An Atlas of the Invasive Plants of the Nilgiris Watershed

Keystone Foundation in collaboration with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and World Wide Fund for Nature –India proposed to undertake a participatory appraisal of the status of Invasive Alien Species of the Nilgiris watershed region.  Keystone with its 25-year presence in the landscape, ATREE with its technical expertise on Invasion Biology and WWF – India with its subject and landscape skills in conservation collaborated to create an ‘Atlas of the Invasives of the Nilgiris Watershed. In order to achieve this, a series of trainings will be conducted until next year. So, as a part of this series, an introductory course was conducted from August 29th – September 1st at Keystone Field Ecology Centre – Sathyamangalam. The focus of this course was to train and guide the participants to grasp the essential facts of Invasive plants, how to recognize them, practically understand research methodologies, mapping and learning sustainable management and control techniques to eradicate such species. A total of 22 participants from different backgrounds like students, Forest personnel etc. attended the course. There were 4 resource person that were part of this training – Anita Varghese, Ph.D. and Shiny .M. Rehel, Ph.D. from Keystone Foundation, Ankila Hiremath, Ph.D. from ATREE and Samuel Thomas from WWF India. The participants were given an introduction to Invasive species that grow in the region and how they can identify them depending on their appearance and characteristics. They were split into three groups with one instructor for each group to guide them. The groups were assigned to complete three tasks – Listing, mapping the density and interacting with the community to learn the linkages of the invasive plants with animals and the landscape. During the research phase, they were taught how to adopt an approach and frame relevant questions that will make the research constructive, and finally, how to consolidate the data obtained during the course. There are multitudes of reasons how invasive species was introduced in India and in various parts of the world. In the Nilgiri Region, most of them were brought as ornamental plants during the British period. These invasive species have become a growing concern in the Nilgiri Biosphere that poses great threat to the local ecosystem, its functions and affects the biodiversity present in the region. Some are a major threat to the native vegetation as they proliferate, which in turn causes less fodder for the herbivores that results in loss of habitat, some are considered to have negative effect on one’s health (eg: Parthenium hysterophorus)  and in some cases they are proved to cause conflicts between man and wildlife. The idea behind this collaboration is to be able to curb the damage caused by the alien species. The second phase will be an intensive training for identifying and mapping of invasive plants will be held towards the end of September, for more updates and registration process, stay tuned with us on http://www.facebook.com/keystonefoundation.

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Technology to helps us monitor, understand and live with the Gaur

In recent years, most regions in the Nilgiris are witnessing Gaur moving around in urban spaces like households, tea estates & agricultural fields and in some incidents even busy roads. Questions have been raised as to what has led to this situation, but the answers are still being deciphered. Several interpretations have been made in the recent past, but solutions to help us co-exist with them or vice versa in order to avoid conflicts are yet to prove effective. On September 9th, Keystone Foundation conducted a workshop ‘Living with Gaur’ for the residents, students and the Forest Department of Nilgiris. The workshop had a dual purpose; one was to bring- in different stakeholders under one forum to share their perspectives, suggestions in order to have a collective approach to mitigate rising conflicts between Humans and Gaurs.  The second reason was to promulgate the Gaur application for Android phones, an in-house fabrication to help us monitor gaur and their movement patterns. The session began at 10:00 a.m at the HADP Hall, in Ooty. Abhishek K.R, Additional Programme Coordinator (Conservation) along with Malavika. H. Narayana, Subject Manager (Research) conducted the sessions at the event. They spoke about identification and behaviour of the gaur to help the audience learn how to identify them viz. Difference in the shape of the horns, its dorsal ridge, dewlaps (a fold of loose skin hanging from the neck or throat) to identify the sex; skin colour, appearance to find out the age. Malavika spoke at length about wildlife management and its approach in understanding how animals have a deep connection with nature. In order to achieve this, it is important to observe their behaviour, interactions within themselves and when they’re around other species, foraging, movement and so on. Human disturbance has a large influence on wildlife behaviour. At many instances, we have noticed that the seasonal crowd are absolutely unaware and are still looking at these animals in the lens of a dog or cat. It is important to understand the needs and logic of these beings. The team here at Keystone that has been researching on gaur noticed that the animal behaves differently when shown aggression, which is often the reason for conflicts.  Abhishek said, “Every time aggression is shown by one person, the animal tends to think of humans as a foe and it attacks the next time a passerby walks in close proximity to the animal”.  Murugan- Forest Guard from Kotagiri Range, speaking at the event said “A little patience is needed when we come across the gaur, the animal doesn’t harm us at once, and conflict doesn’t happen at once, it always takes time”. After intense discussions, ideas were floated around; a brief session to introduce the application was held. ‘The Gaur’ application was developed  by Reul John, a student with a passion for programming, but also boredom during the summer before he went off to college convinced him to take it up. This led Abhishek to bring his idea to reality. He has been doing his research on Gaur for the past three years by following, observing and understanding the gigantesque elegant herbivore. The application was designed to manage the conflict situation jointly and for pre-empting conflicts. Through this application which has simple entries such as, location, time of spotting, date, sex, age and other observations if any, we can create a volunteer base of students and citizens to assist the Forest Department. The application will provide us with ample data to better understand why and where the conflicts are happening and hopefully give us new perspectives that were never considered before. Similar workshops are to be held in Coonoor and Kotagiri in the following months. As we receive data, the team at Keystone has planned to share it through maps and also make it more user friendly and incorporate suggestions given at the event.

