Month: March 2011

Roads, revetments, and restoration

Roads, revetments, and restoration

by divya and sridhar

In the last year or so, there has been a frenzied expansion of the road between Attakatti and Valparai—most of it through the protected area (Anamalai Tiger Reserve) and adjoining buffer zone in the Valparai plateau. Earth from the shoulders holding up tea bushes and trees has been gouged out to fill the gap between the current extent of the road and the culvert and revetments being built off it to expand this steep hill road. This road starts at about 400 m (Aliyar) and climbs to an altitude of 1480 m (Kavarkal) boasting of 40 hair-pin bends over 40 km!

The hill road to Valparai (Photo: Manish Chandi)
The hill road to Valparai (Photo: Manish Chandi)

After such work has begun, we have witnessed landslips—occurrences unheard of in these hills—in the last four years ever since there has been a push for attracting tourists. The solution is cement and granite! Remove plants and build metre-high revetments and culverts to prevent landslides and soil erosion! Never mind the hills in the plains with their great-horned owls and hedgehogs and foxes blasted and mined out of existence for the stones and granite to reinforce the mountains here that are older than the Himalaya. The plants have done their job for long enough and it is time we take on the responsibility is it? Do not let plants (even a tuft of grass) grow on these as they will corrode the man-made structures. The infrastructure the various departments aim to provide are good, wide roads. Speed breakers are not good for the modern cars. Never mind if a few monkeys or mongooses or deer get run over. Actually may be we should remove them, too, so that they will not interfere with the speed of the bikes and cars. The traffic on these hills have increased many fold as have the number of accidents due to reckless driving. While local people continue to struggle in crowded buses to reach their homes, we also now see motor rallies with convoys of speeding cars and bikes go through. Is this development? Is this what roads through such vitally important hills and forests are meant for?

The animals too have suffered. The arboreal mammals have to make huge leaps across the roads where the canopy connectivity is lost, or come down to the roads. The wall-like culverts on one side and the steep mud banks on the other prevent escape for the animals caught on the road. They fall prey to the wheels—resulting in countless road-kills.

Wide canopy gaps-a hurdle for canopy dwellers like the Lion-tailed Macaques
Wide canopy gaps-a hurdle for canopy dwellers like the Lion-tailed Macaques

All along this highway, we have lost the benign and beautiful fern- and impatiens-covered slopes to obnoxious weeds like lantana and others, due to the regular ‘maintenance’ work and chronic disturbance, including the indiscriminate slashing of all vegetation native or weedy. The roots of many large trees are exposed and are waiting to fall during the next monsoon. And of course the tree-falls would be good enough excuse to be rid of trees along the road. And thus the forest recedes.

Native ferns and impatiens lining the road
Native ferns and impatiens lining the road
Roads now lined with thorny invasive alien lantana and exposed soil
Roads now lined with thorny invasive alien lantana and exposed soil

Just last month, on February 14th, the road work struck a blow to our 6-year old restoration plot adjoining the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, in a private forest fragment belonging to Parry Agro. The site had been dug up using a JCB for expansion of the road and the mud and rocks dumped over the treelets and regenerating saplings in the plot. A third of the plot had been destroyed. The boards declaring it a restoration plot and carrying a plea not to cut trees, and even the fence marking the boundary, had not mattered. We were devastated.

Digging and dumping into the restoration plot.
Dug and dumped into the rainforest restoration plot.

However, the same evening that we had discovered this, we informed the management of the company and the Forest Department, and they decided to do a field check the next morning and stop any further construction activity over there. The next day was a long but ultimately heartening one. We had unstinting support both from the Range Forest Officer, Mr Lakshmanaswamy, and the Managers of Parry Agro (who own that land and partner with us in the restoration work). The contractor and engineers could be convinced of our arguments. The contractor, Mr. Jayaraman, has been very polite and understanding and has heeded to our request of not widening the road, but to stabilise it with a rock wall with no further extension. However, they are quite at a loss as to what changes they can make in the granted contract without destroying forests or being pulled up for not completing the contract.

Why are we in such a situation? It is probably because of the failure to distinguish roads going through forests (even private forests) from roads that pass through cultivated or built-up areas. It also represents the failure to treat roads in the hills, that receive higher rainfall, differently from roads in the plains and drier tracts. Finally, while extra care is taken when the road goes through private plantation areas and private property, little heed is paid to forests and forest vegetation (in private forests and protected areas) during road construction, widening, or ‘maintenance’.

At the restoration site, there was no need for a road wider than what exists here already—three 4-wheel vehicles can pass by each other comfortably. Do we need something more than that in the hills? Could not a simple roadside crash-guard be installed for safety of travelers? This would have meant little disturbance to vegetation and minimal obstruction for animal movement.

