between traditional knowledge and current school curriculum, which is designed keeping the urban population in mind and is totally out of touch with tribal children’s realities. At the end of formal schooling, the child has grown up to be urbanized but less knowledgeable person. With more and more forest land being ‘developed’ (converted) or ‘protected’ (restricted) , the forest dweller has to relocate to nearby towns or city to be able to provide for the family, The Forests Rights Act in India came up assuring long-time forest dwellers the right to residence as well as rights to collect NTFPs for subsistence and livelihood, but the processes involved and tedious and confusing. Coupled with the lack of access to forests comes the convenience of the Public Distribution System where wheat, rice, and sugar are made available to the community at subsidized rates. When the women have to spend so much time and effort to prepare millets and forage for wild foods, as well as take care of livestock and small plots of crops (jobs that earlier were the man’s responsibility), they prefer to accept what is supplied through the PDS, leading to a gradual shift in diet. Ms Bhanumathi Kalluri’s presentation on “Gender Perspective to Wild Food” made the participants think about what the distance from wild foods has meant to the indigenous woman. Bhanumathi is Director of Dhaatri, a resource centre for women and children’s rights based in Andhra Pradesh. The collection of wild food was the woman’s area of expertise and also a group activity which gave them a change from their daily routine.  When the families gave up their traditional houses and shifted to government-funded cluster housing, the woman lost her exclusive physical space where she maintained stocks of grains and wild foods. Canned entertainment from the television has eaten into the time that the women would spend in each other’s company, be it gathering wild foods, pounding millet, singing songs or telling stories – space for imagination has reduced. Divya spoke about changes to the system that might help resolve some of these problems, some of which has already started to be implemented. To address the changing diet of indigenous people in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, decentralization of the PDS system has begun in an effort to ensure that local produce is distributed via the system maintaining the traditional healthy diet of the people. Divya also gave other suggestions such as a minimum support […]

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Honey Hunters trained on sustainable harvesting and hygienic wild honey collection

25 January 2017, Kotagiri: Keystone Foundation and Last Forest Enterprise Pvt Ltd conducted two training workshops on sustainable wild harvesting and hygienic collection of honey in Asanur and Kotagiri. A total of 110 honey hunters from different communities and areas were trained during the two days of workshop. Both the trainings were supported by Export-Import Bank of India as part of their CSR initiatives. The first training was held in Keystone Resource Centre and Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar CL production unit at Kalaikudam, Hasanur, on Monday for 50 honey hunters from Bejalhatti, Gali Dhimbam, Ittarai , Thadasalhatti, Geddesal, Kengerai, Borderdodde and Punanjanur villages. The second training was held the next day at the Keystone campus in Kotagiri where 60 honey hunters from Coonoor and Kotagiri were trained. Wild honey is collected from the hives of the Apis dorsata or Rock Bees by the indigenous communities every year. These bees make their hives on the branches of tall trees or on the underside of overhangs on sheer cliffs. Traditionally, wild honey collectors climb trees or lower themselves down the overhang on ropes ladders made from forest vines. They would use smoke to drive away the bees. Honey would then be squeezed out from the honey combs by squeezing by hand. Some part of the brood comb would be carried back to the village as a source of protein to the shared with the community. Many times, the empty combs and squeezed combs were discarded due to lack of time or inability to extract wax from it. In the publication Honey Trails in the Blue Mountains, Keystone says, “The honey hunter is a natural born conservationist who gazes at the forest with deference and does not take up a combative stance at it.” But market pressures and need for money over the past decade have forced many hunters to overlook or set aside traditional practices that protected bees and ensured sustainability. Keystone’s trainings over the past two decades have been focused on bringing back these traditional conservation practices and adding hygiene practices to improve quality of honey and sustainability of harvest. The training began with Shiny speaking about the biology of the bee and explaining the link between bees, pollination and fruit setting, bringing out the important role that bees play in sustaining agriculture and forests. She explained patterns of foraging and the plant species that bees prefer. Leo spoke to the hunters about several aspects of sustainable and hygienic honey harvesting. Besides reiterating facts that are part of the traditional knowledge of communities, scientific facts were shared. the process how nectar is transformed into honey and what signs to be alert for. For example, the comb should always be harvested once the cells are ‘capped’, an indication that the honey is matured, otherwise called as ripened. Harvesting uncapped cells yields honey that has higher amount of moisture.  Ideally, honey should have moisture content not more than 23%. Higher moisture with higher pollen leads to fermentation in storage. The hunters were asked to conserve brood combs as far as possible, as this would protect emerging bees and new queens. Conserving brood is a very important practice to sustain bee populations. Bees migrate to the hills during April to July and then to plains during monsoons to seek food as well as to swarm. Swarming is a natural phenomenon resulting in the division of bee colonies. If there is significant damage to brood and queen cells, the colony is weakened and cannot swarm and multiply. Elaborating on hygienic honey collection, Leo explained that the earlier practice of squeezing and twisting the comb by hand results in a lot of impurities, including eggs, larvae and excessive pollen, finding its way into the honey. The participants were told using a knife to uncap the honey cells and make clean cuts on both sides of the mid rib and place it in a fine strainer mesh net to allow honey to drain out of the comb. This honey is then collected transport in food grade jerry cans. Besides honey, beeswax is of commercial importance and is collected by the honey hunters. To extract beeswax, the combs are cut into pieces once all the honey has drained out. The pieces of comb are stirred into a vessel filled with boiling water until fully melted. The mixture is then filtered through muslin hung into a vessel of cold water and allow it to cool so that solid wax settles on top. During conversations with the trainees, Miller was struck by the number of youth who had come in to be trained. These young men from the Kurumba, Irula and Sholiga communities are sons of honey hunters and are carrying on the family tradition. Sathish Kumar (18) from Banagudi said, “This is our home, our forest. We collect honey and beeswax. When I climb down the cliff and there are 30-50,000 bees buzzing around me, I can keep calm and go through the process of collecting honey. This is a source of pride for me. This is what my father and grandfather did and this is what I will pass on to my children.” These trainings have been supported by Exim Bank, headquartered in Mumbai, as part of their CSR programme. Mr.Utpal Gokhale, General Manager-Exim Bank, was present for both the trainings and presented the participants with certificates. Seven groups were also given equipment essential to honey hunting such as ropes, knifes, filtering nets and honey collection jerry cans. Looking back on the trainings, Mr. Gokhale said, “This training gels perfectly with our objective of grassroots level development initiatives. Exim Bank had launched this (such initiatives) about 5-6 years ago precisely to intervene in such economic activities that would provide sustainable livelihoods to deprived communities at the grassroots.”