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TNUSSP assessing Vulnerability of slums in Coimbatore

This month, a slum vulnerability assessment was conducted as a part of the Project- Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP). Keystone has been working on this Government of Tamil Nadu (GoTN) project since December 2015 along with three other organisations (IIHS, Gramalaya, CDD) that were commissioned to implement the programme via Technical Support Unit (TSU) within the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department (MAWS). The TSU’s help the State Govt. and cities in making improvements along the entire urban sanitation chain in their planning, implementation, and monitoring process. The study area for TNUSSP project in Coimbatore district constitutes of two town panchayats – Periyanaickenpalayam and Narasimhanaickenpalayam, situated 17 km north of Coimbatore city. The assessment was carried out in 11 slums across the towns. The population size of the town panchayats studied in Coimbatore ranges between 8,600 and 26,000 with an average household size of 4, which is equal to the State average. Poor hygiene due to lack of adequate sanitation facilities is prevalent in the towns. This lack of sanitation has far-reaching effects: it imposes significant public health and environmental costs on urban areas. Despite challenges faced in other basic necessities like electricity, roads and safe housing, the lack of access to adequate water and sanitation and unhygienic living conditions besides poor levels of government intervention remain the major concerns. This leads to a range of diseases like under-nutrition, physical weakness etc. The objective of the assessment is to identify the most vulnerable slums in these two town panchayats. This assessment would help in prioritizing efforts and in optimal use of available limited resources. The approach adopted for this assessment is by collecting slum level primary data. This was done through participatory observations of the slum and by conducting a group discussion with the community members that gave us a better insight. There were certain identified parameters on which the assessment was being carried out, such as, the location of the slum and its surroundings, condition of road that leads to the slum, type of housing and its drainage system. This has been done on the basis of observation. Apart from this, there are several other factors that played a crucial role in assessing the vulnerability of the slums; like source of water, type of toilet facility, literacy status, child labour, service coverage. This is obtained through group discussion with the community. With the collected data that were collected, each of those indicators will be scored on a scale of 0-2. Based on the cumulative score the slums will be categorized into three categories namely, least vulnerable, moderately vulnerable and most vulnerable. The end result will provide us information that shall help us recognize the most vulnerable slums that requires attention and immediate action. Further intervention is being planned in the coming months that shall enhance and speed up the implementation process.