Crash-guards can be used for roads through forests
Crash-guards can be used for roads through forests

Such roads works are often carried out ostensibly to prevent soil erosion, when actually this part of the hills is probably one of the most stable and with good natural forest cover. But now, after the digging, if left the way it was, the road could cave in. Therefore, we had to let them build some support. Moreover, since all the soil has been just thrown over, they would need to either scrape the soil from the plot along with all our plants or dig up somewhere else. Is all this really necessary? Couldn’t we plan better? Can’t we live comfortably without destroying forests? Already, unnoticed by us, a 200-metre stretch of such destruction has been done lower down some distance from our restoration plot.

Road widened by clearing forest and building revetments.
Road widened by clearing forest vegetation and building revetments.

In the middle of our discussion with the road contractors and highways engineers, our motivation was pepped-up by the Great Hornbill that landed on a tree nearby. Everyone present there were thrilled to see it. And their support became even stronger.

Great Hornbill
Great Hornbill

Over the next two days, about ten people from the Nedunkundru Kadar settlement, who work with us on the restoration project, patiently and carefully rescued as many plants as possible smothered by the soil dump. Each one of them were carefully resurrected, provided support, and watered. Hope all their efforts will not be in vain and these plants will revive. I thank them all for their effort.

We are still monitoring the site everyday as the work is being completed and hopefully wrapped up. We hope that with this the destruction of the forests here by road works will end. Another 200 m length that had been planned is now probably and hopefully stalled.

Our first two weeks in Valparai

Our first two weeks in Valparai

(19.2.11)

The tale of our life in Valparai begins as we left Bangalore, and then proceeds in no logical fashion to the present day, leaving in only the bits I’ve remembered and/or can be bothered to describe. At some point, I hope, we’ll use these ramblings as the basis of a hit sitcom charting the hilarious adventures of two confused British girls as they navigate rural India, and a series of classic children’s books about the goats that roam the streets of Valparai, climbing in dustbins and fighting by the statues. (We are avid goatwatchers.) Until then, these scraps of writing in cyberspace will suffice.

The trip from Bangalore to Valparai was really an adventure in itself. We’d thought of getting the bus or train…but with 2 harp traps in 8m long protective cases, 2 bundles of heavy telescopic mist net poles heavily scotch taped to stop them telescoping all over the road, 2 suitcases, 2 big backpacks and 2 day packs, we eventually opted for a taxi. The poor driver’s eyes nearly popped out at the sight of us standing with all that lot at 5am, waiting to strap it onto the roof of his Indicar. Not for the first time since leaving England, we pondered on the size and weight of the equipment designed to catch tiny flying creatures, many of whom weigh under 20g. Some under 5g. Nevertheless, he gamely took us on and landed us safely in Coimbatore, our changeover point.

Up til now we’d been enjoying Bangalore’s balmy climate, the greenery of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and the incredible helpfulness of NCBS staff. Where else would the university drivers drop you at a shopping mall free of charge, or the reception allow you to make international phone calls on their phone? This was a new world of luxury for us, and we were rapidly growing accustomed to it.

Coimbatore was a very rude bursting of the bubble.

Hot, dirty and crowded – so, so hot. Sweat dripped from our brows as we tried to reason with the staff at the hotel where we were due to meet our local driver. Can we use the phone? We’ll pay? No. Can we sit with our luggage in the car park til we find our next driver? No. Can we pay to sit with it in reception? No. We trawled the dusty streets, looking for the guy that was going to take us into the mountains and away from here. Eventually, he found us; I guess word of two bewildered white girls asking for someone from Valparai gets around. Sweating buckets, we lashed the equipment to his car and headed for the hills.

I’ve made the journey from Coimbatore to Valparai before, and remembered that it was stunning. I’d forgotten how stunning. Looping up the side of the mountain, watching the lake drop away steeply below us as we gazed at the high peaks above was unutterably exhilarating. It felt wonderful to get off the hot, dusty plains and breathe the fresh mountain air, feel a cool wind on our arms and feast our eyes on green. Our journey was further improved by bumping into a whole troupe of Lion-Tailed Macaques in the road. (Not literally. Their minders have big sticks which I presume are used to beat anyone who hits an LTM.) I’d never seen these pretty creatures before, but sadly my camera was shut in the boot; Emma managed to get a few shots of a mum with a tiny baby hanging off her through the window. A perfect start to life in Valparai!

Every day since has really been an experience here. Even walking into town is a big deal, especially the first day we were here when everyone came out to gawp at us! We quickly decided a smile and a wave to everyone staring was the best policy, as people then smiled back at us, but we are still trying to shake the feeling of being the two headed circus freaks that everyone wants a good look at. When people stare at us we have to shake our initial thoughts (Do I have food on my face? Is my hair messy? Is my skirt tucked into my pants?) and try to remain calm and friendly ambassadors for the UK. Coming from multicultural London with people from all over the world, where in many places brightly hued, studded and pierced punks attract little more than a passing glance from the locals, it’s very odd to be so noteworthy for my appearance! A lot of the shopkeepers know us a bit now though, and smile and congratulate us when we manage to use a few words of Tamil, which is really nice; and we’ve been taken to the houses of strangers and fed and made welcome, just because they saw us and wanted to. (I’d run a mile if anyone offered to take me home and cook for me in London!) Other than the occasionally rather invasive questioning (“How will you English cope without Scotch whisky?”) we cannot fault this place on friendliness, and if people stare at us…well, we sneak admiring glances at their colourful saris, the fresh jasmine flowers in women’s hair and the fabulous gold jewellery that people adorn themselves with too.

