Weather weary, Western Ghats need cover

Considering the rapidly changing climate that is affecting monsoon, a holistic approach is needed to conserve a biodiversity hotspot like the Western Ghats.
Western Ghats during the wet season. (Photo courtesy: Arne Huckelheim) Western Ghats during the wet season. (Photo courtesy: Arne Huckelheim)

The Western Ghats in India is one of the many mega biodiversity regions in the world. Covering six states namely, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the Western Ghats has a wide range of vegetation and topographical features. Biogeographically, the hill chain of the Western Ghats constitutes the Malabar province of the oriental realm, running parallel to the west coast of India from 8° N to 21° N latitudes, 73° E to 77° E longitudes of around 1600 km. The region forms the upper catchment of major rivers like the Krishna, the Godavari and the Cauvery and several of their tributaries. The ghats are currently known to have more than 5,000 plant and 140 mammal species, 16 of which are endemic in nature. Meanwhile, the Western Ghats is one of the world’s most heavily populated biodiversity hotspots supporting 400 million people by providing water, transport, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. It also controls soil erosion and maintains soil fertility, control air pollution through carbon sequestration, provide timber and non-timber products, food and herbal products and other resources to sustain many livelihoods. 

The Western Ghats region faces the long-term implications of estate plantations, undesirable agricultural practices and rapidly changing climate which have already created many ecological and environmental problems like soil nutrient decline, the reduction of soil’s water retention capacity and a rapid loss of unique biodiversity. 

The Western Ghats is native to lakhs of unique tribal people like the Thodas of Nilgiris, the Soligas of B.R. Hills, the Malekudiyas of Belthangady, the Halakki Vokkals of Uttara Kannada, the Sidhis of Kumta, the Paniyas of Wayanad, the Kattunayakans of Malabar and many others in Goa and Maharashtra. These tribal communities, living in dense forests, face extremely difficult livelihood situations leading to poverty and malnutrition resulting in a high morbidity pattern among the tribals. In this context, the Western Ghats conservation and sustainable livelihood development process are very important for the nation’s development. 

Here are some good environmental conservation and sustainable livelihood practices in the Western Ghats that would help conserve the biodiversity of the region. 

Integrated watershed development approach 

The Western Ghats region act as the main catchment area for the south Indian rivers during the southwest monsoon. Hence, relevant water management initiatives are required to secure water for long-term biosphere conservation and sustainable livelihood development in the region. An integrated watershed approach that envisages the identification and delineation of macro and micro watersheds is the need of the hour. An integrated development plan for each macro or micro watershed covering all relevant areas such as soil conservation, agriculture, horticulture, afforestation, animal husbandry, sericulture, etc through people’s participation should be taken. 

Community involvement at each stage, starting from planning to execution of watershed works, need to be done. Various treatments like continuous contour trenching (CCT), trench-cum-stone bounding (Gardenias), and field bund improvement help in improving the soil moisture and reduce the velocity of runoff water, thereby recharging the groundwater. 

Using indigenous knowledge

The integration of scientific knowledge with traditional wisdom of the people of the Western Ghats would help to develop technologies which are need-based, cost-effective, convincing and credible to the local people. This indigenous knowledge has been acquired over decades and treasured by the local communities and the tribal, particularly those living in and around the forests and agro-ecosystems. 

Wadi: A boon for sustainable livelihood

“Wadi” or the orchard model was first initiated through BAIF Development Research Foundation for the development of the tribal belt of the Western Ghats terrain ecosystem. In this model, different fruit crops along with forest tree species are planted in a holistic way to obtain higher production. The previous wadi experiences suggest that preference should be given to fruits, nuts and non-wood forest product species while developing community lands to boost the income and to sustain the interest of the local community ( Hegde, N.G. 1994). So, the suggested fruit trees for the Western Ghats are mango (Mangifera indica), cashew (Anacardium occidentale), custard apple (Annona squamosa), ber (Zizyphus mauritiana), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), guava (Psidium guajava) and Indian gooseberry (Emblica officinalis). The suggested multipurpose tree species for the bunds and borders are jackfruit, ram phal, drumstick subabul, casuarina, kapok, agasta, bamboo and siris. 