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Water Conservation at Anjanagiri Estate

Keystone has guests visiting all through the year, and one such interested guest who wanted to know about our work visited recently. He was quite impressed by the work each group does separately and also has a holistic approach towards ecology, biodiversity, livelihood and market. He also wanted Keystone to work in his estate which he owned and located around the Aracode region in Kotagiri. We were asked to write a proposal focusing on aspects of Bee Keeping, Soil and Water Conservation and Eco – Restoration. A proposal along with budget was sent to Mr. Srini (owner of the estate). Bala and Gokul visited the Anjanagiri estate, a small tea estate amidst forests on the eastern slopes of the Nilgiris.  A drive from the Kotagiri town towards Sholurmattam and Kadasolai gets you into this estate. This 20-acre estate is surrounded by thick jungle, where we heard a number of birds singing on arriving at the estate gate. There goes a small forest path with steps which leads us to the Rangaswamy peak temple where people from various regions around the Nilgiris and from Coimbatore district visit once a year for a festival.We were welcomed by Mr. Srini and the managers of the estate and premises Mr.Anand and Dr.Charles. This was the first step before starting work in the estate. We from the water team comprising of four lead the discussion on how the watershed will be studied and what can be done, and we were given a go ahead signal from Mr. Srini immediately. We visited their premises several times after that as a team and sometimes individually just to understand the area better. Mr.Anand and Dr.Charles took us around the estate, where we made observations on various aspects of Water sources like Wells, Springs and the Geology in the region. Our second visit was to conduct a pumping test in one of their open wells. This exercise was done to understand the aquifer characteristics and its capacity to store and transmit water to the well. The more interesting part of this work was to create a small reservoir at the entrance of the estate. The check dam which was built years ago was a leaky structure which let out water to drain into the nearby stream. With the help of Mr. Robert Leo who heads the Appropriate technology programme in Keystone, a design was proposed to repair and redo the check dam to create a small reservoir. This reservoir is not just for the estate’s use or aesthetic beauty but also for the Indian Gaur, Elephants and other small mammals to come drink water during their walk past this estate. The above map was prepared to suggest potential areas and plans for implementing soil and water conservation measures. Soil and Water Conservation along with Rainfall monitoring in the Tea estates is a need of the hour to understand and battle the run-off, soil erosion and ground water recharge issues across the Nilgiris district. A report was prepared with the data collected and suggestions along with implementation plans were shared with the estate. Working with the personnel and the landscape was a completely new experience for the group. It was a pleasure to work with like minded people who think about Water as a scarce resource that needs conservation effort not just for human use but also for wildlife to access. It was surprising to see the wildlife friendly estate with minimum fencing, allowing wildlife to walk freely across the estate to move into adjacent forest patches. By taking up the Soil and Water conservation measures along with Bee Keeping and Avenue planting, this estate is moving towards an eco-friendly environment along with its green surroundings. The Avenue plantations and the Bee story with Bear threats will follow up in coming months.

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Welthungerhilfe workshop for development and enhancement of social enterprises and entrepreneurs

Welthungerhilfe (WHH), India along with Keystone Foundation and Last Forest conducted a three-day workshop – ‘India for Eco-food Campaign’ from 9th to 11th August.The workshop aimed to support aspiring entrepreneurs and micro-business owners to start new social enterprises and also to improve the existing enterprises. Keystone Foundation and WHH have been partners since 2013. WHH works closely and funds 30 groups that work towards sustainable agriculture for improving food & livelihood security of the rural communities across India. WHH chose small enterprises and entrepreneurs from Orissa, Bengal, and Jharkhand to participate in this workshop to help them in enterprise development that supports decent job creation, entrepreneurship and encourage the growth of micro, small and medium enterprises. The workshop offered effective coping strategies for these small enterprises that work with vulnerable communities to strengthen their livelihoods and create new opportunities for decent work.  Nivedita Varshneya – Country Director, WHH India and Anushman Das, Programme Manager along with Robert Leo, Deputy Director (Keystone Foundation) and Mathew John, Managing Director (Last Forest) conducted the workshop. On the first day, they visited Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company, a producer company incubated by Keystone Foundation to understand how a farmer producer company functions right from procurement, internal operations & management, branding, and Marketing.  Later, a session was held to show the importance of having the production and marketing sectors as separate entities for smooth management. Aadhimalai and Last Forest were shown as examples, in which the procurement is carried on by the former from indigenous communities and the latter works as a base to market the produce procured. This benefits the community as well as the entrepreneur. Kavita Pandya, a designer consultant for Last Forest conducted a session on how branding and design will bring value to their products and showcase the impact and work opportunities that it is creating for the rural communities. Participants also worked together in small groups to solve problems and through sharing existing knowledge and experiences, entrepreneurs were able to help each other understand formal concepts, and develop stronger skills for improvement. On the last day, time was spent on reflecting all that they had grasped about the several aspects that contribute to building a social enterprise. As an organization, we were able to relate to and offer solutions to the participants, as our spin-offs were projects that grew into an enterprise that benefits the indigenous communities of the Nilgiris.