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Wild Foods Festival held at Keystone

13 January 2017, Kotagiri: The Wild Foods Festival was held at the Keystone campus on Monday where indigenous people from seven areas in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve gathered to celebrate their culinary heritage and Terra Madre Day. Terra Madre Day is celebrated on December 10th every year, but this year circumstances in Tamil Nadu had us postponing celebrations by a month. The event began with a rousing performance by a group of men belonging to the Bhumij community of Jharkhand who performed their traditional dance – Firkal. Firkal depicts the life of the Bhumij in the forests of Jharkhand. The dancers use swords, shields and sticks to show how they have faced and overcome difficult situations. The dancers performed with precision and there were astonishing displays of physical strength. The drums played with infectious energy had most of the 300 strong audience on their feet. The group from Jharkhand had set the pace for the day! Once the Bhumij had finished their performance, a group from the Irula community began their traditional dance, the Arakol Atta. The Arakol Atta is usually danced in a slow tempo, but the musicians did not want to let go of the pace that had been set. Very soon, most of the audience had joined in and the musicians in the centre of the circle had as many as four rows of dancers around them, all performing different sets of dance steps to the same music. The event was also an occasion to present Janakiamma from Vellaricombai village with the Paul K. Feyerabend Award. This award celebrates individuals and organisations who have worked for the betterment of communities in the face of adversities. 56-year-old Janakiamma is a Kurumba woman elder who has emerged as a leader amongst her community. She has been involved since the past decade building young leadership amongst her people. She has worked hard to promote traditional systems of governance and revive important events in the community to keep their pride and identity alive. The stalls at the Wild Foods Festival were inaugurated by community members. Vaniyampuzha Babu inaugurated the Nilambur and Konavakkarai stall; Janakiamma from Vellaricombai the Sigur, Pillur and Aracode stall, Balan, President-Thalavady Adivasi Munnetra Sangham (TAMS) and Nagamma, village elder from Punanjanur inaugurated the Hasanur and Punanjanur stall; and Ramghulam from Prerak, Chhattisgarh inaugurated the NTFP-EP stall which featured different varieties of traditional seeds and some products made by Custom Made Craft Centre (CMCC). Besides stalls from different working areas of Keystone, Aadhimalai had also displayed the range of products that were being developed and marketed by them. Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Ltd is run completely by the indigenous communities. There are more than 1600 shareholders who sell their raw produce, both cultivated and wild collected, to the company. Aadhimalai then processes it, value-adds to it, and packages and markets it. The profits made by the company are divided between the shareholders. The growth of the communities in terms of strategizing and implementing for better value for their produce and reaching out to newer markets is a source of pride all all concerned. The wild food stalls had been set up from community members from the seven working areas of Keystone, Aracode, Pillur, Sigur, Punanjanur, Hasanur, Konnavakkarai, and Nilambur. The indigenous communities of these areas had gathered leaves, shoots, fruits and tubers from the forest and prepared into dishes that they have been consuming for generations. Different areas had focused on different preparations. Dishes from Nilambur included different kinds of pickles –  gooseberry, asparagus, tamarind, and banana stem to name a few. They also showcased seven different types of keerai (leaves) prepared in the same method. The different taste of each dish thus brought out the individual flavour of each keerai. Millets were also presented in a stunning variety of preparations. While the Hasanur stall displayed ragi murukku and thattu vada, Punanjanur presented ragi roti (flatbread), ragi mudde (steamed ragi balls) from Sigur. There was thenai rice, samai payasam and thenai puttu. Amaranthus seeds were displayed as pori (puffed) and vadai . All areas showcased tubers of noorai and rheyaa (Discorea sp) which are important seasonal supplements to their diet. These tubers are usually skinned and boiled or roasted. There was also roasted pumpkin and maize vadai. There was an amazing range of flavours from bland to spicy to bitter to sweet and the display plates had to be refilled time and again. It was gratifying to see the wonder and excitement when a woman from Pillur tasted the wild food that she had consumed all her life presented to her in a completely different form at the Pillur stall. The feast that had been laid honouring the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities of the Nilgiris had filled every one present with pride and we all returned with the commitment never to lose this heritage.

