A storm brews in the 'Coffee Cup'

SEAMLESS EXPANSE: A scenic view of Pushpagiri hill range as seen from Mandalapatti in Kodagu district.

The process of granting status to five biodiversity spots that began way back in 2003 was wrapped in secrecy. The facts came into open only when two UNESCO representatives visited Madikeri to study the proposed spots. The apprehension on the part of local people could also be attributed to the government not taking them into confidence so far.

Kodagu is a biodiversity spot and conservation is close to the heart of everyone in the district. However, it is the strings attached with the World Heritage Site tag that bother farmers.

The operational guidelines for the implementation of World Heritage Convention states as follows: "World Heritage properties may support a variety of ongoing and proposed uses that are ecologically and culturally sustainable. The State Party and partners must ensure that such sustainable use does not adversely impact the outstanding universal value, integrity and/or authenticity of the property. Furthermore, any uses should be ecologically and culturally sustainable. For some properties, human use would not be appropriate." The phrase ‘human use’ is what rankles the local people.

More than 25 villages with Jamma Baane, Saagu Baane and coffee plantations come under the Pushpagiri, Brahmagiri and Talacauvery Reserve Forest area. The Forest Department authorities have assured of maintaining status quo even after the forests are declared as World Heritage Sites.

“The project will be implemented by taking local people into confidence. The ownership of World Heritage Sites vest with respective countries and the UN does not interfere with the local administration. Such sites would lose the heritage spot tag if they fail to meet the standards,” Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) Swaminathan told Deccan Herald.

He denied ‘conspiracy by environmentalists’ behind the proposal and said no cultivator in the Site would be evicted. However, he had no information on any relevant official notification.

Administration in dark

On the other hand, the district administration is in the dark about the proposal. Deputy Commissioner K H Ashwathanarayana Gowda said no information was available on any notification or objections invited from the public. Lok Sabha member H Vishwanath said there had been several versions on the proposal and he would seek information from the Union government. “I will speak to people's representatives and farmers. It is not proper to impose a project on the locals against their will,”  he says.

Dr Wendy Straham (Switzerland) and Brian James Furze (Australia), the two members from International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) who visited Kodagu said the Government of India has submitted a proposal seven years ago seeking World Heritage Site tag to 39 sites in the Western Ghats including nine in Karnataka. The two-member team would submit a report to the IUCN after a study in November. The protest during the visit would also be mentioned in the report, Dr Straham said.

Notwithstanding the mystery, battle lines have already been drawn against the proposal and an apolitical struggle is gaining steam.

“I sense the role of environmentalists behind this proposal. Man would be subservient to animals if the proposal is allowed to proceed further. Kodagu will have no future unless environmentalists who submit such proposal for foreign money are shown doors," thundered legislator Appachu Ranjan.

Several environmental organisations had petitioned the S M Krishna government in 2003 seeking World Heritage Site tag for the forests. While the Greater Talacauvery project was shelved at that point of time, the ghost of Heritage Site tag has continued to torment planters, alleged B T Dinesh, spearheading the struggle against the proposal.
Bopanna, another planter said they have utmost respect for foreigners and the recent gheraoing of the UNESCO team was only an expression of 'modest anger' with the objective of safeguarding the distinctive identity of the district.

Greens deny agenda

Facing the ire of locals for their perceived role in the heritage site tag proposal, the environmentalists have clarified that  the proposal had nothing that would affect interests of locals. “The proposal is limited to three spots already declared as reserved forest and two places designated as protected forests. The rights of the people residing in and on the border of these areas will not be curtailed,” said Cauvery Sene convener Ravi Chengappa. The statement has been seconded by Kodagu Ekikarana Ranga convener Thammu Poovaiah, Coorg Wildlife Society secretary A A Cariappa among others.
According to the terms of the international covenant, the Union government plays a direct role in the proposal on heritage sites. The status provides an opportunity for member countries to showcase the rich natural habitat and biodiversity across the globe. The entire process involves only the Union government and the UNESCO. Environmentalists do not have even an iota of role and they do not get even a single paisa as grant, they have clarified.

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