Sacred tree resized

We can’t claim not to be surprised and shocked by a few things here, however. A few nights ago Emma and I were sitting in bed when we heard the noises of a terrible beast outside the house; guttural, harsh noises, so loud it seemed that the creature was in the room with us. Summoning all our courage, we grabbed a spotlight and crept out to see what was disturbing us. A dog? A leopard? A tiger, perhaps?

It was a neighbour snoring loudly. So loudly we could hear it in our room despite living in a detached house. Since then, we’ve been startled by the hacking, choking sound of people engaged in protracted throat clearing – we really thought someone was dying the first time we heard it, although it seems to be a regular occurrence – and are growing used to the snores. I still check under the bed for leopards though. I guess it’s just another cultural difference to get used to, along with losing the feeling of discomfort at other people driving and cooking for us (other than our parents, as I’m sure they’ll point out), and resisting the urge to plug our miracle anti-aging creams every time someone points at a 100 year old British building and says ‘you built this!’

I’m afraid I can’t talk about our time here without mentioning the C-word. Cockroaches, that is – huge, prickly legged, disgusting cockroaches. Another thing I’d never seen at home – they probably don’t survive well on a diet of balsamic vinegar and rocket leaves in my native North London, and Oop North in Yorkshire where I’ve spent most of my adult life, I guess people must catch them in their flat caps and feed them to their whippets, because I’ve never known anyone to have them in the house. But yet these were some of the first wildlife we saw in Valparai. The elephant problems had led to all our meetings with managers being cancelled, so we decided that the most useful thing we could do would be to clean the house. We donned sparkly earrings and headscarves, and grabbed a sponge each. Cleaning can be glamorous, right?

It was all going well until we hit the kitchen. I was outside cleaning the bins when I heard a shriek and Emma came flying out through the door, carrying a whole bowl of cockroaches which she flung into the garden. A huge cockroach nest. We took a moment to recover our nerves and went back in, armed with metal spatulas, flailing wildly as we squashed everything in sight. It was a fierce battle.  There was shouting (us) and running (them), but eventually we scraped them off the floor, popped them into the (sparklingly clean) bin and sat down to have a cold drink and steady ourselves. As I write, the war is petering out; we’ve hidden their food, Mr Muscled every surface, chucked out the cardboard they love to live in and squash fewer every day. But they fight back with guerrilla tactics, such as positioning a huge warrior on our route to the toilet at night to make us jump; I think the last stages of the conflict could drag on for months. But we will, I think, eventually quell the uprising.

*     *     *

Well, we’ve spent two weeks up here in the hills now. We haven’t actually been out to catch any bats yet… but we’re getting there! Thick, pink gloop has been mixed and poured and chopped for the pollen cubes; we’ve staggered round the garden with 6m poles and bits of rope tied together to work out how to raise high mist nets; mouldy bat bags have been laundered, aired and sorted; bat detectors have been sworn at; and endless tubes have been filled with ethanol, ready for the genetic samples. Our wellies are at the door ready to get going on Monday….

Despite being stared at, startled by throat clearing noises, chasing cockroaches and developing a keen interest in the freshness of elephant dung at our study sites (don’t worry Mum, we won’t get squashed, I promise), we’ve loved our time so far in Valparai. I’ve never sat on the office steps reading and seen a striped mongoose walking down the road in front of me before; I love hearing the strange song of the whistling thrush, and catching a glimpse of iridescent blue-black as it flies into the mango tree above me; and looking at the silhouettes of the mountains in the cool evening air has drained the last vestiges of stress from me. It’s taken time to meet people and get permission to work on their land? Gazing at the shola grasslands emerging from the thick forested slopes, I can’t be frustrated. Everything will happen, eventually. It feels good to let go of my British city need to be busy every second of the day, and enjoy the minutiae of everyday occurrences. I truly relish every moment when we take a break to sit in our favourite roadside tea-shack, sipping hot black tea and nibbling on delicious parram-bhaji, smelling the fragrant wood smoke, gazing over the hills and trying out new Tamil phrases with the kind-eyed man who runs the place. At such moments, it seems that these are truly life’s great luxuries.

Work will start in earnest soon enough. In meantime, driving around Valparai in the Gypsy I keep looking out at the landscape and pinching myself to check that it’s real; I am really privileged enough to be fulfilling a lifelong dream, working with a conservation NGO in a fascinating country full of beautiful wildlife. The adventure has just begun.

Murugali River resized