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Janakiamma receives the Paul K. Feyerabend Award

12 January 2017, Kotagiri: The “Paul K. Feyerabend Award – A World of Solidarity is Possible” was presented on Monday, 9th January, to S. Janaki of Vellaricombai village in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve against the backdrop of the Wild Foods Festival at Keystone Foundation. The event was attended by over 200 guests including members of NTFP-EP Asia partner organisations. The Paul K. Feyerabend Foundation promotes the empowerment and well being of disadvantaged communities. The Foundation awards a prize called “Paul K. Feyerabend Award – A World of Solidarity is Possible” to individuals, communities or organisations that have succeeded in bringing about crucial and lasting changes under difficult conditions. The award consists of a plaque and cash prize of 2500 Euros. S. Janaki, popularly called Janakiamma by the villagers, is a dynamic personality from a small village in the Nilgiris. She is an organic farmer, a practitioner of traditional medicine, and one of most effective community mobilisers Keystone has seen. Selvi Nanji from Keystone, who has worked with her for many years, related how the community would turn to Janakiamma for solutions; be it issues related to the condition of roads leading to the village or traditional medicine for simple ailments. Though she is now 56 years old and slowing down, Selvi said, “If anyone came up to her with an issue related to welfare of her people, she would immediately take steps to address it, regardless of any personal discomfort or disability.” Snehlata Nath, Director-Keystone Foundation, remarked that she had been interacting with Janakiamma for the past 15 years and has watched her motivating the community to revive their traditional systems of governance and pride in their culture. This has promoted a series of events and hubbas (festivals) related to food, health, nutrition and community solidarity and it was only fitting that the Wild Foods Festival should be the event setting the background for Janakiamma to receive the commendation. Community members from seven areas of the NBR, Aracode, Sigur, Pillur, Konavakkarai, Hasanur, Punanjanur and Nilambur attended the Festival and every mention of Janakiamma’s work was greeted with cheers, earsplitting whistles and applause.  They spoke about her enthusiasm and dedication and how she has been at the forefront of all activities related to community wellbeing for well over a decade. Mr. Malikarjuna Moorthy, former CEO of Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Ltd., spoke of her insight as one of the directors on the board of Aadhimalai and how she had been instrumental in motivating women to come forward and manage the value addition processes at their production centres. An organic farmer herself, she had also motivated other farmers to raise traditional crops without chemical additives and join Aadhimalai as a shareholder. Balasubramani from Baviyur, one of the few artists specializing in Ajile Bottu – the traditional art form of the Kurumba community also spoke on the occasion. Balasubramani is first cousin to Janakiamma and he spoke about how she had always been a guiding light for her extended family whenever the need arose. Nanji and Mallika from Janakiamma’s village spoke about her encouraging women to come to the forefront and take responsibility for the wellbeing of the family and village. Janakiamma had also been actively involved with All India Radio, Ooty where she had recorded many programmes related to traditional songs, folk stories and riddles, indigenous culture and traditional healing practices. Mani from AIR, Ooty made a mention of all these when he was congratulating Janakiamma. Femy Pinto, Executive Director – NTFP-EP, while presenting the plaque said, “We only bring to the world the efforts that you (Janakiamma) have made for your community. We are but messengers. All credit for the work rests solely with you.” Responding to the award Janakiamma said that she was very happy that her efforts in the Nilgiris have been appreciated. She recalled the time, many years ago, when she had been a reporter for the community newsletter, Nilgiri Seemai Sudhi. During those days, getting the villagers to overcome their apathy and take interest in the community-related news was an uphill task. Janakiamma related how the villagers would approach her as a traditional healer and she would then use that opportunity to get them to read the newsletter. She is glad that the situation is changed now and more and more people are taking interest in matters affecting indigenous communities. Janakiamma is proving to be a bridge between the traditional and the modern. She supports the philosophy that, “change is inevitable, but it is how we transition that matters.”