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Confined by Culture yet yearning for prosperity

Frequently we host visitors from different organisations and institutions who arrive to assimilate the kind of work we undertake as an organisation with the indigenous communities. The visit is usually an exposure trip during which they observe, interact and learn about our areas of work. Last week we hosted three groups of women from Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, Dhaatri Trust based in Hyderabad and Sakhi Trust from Hospet. Dhaatri and Sakhi Trusts work towards empowering women and children. They facilitated this exposure trip for women from the communities they closely work with. Most of the women who visited were single and some were students. These were women that were confined by culture but are striving and willing to make a difference within their communities We began the day with the campus tour. Right after our customary tea at 11 am, we asked them to assemble at ‘Mandakal’ (meeting hall) to introduce each other. Speaking indistinctly among themselves perhaps due to the frigid weather that they were yet to acclimatize to, the women marched down to the meeting hall with curiosity. Later, after we introduced ourselves, we headed out to take them around. Our spin offs Last Forest and Aadhimalai that work towards fair trade and empowering community-based enterprise, caught the attention of these avid minds. In some way, they could relate to it. Even though we had to translate into three different languages, it was gratifying to see these young women showing keen interest. As we were conversing, translating and moving from one building to another, one of the women from a community from the Panna Tiger Reserve mentioned that NTFP collection from their forest is a primary source of income and helps the families get 10 to 15 days of work in a month. People collect Tendu Patta, Harda, Baheda, Amla, Char, Mahua etc. However, she pointed out that sometimes they are deceived. She said “We are not aware of market rates of the produce that we collect. The traders buy it from us at a cheaper price but sell it for a much higher price”. They also stressed on how being part of a National Park, there is restriction in harvesting NTFPs. And hence it has affected the income of people dependent on the forest for their livelihood. This has forced the local inhabitants to work as daily wage labourers. After briefing them on all our programme areas, in response to their hesitant request to learn about beekeeping, we gave a practical demonstration with the help of our beekeeping expert, Justin Raj. They spent the next couple of days visiting two of our production centres, at Pudukad and Hasnur, studiously taking notes to remember the process, to help them replicate it back in their communities. It was overwhelming for us to engage with a group so earnest and we believe that we have imparted relevant knowledge that will benefit them and their communities. These women weren’t looking for opportunities but were creating them.

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Forest Rights Act Community Training at Sengalpudur & Anaipalam,Coonoor.

Their forest, but are they aware of their rights? Since the enactment of the Forest Rights Act 2006, there have been gaps in the implementation, which hasn’t brought much justice to the tribal communities. There haven’t been notable interventions to measure the effectiveness of the law. To what level has it made an impact is an unanswered question. Although it is claimed to be a big step by the government to undo the historical injustice committed against the indigenous and forest dwelling communities, the implementation has been disappointing.   This, however, is a process that eventually faces a number of challenges. It has been noted that much emphasis is given to few provisions of the act rather than the whole act. Keystone has realised that it’s important to assess to what extent the communities have understood the law, and if they have – how we can help them access the right envisaged under the law. The livelihoods programme at Keystone conducted training on FRA at Sengalpudur (Irula settlement) and Anaipalam ( Irulas and Kurumbas), both in the Coonoor Taluk. There are a total of 104 families residing in these villages. The Village Officer and Revenue Inspector of Coonoor were also present at the session. The focus of the training was on different aspects such as, helping them understand about each document (Form A, B & C) and what it stands for, training the Gram Sabha (village council) to be more sovereign, helping the Forest Rights Committee (FRC) in mapping the land they use, submitting forest rights claims via the Gram Sabha and following up with government officials on the status of these claims. Claiming their CFR is a complex process and lot of evidence is often demanded by the officials. In order to obtain the evidence, they need to approach Revenue and Forest Departments. These procedures are difficult for the communities to handle. Therefore most of the time the claims are found pending because of lack of evidence. A raft of studies done by the World Bank say that local communities are best equipped to safeguard valuable forests, and those with strong land rights are the most effective. The indigenous communities play a crucial role in protecting the critical ecosystems that are gradually degrading in the Nilgiris. Keystone will continue to provide support to the indigenous communities through trainings that will involve every stakeholder, to utilize the law in a much more effective way for the welfare of the communities and individuals.