The wadi approach for development is suggested for areas where the rainfall is above 750 mm or in other areas having assured source of water. A family with 0.4 ha of an orchard with reliable market outlet will be able to earn more than Rs 25,000 per annum after four to five years when the trees start bearing fruits. The gestation period, however, is very critical. During this period, the participating families need some support in the form of employment to meet their basic needs. However, activities such as nursery raising, vegetable cultivation and intensive use of the interspace for production of food and cash crops are essential. 

With the establishment of orchards, the beneficiaries feel secure and do not migrate to urban areas with all the members of the families. Agroforestry practices like intercropping of forest trees with agricultural crops, multispecies plantation, silvopastoral practices and shade trees inside plantations encourage the conservation of biodiversity. The beneficiaries also develop an inclination to maintain various species of livestock as an additional source of income for the family. 

So, the maintenance of social forestry in degraded farmlands helps to promote the afforestation in farmer’s field. Afforestation in villages’ vacant lands helps for appropriate land use according to the land availability of the community. Cultivating plantation and horticultural crops gives subsidiary income to the farmers.

Abbey Falls in Coorg in Western Ghats. (Image by Ashwinstein via Wikimedia Commons)

Due to the easy availability of fuel, fodder and timber, the dependency of the wadi owners on the forest was reduced significantly. This resulted in the regeneration of the denuded natural forests and increase in the green cover. This, in turn, improved the micro-climate and recharged the groundwater table. As the beneficial effects of forest conservation were realised by the local people, the village committees took more interest in motivating their members to protect the forest by not allowing outsiders to cut the trees.  

Sustainable livelihood through women empowerment  

The socioeconomic empowerment of women has emerged as an important issue in recent times. Many women who were engaged in occasional wage earning as farm and domestic help lost the opportunity of earning additional income. Hence, women were organised into self-help groups (SHGs) to generate additional income through individual and group activities. 

Depending on a number of factors ranging from landholdings, subsidiary occupations, agroclimatic conditions and socio-personal characteristics of the rural women and her family members, micro enterprises suggested for the Western Ghats region vary. The micro enterprises are classified under three major heads: 

1. Those related to agriculture and allied agricultural activities like growing organic vegetables, flowers, oilseeds and seed production, mushroom growing and beekeeping. Ready-to-eat enterprises like dehydration of fruits and vegetables, canning or bottling of pickles, chutneys, jams, squashes, dairy and other products. 

2. Livestock management activities like dairy and poultry farming, livestock feed production and production of vermicomposting using animal waste can be an important area in which women can utilise both her technical skills and raw materials from the farm and livestock to earn substantial income and small-scale agro-processing units. 

3. Home-based operations like knitting, stitching, weaving, embroidery, bakery and flour milling, petty shops, food preparation, and preservation.

Microenterprises in the Western Ghats region not only enhance its productivity by generating employment but also help to develop economic independence, environmental conservation and personal and social skills.

Promoting conservation and sustainable livelihood through people's organisations  

To promote environmental conservation and sustainable livelihood development, people’s participation is critical. This could be done effectively through various people’s organisations at various levels. The village panchayat has a significant role in the promotion of various committees such as forest conservation committee, watershed development committee, etc and also in developing a better understanding and mutual cooperation among the villagers. These groups could play a significant role in motivating all the members to take an active part and assist each other whenever needed. These organisations can play a vital role in sustaining the activities of environmental conservation and livelihood development processes. 

The conservation of a biodiversity hotspot like the Western Ghats is very important for the entire nation considering the rapidly changing climate conditions which determine the monsoon. A holistic approach including integrated watershed development, application of indigenous and technological knowledge in agriculture, the wadi approach for agroforestry promotion, sustainable livelihood through women empowerment for entrepreneurship development and strengthening the panchayat and people’s organisations are needed to support the environmental conservation in the Western Ghats region. 

Western Ghats during dry season. (Photo courtesy: Arne Huckelheim)


The authors are scientists at ICAR-IARI, New Delhi. Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.

Abbey Falls image by Ashwinstein (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons



Hegde, N.G. and Daniel, J.N.  1994.  Multipurpose Tree Species for Agroforestry in India. BAIF Development Research Foundation, Pune:  15-17.

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