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Training on Springshed Management for Indigenous Community Youth

15 December 2016, Kotagiri: Eight youth from indigenous communities underwent a training on the basics of Springshed Managment at the Keystone campus on 12-13 December 2016. They were from four areas – Kotagiri, Pillur, Hasanur and Punanjanur, and would be working on spreading awareness regarding the water situation in the Nilgiris, gathering data on water resources and usage and mapping water resources. The programme began with an outline of topics to be discussed, types of water sources and their recharge systems, water cycle, ground water and the importance of springs. Senthil from Hasanur said that in some areas the people dig shallow pits for water, but water collects only the next day. The importance of engaging with the villagers was highlighted using this example as it is only traditional knowledge that allows the communities to know places where water can be found just a foot or two below the surface. In many areas, springs have lost their importance with borewells and handpumps being the main source of drinking water. The participants also observed that a lot of wells were present along the banks of a stream. Vellaiyan mentioned an area in Pillur where water welling out of the ground at one point tastes salty but a nearby spring has better tasting water. Gokul responded that water is an universal solvent and minerals from rocks leach out into the water giving it a distinctive taste and that taste also depends on the amount of time that the water has been in contact with the rock. Gokul explained about hill wetlands which, thought very small in size, are crucial for regulating the flow of water downhill, preventing flash floods. During the presentation, he shared pictures of a spring source in Coonoor and then the landscape showing them how the area above the spring needs to be conserved to ensure a perennial spring. Springs are the lifeline of hill communities and though, traditionally springs have always existed, the question is how many of them are alive today and what is the quality of water it is discharging. ACWADAM, an organisation working across India on water-related issues water, estimated that India has 2 million springs. But there isn’t any specific data on the number and quality of these springs. One of the tasks that the water team is engaged in is to map springs in as many areas as possible in the Nilgiris. The next section of the training dealt with geology. The formation of the five types of springs – depression, contact, fracture, fault and karst, was explained. Springs in the NBR are mostly depression springs or contact springs and discharge varies with the amount of rainfall in the catchment areas. Tectonic plates, rock types – igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary, its formation and subsequent degradation into soil (rock cycle) were also discussed with the aim of bringing home to the volunteers the larger picture of which a spring is a part and the factors that impact a spring.  After this training, they were able to look at water in the larger context of a landscape rather than an isolated resource. The second half of the day was dedicated to water quality and the session was conducted by Bala. The participants were aware that if water is not clean, there is the danger of diseases and that disease incidence increases during monsoons when a lot of dirt and contaminants are washed by rainwater into the water source. Contamination of water can be anthropogenic (caused by man) or geogenic (as a result of rock properties). This makes it crucial that the communities be able to monitor water quality and know the significance of each substance present in it. Water quality checks for physical, chemical and biologic characteristics of water from a single source. The physical parameters tested are pH, turbidity, colour, odour, hardness, etc. The chemical parameters tested are nitrate, chloride, iron, fluoride, phosphate, heavy metals and toxins, etc. Long term consumption of water with high levels of any of these elements will have adverse effects on health. Examples were given of too much of nitrate in the water causes eutrophication (reduction in oxygen supply to tissue), resulting in blue baby syndrome and excess of fluoride causing erosion of bones and teeth. Shivanna from Punanjanur said that a seepages and wells in his area had water with a reddish tint and with an oily film on top. Bala explained that in the absence of industrial pollutants, this would be because of an excess of iron in the water. The soil in that area would be clayey, which has low oxygen content. This causes ferrous oxide from rocks to easily leach into the soil and water. Such water would have an oily film on top, be coloured red or yellow, and also have a distinct metallic taste. The simplest way to remove excess iron is to agitate the water stored in tanks so that atmospheric oxygen mixes with it and iron precipitates out. The presence of biological factors such as bacteria, virus, fungi, and algae are also tested for. The most important among these is faecal coliform bacteria. The presence of coliform bacteria indicates that faecal waste is contaminating water. One of the reasons for this is faulty containment structures (septic tanks) that allows untreated waste water to leach into ground water. Compounding factors would be lack of vegetation, the roots of which would have been able to clean the water before it reached groundwater, or the extreme proximity of the septic tank to a water source. The volunteers went to Happy Valley in Kotagiri for a short field visit on the first day. They observed the spring and spring box in the valley, the adjoining wetland and the catchment area. The Happy Valley restoration project was explained to them and how restoring an area of less than an acre above the wetland had improved quality of water in the valley and also made the spring a perennial one. The volunteers were given the questionnaires related to springs inventory, […]