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Guidance towards better health

There are several factors that contribute to maintaining good health. By good health, we mean both physical and mental health. Which is largely disconnected in today’s world. We fail to understand how physical health can lead to increased risk of developing mental health problems and vice versa.  The challenge is to approach health holistically and break the notion of physical and mental health as separate problems. The ‘Health & Nutrition’ programme works closely with the indigenous communities of the NBR. The team visited two programme areas, Pillur and Nilambur to conduct meetings with women in the communities on menstrual hygiene, a topic that is not often discussed.  At both the meetings, women ranging from 17-40 years of age were present. In rural areas, dialogues on menstrual health, stems out of taboo.This meeting paved the way for the women to speak freely to obtain advice on menstrual hygiene. The team advised them on hygiene practices that should be followed. The participants raised the issues of lack of access to menstrual hygiene, a problem that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, these products are likely to become costlier with the imposition of a new tax on the same. The team also conducted training in Nilambur on mental health for five ‘nalam’ workers, otherwise known as volunteers of the health programme. They were taught how to handle or identify such problems if it prevails in their community and the means through which it could be dealt with. The team imparted knowledge about how food plays an important role in the prevention of mental health problems. The programme continues to provide nutritional support by providing Ragi and urges the community to pay heed to what they feed the ailing. To take it forward, a series of meetings with the same agenda is to be held in the coming months. Rural healthcare is one of the biggest challenges faced in our country with over 70 percent of the population living in rural areas. Keystone Foundation through this programme wishes to improve the accessibility and quality of health care for the indigenous communities in the NBR.

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Attempt to make Farming and Beekeeping go hand in hand

Apiculture was reintroduced as a major programme after the programme restructuring had taken place earlier this year.  We decided to offer more trainings on apiculture to students, tribal and non- tribal farmers and others to help them understand the importance of bees and educate farmers to integrate bees into their farming practices, so they can benefit from the pollination services. The plan to offer a series of training’s and courses is to be implemented from this month, through which we wish to teach the basics of bees, apiculture, and the use and maintenance of equipment and to promote beekeeping as a recreational hobby. As a part of this series, an introductory training on beekeeping was conducted at the beginning of this month at Ooty. The training took place at the Hill Area Development Programme (HADP) hall. In the beginning, the training was planned for a specific target group – tribal farmers of the Nilgiris. Since the word had spread, many of them were keen to attend this training. Around 42 tribal farmers (Women & men), organic farmers and horticulturists attended the training. The Project Director of HADP, Deputy Block Development Officer (BDO) and officials of the SC/ST Welfare Department were also present. The HADP department is planning to provide bee boxes to the tribal farmers to maintain an apiary in their respective farms. Keystone was asked to conduct this training in association with the HADP to educate the farmers on the significance of bees and the role that they play in pollination. Justin Raj (Subject Manager – Apiculture) and Robert Leo (Deputy Director) of Keystone conducted the training.  They spoke on various topics like types of bees, the science of bees, pollination, hive maintenance, handling equipment etc. Farmers who attended the training were mostly practising beekeeping or had a small apiary in their farm, although some of them did not. Conventional farmers were able to relate how using pesticides will affect their apiaries and cause damage to bee colonies. We hope many were encouraged to make a transition to organic farming. Keystone has been supporting farmers by providing tools, equipment, bee boxes and training. At present, there are 29 bee colonies in our programme working areas out of which 16 are maintained by farmers who practise beekeeping. We wish to increase the practice of beekeeping by conducting more trainings, each of it directed towards a specific group to make it more effective. For those of you who are interested in learning and understanding the role of bees in ecosystem, follow us on www.Facebook.com/keystonefoundation/ to get more updates on trainings and events.  

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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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