Archive for May 2013
Last year there were significant milestones and steps taken to recognize and protect India’s Western Ghats. In July 2012 a handful of sites up and down the 16,000 km length Ghats area were given the UNESCO World Heritage Tag. Previous to this the release of the lengthy and comprehensive Gadgil report (made public first in late 2011) by eminent scientists had stirred a spectrum of responses to the proposals to protect the areas ecology and landscapes. The negative perception from some government agencies and vested interest was such that another report was commissioned (the Kasturirangan panel)! The Western Ghats encompass an enormous and diverse ecological area that I’ve been fortunate to be intimately associated with and the news elicited a more personal reflection on what the area has meant to me.
My earliest memories are of walks and camping trips amongst clean, gurgling streams and cool sholas in the Palani Hills. Several years earlier, before my first memories and birthday, my parents had backpacked me through the rolling downs of the Brahmagiris on the Kerala/Karnataka border. As child and teenager growing up with an eclectic mix of American, Bengali, south Indian and global influences the mountains offered a unique opportunity for self-discovery, an appreciation of the interdependence nature and spiritual appreciation of the infinite. Since 1992, issues concerning ecology, landscape and human interaction in the Western Ghats have been the focus for my explorations, learning, photography and writing. These are passion pursuits that eventually became the focus of my life and teaching as I entered and became comfortable with a career in international education. In recent years my geographic focus has shifted to Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, cousins of the Western Ghats in so many ways, yet I maintain a strong interest in developments across the straits.
My response to the news and then the swirling controversy was to write something about it and this eventually found its ways into the pages of Sanctuary Asia, India’s preeminent wildlife magazine that was founded by Bittu Sahgal in the early 1980s. By the time the article came out this month (see screen shots below) the news was long forgotten but the issues of conservation, loss of biodiversity, water security, community rights and tourism development remain relevant and unresolved.
Following the UNESCO designation of the Western Ghats a World Heritage Site in July 2012 there were a series of informative pieces published friends and colleagues in the Indian media. On July 3rd the Hindu ran an editorial that highlighted the UNESCO announcement. Subraba Sehsan emphasized the challenges of living up to the new limelight of the UNESCO World Heritage listing in her article in the Hindustan Times on July 8th. Janiki Lenin wrote about the Western Ghats controversy in Outlook Traveller with a rich selection of images from Kalyan Varma. Organizations such as ATREE, the Nature Conservation Foundation, the French Institute in Pondicherry and WWF-India continue the important work of addressing conservation challenges from a scientific point of view. Others in organizations, such as Kalpavirksh, work to promote environmental sustainability and ensure that communities are empowered to participate in conservation decisions.
For a further exploration of my published work on the Western Ghats see the Published Work page on High Range Photography. In July 1994 I published my first significant photo-essay and article on the Western Ghats in the India Magazine (a publication that is now, sadly, defunct). I then spent several years researching, photographing and assembling pieces on the Nilgiri tahr, as an example of an endangered Western Ghats species. In 2001 I exhibited and gave lectures on the Western Ghats at the India International Centre and Bombay Natural History Society. In August 2003 I wrote about the Palani Hills in Frontline and advocated for a protected area to be designated in the range. The focus on the Palanis has been followed up with articles on ecological restoration in Sanctuary Asia (June 2006) and Frontline (April 2012). Both of these highlight the important work of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust in restoring native vegetation in the Palanis. For several years my wife Raina and I lived, worked and explored in the Sahyadris just outside of Pune. An account of this unique range of the (northern) Western Ghats was published in Sanctuary Asia (2005) and Man’s World (2004).
Asian Geographic (2008) and Geo (2009) have also published my photo essays and articles on the Western Ghats, which give a sense of the whole range from a visual and descriptive point of view. ARKive has a dedicated page on the Western Ghats and I was honored that they have profiled several of my color images (by way of the Nature Picture Library). In all of these efforts, my goal has been to paint a picture of the landscapes in black & white to illustrate the stark magnificence of landscapes, varied vegetation types, human interaction and conservation. I use color imagery to highlight aspects of the biodiversity-one of the two main reasons that the Western Ghats are vital (the other being water). The field of photography has changed in these last 20 years and I continue to work on the same themes using a variation of the early approach but in the digital medium. In the last five years I have become intrigued with spatial aspects of the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot and am using GIS to explore, analyze and understand the landscape and its changes.
Just two weeks ago news emerged that the government of Tamil Nadu has designated the Palani (or Kodaikanal) Hills as one of four new protected areas in the state. This comes as welcome news, though it is yet to be seen what the exact boundaries are, how this will affect the significant human communities and activates (tourism, plantation agriculture etc.) and if restoration activities will be allowed within the protected area.