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Gender equality meeting conducted in Sigur

5 December 2016, Masinagudi: A meeting on Gender Equality was held in Masinagudi Adivasi Colony on Saturday by Keystone’s Indigenous People’s Programme. The meeting was attended by 33 villagers, both men and women, and coordinated by Lalitha, Village Coordinator for Sigur, and Vasantha, Community Resource Person. The meeting, which was scheduled to be held at the Keystone Resource Centre at Vazhaithottam, was shifted to the village because of bad weather which had deterred the villagers from moving out of the village. The meeting began with a discussion of a family and what their aspirations are for the children – both girls and boys. The responses revolved around education and jobs and there was not much vocalization regarding anything other than the obvious necessities of life. When talking about a ‘good life’, neither the men nor the women spoke about to the concept of ‘wellbeing’ or ‘happiness’. So, the next question of “how do you keep a girl child happy?” did get them thinking. The women answered that the children, girls or boys, should never have to witness strife or conflict within the family. They were very clear that this does upset the children. The men on the other hand said that a woman would be happy as long as she got whatever materiel possessions she craved. This observation was in contrast to the answer to a different question placed later in the meeting where women replied that family time spent together simply talking or small outings made as a family, etc, are what give them the most happiness. Some of the topics discussed were sharing of domestic chores, forms of relaxation, managing household finances, decision making within the family, women in leadership roles, choices regarding marriage and triggers for domestic strife. Discussing the restrictions that are usually placed on women’s movement outside the village, the women said that one reason was that their domestic chores did not allow them time to spare and secondly, there was also the issue of lack of trust between spouses. This has led to a lot of women opting not to travel outside the village in an attempt to maintain peace within the family. Alcoholism is rampant within the community and many men are addicted to it. They are susceptible to suggestion when drunk and this is when suspicions take root in his mind. Very often, it is the wife who is physically abused in this situation. The woman is not able to defend herself because she cannot expect support from the in-laws and neighbours. When discussing sharing of domestic chores, the men said that they help to gather and chop firewood and sometimes fetch water, but all the other chores are done by women. The situation sometimes changes after marriage when men have to care for their wife during illness or periods. Parents present during the meeting said that they would like both the children to study well, but it is seen that the boys have mostly studied only till high school while most of the girls are going on to do their graduation. The twin triggers for domestic unrest – alcohol and lack of income were discussed in detail along with reasons for each. Overall, there was animated discussion where the men and women of different ages were able to share their thoughts on a common platform. Parents and children were able to share their hopes, fears and aspirations with each other. Lalitha and Vasantha, field personnel based in Sigur, will continue to monitor and motivate the community to vocalize and take action regarding issues related to gender equality.

