The Western Ghats sentinel landscape

Last update on Feb. 25, 2014.

The Western Ghats sentinel landscape

**Forest and Agroforest Mosaics of the Western Ghats**

Agroforesty systems (coffee, tea, rubber, pepper, arecanut, cardamom) shape much of the landscape of the Western Ghats, India, and the mountain range has been identified as a biodiversity hotspot (Conservation International 2008; Myers et al. 2000). Before the development of large scale commercial cultivation under British colonial rule, rice was the main staple crop cultivated in terraced fields in the lowlands. Adjoining those were large tracts of wet evergreen, moist and dry deciduous forests under various types of management, from which farmers obtained a variety of ecosystem services. Commercial agriculture in the Western Ghats existed for centuries in the form of the association of arecanut, pepper and cardamom plantations and was the source of the famous 'spice trade' from India. Large-scale conversion to commercial coffee and tea plantations was a technological change, but also a consequence of colonialism that changed land tenure systems and preferentially gave large swathes of commonly held forest to British planters. With the global commoditization of commercial crops since 1940 and particularly after Indian independence, the paddy fields became less valuable and the forests under diverse tenures (including private) have been converted into estates (Garcia et al. 2007; Ramakrishnan et al. 2000). Commercial crops now reach right up to the fringes of protected areas (National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries). In many cases the only forests left in the agroforestry mosaic are small fragments, either community managed in the case of sacred forests, or privately owned.

The area has witnessed massive demographic changes since the independence. Despite the Constitution, Indian society continues to be shaped by castes and tribe affiliations. In the proposed area, forest dwelling communities of Scheduled Tribes (8% of the population) live side by side with agricultural workers and migrants, often Scheduled Castes (12% of the population)(Census of India 2001). The land is controlled by smallholders as well as large industrial corporations. Various religions (Hindu, Muslim, Christian) dictate different relations towards nature and forests, and traditional practices associated with sacred forests are replaced by mainstream Hinduism, temples replacing forests in many cases (Garcia & Pascal 2006) or simply lose relevance in a modern market oriented society (Demps et al. 2012).
Massive immigration after 1940 has fueled the plantation economy and diluted former hierarchies, redistributing power between migrants and locals (Guilmoto 2000). Urbanisation, new opportunities offered by the burgeoning urban centers of Bangalore and Mysore, large scale infrastructure projects (railroad, dams), major policy changes such as the Forest Rights Restitution Act, 2006 (Macura et al. 2011) and struggles between conservationists and advocates of civil rights (Ghazoul 2007; Sekhsaria 2007) are redefining the links between society and nature in a crowded space.

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