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Meeting on Menstrual Health conducted in Kotagiri

24 November 2016, Kotagiri: Kathy Walkling of Eco Femme was in Keystone on Tuesday to speak to 20 women –  staff, volunteers  from Sweden, and villagers from Sigur, Semanatham and Anaikatty on the issue of menstrual health. Menstrual health is still a topic that few people, women or men, care to speak about. Besides the obvious reasons of privacy, there is still a lot of taboo associated with this normal and essential part of a woman’s life. The Indigenous People’s Programme decided to take up this issue to give the women basic knowledge regarding the menstrual cycle and changes occurring within the body during that time. The meeting started with the forming of small groups where the women discussed their personal experience of puberty. Kathy made a presentation illustrating the internal organs of the female reproductive system and a chart showing the 28-day menstrual cycle. She explained the cycle and answered questions reassuring the women that any cycle length between 19 and 45 days would be considered normal, but cautioned them that variations above and below these durations definitely required medical attention. She explained characteristics of different parts of the cycle and how it is related to the development of the uterus lining. Kathy made the women mark their cycles on a calendar and estimate their approximate date of ovulation.  The women highly appreciated this information as it gave them more knowledge, control and choice with regard to conception. The next topic that came up for discussion was the type of menstrual hygiene product that the women used. It was somewhat of a surprise to note that all the rural women were using commercial disposable sanitary pads spending anything between Rs 40 to Rs 150 in a month. Kathy explained to them the anatomy of a modern sanitary napkin, which contains very little, if any, organic material and is treated with chlorine to achieve the clean white look. The women were able to appreciate the risks associated with prolonged contact with chemically treated substances. The disposal of used sanitary pads was also discussed. Knowing that a single sanitary pad takes around 800 years to degrade was quite a shock to the women as was the knowledge that a single woman produces about 125-150 kgs of such non-biodegradable waste in her lifetime. Eco-friendly options such as washable cloth pads made of cotton and menstrual cups were shown to them and the use explained. When a show of hands was taken from the ladies present on whether they would like to move from the disposable napkin currently being used to an eco-friendly alternative, each hand shot into the air. When questioned on specific products, 17 women opted for the washable cotton pads while 16 said they would want to use the menstrual cup. When asked about the reason for the choices, the women said that these options were safe for health, good for the environment and, in the long run, more economical. Kathy further asked them if they felt disturbed about having to wash cloth pads instead of being able to throw them away, the women replied that washing was never the problem, it was always the embarrassment of drying the cloth openly and risk of stains that made them shift to disposable pads. They said that both those issues were addressed by the colourful cloth pads with their leakproof layer. The women joked about the cloth pads looking more like a child’s article of clothing rather than a menstrual hygiene product. The discussion left Kathy pleasantly surprised as she had been expecting some degree of hesitation towards both these options. The openness with which the village women discussed their doubts and concerns and considered alternatives made rest of the participants (Keystone staff and visitors from Sweden) feel very proud of them. Kathy  is co-founder of Eco Femme, an organisation that provides a livelihood opportunity to rural women by engaging the self-help group in manufacturing eco-friendly, washable cotton cloth pads. Kathy remarked that though she had been conducting such meetings for many years to generate awareness among rural women about the menstrual cycle and the impact of sanitary pads on the environment, this was the first time that she had met with a group that could think so progressively and be ready to inconvenience themselves a little to be able to protect the environment. The women said that they would return to their villages and educate other women and adolescent girls about menstrual health. The next step is now for Keystone to continue to maintain the momentum and establish linkages for the women to source washable cloth pads and menstrual cups as they had indicated that they would like to use.

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Training held on facilitating Village Water Security Plan

17 November 2016, Kotagiri: The water resources team held a meeting at campus today bringing together nine individuals (staff and volunteers) from Pillur, Sigur, Aracode, Konavakkarai, Nilambur and Coonoor. The meeting, conducted by Gokul and Selvi, reviewed data collected in the past month from these areas and set deadlines to complete baseline surveys and water resources inventory. The next step is to start collecting data for developing a Village Water Security Plan. A village WSP aims to provide safe and sustainable drinking water to the community. A template for a village water security plan has been developed with inputs from the guidelines of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) and engaging with the villages and getting baseline data is the first step towards implementing the Water Security Plan (WSP) in Keystone’s project areas. Water security plans seek to ensure optimum utilization of available water to meet the needs of various users This meeting focused on explaining the WSP to the participants and giving them pointers on how to conduct village meetings on water resources. Pointers included how to initiate a discussion in a village regarding water and how to engage the villagers and interest them in sharing data regarding water resources and use. NRDWP has developed a 5 phase process for water security in villages, starting with planning, implementation, and operation before moving on to monitoring and reporting. Developing a WSP involves the active participation of the Gram Sabha as this is where all decisions at the ground level are to be taken. Hence, the village leaders need to understand that springs, streams, rivers, and wetlands as being part of a very complex and sensitive system rather than individual resources. They also need to be informed as to the current situation of water in their area as well as details of usage in their own village. This information on baseline data regarding water use and mapping water sources is currently being compiled by the team members and volunteers of the Water Resources Programme. These individuals are the ones who will be generating enough data to enable the community to take informed decisions. The participants conducted mock sessions where they developed a question set that would pique the villagers’ curiosity and engage them in a discussion. They were trained on sustaining the discussion and creating a rapport with the community which would help with collecting data for further developing the draft village WSP. The plan developed would be implemented in a single village and used as a model that would be replicated and adapted for other areas.

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Exposure visit to Happy Valley for villagers from Pillur and Aracode

21 November 2016, Kotagiri: Village representatives from Pillur and Aracode visited Keystone today for a presentation and talk on springs, wetlands, streams and catchment area restoration. Keystone’s work in this area has been ongoing since 2006 when the Wetland Study identified Happy Valley as an important wetland for Kotagiri town. The Wetlands Study had surveyed 40 wetlands in and around the Nilgiris. Happy Valley is a small area, less than an acre, in the valley slope just below the Keystone campus. The valley floor, which is a wetland, has a number of wells including the Panchayat well that supplies water to Kotagiri town. The Happy Valley area, belonging to the Panchayat, was used by the local communities for open defecation and dumping garbage. Thus, the spring water source just below the catchment area was highly contaminated with faecal matter and other solid waste. After the presentation in Manda Arae today, all 29 visitors from Pillur and Aracode went down to the valley to look at the spring source and wetlands. They also walked through the patch of Panchayat land where restoration had been done with native shola forests. Aradukuttan, Subject Manager – Nurseries, took them through the history of Happy Valley and how the local schools, households living in the valley and the local governing bodies all came together to set about restoring the land. The community who used the area for open defecation were encouraged to build toilets, where Keystone helped in buying materials and manpower provided by the community themselves. The area which was covered with bushes and weeds was cleaned and fenced off by the Panchayat. Keystone raised a nursery of native shola trees and did a restoration activity in the area in 2006 with the participation of community, panchayat and a local school. Till date, more than 1000 saplings of 26 native shola species have been planted. This area was monitored continuously and, by 2016, the saplings had grown into a thriving patch of forest. Soon, the effect of the catchment area restoration was visible to all. The spring which used to go dry by the summer season earlier, now became perennial. Even though the wetland and the valley has seen a significant increase in the number of wells in the past few years, this small patch of shola forest has ensured, sustained and balanced the water level in the wells. Aradukuttan, Gokul and Selvi explained that the positive changes in the water situation in Happy Valley started to be evident 5 years ago when the spring regenerated. They explained that restoration is an ongoing process and the area is under constant maintenance to remove exotic species. The visiting villagers were able to see parallels between the earlier situation in Happy Valley and their current situation and are eager to begin similar projects in their area. They will be coordinating with the local community resource persons, Kannan in Aracode and Chandran in Pillur, who will take the lead in identifying watersheds in the community-owned lands where the Happy Valley model can be replicated after modifications to suit the specific area. This activity is part of the project on strengthening ground water management in the Nilgiris with a focus on springs conservation which is funded by Arghyam, which is a grantmaking foundation with a focus on groundwater and sanitation.

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Keystone Foundation
Keystone Centre, PB 35
Groves Hill Road, Kotagiri 643 217
The Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India

Telefaxes: +91 (04266) 272277, 272977
Email: kf[at]keystone-foundation[dot]org

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