A green makeover

Protecting nature

A green makeover

Under a project funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Snehakunja Trust, Life Trust of Sirsi and other local community organisations have undertaken the restoration of degraded freshwater swamps in the Central Western Ghats with a participatory approach.

Freshwater swamps are marshy areas with typical habitats, where water oozes out in perennial streams at constant level throughout the year. The swamps host at least two dozens of species that are listed as rare, endangered and threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Major ecosystem services of these swamps include underground water recharging, erosion control, sediment retention and water purification. Some biologists argue that these special ecosystems must have originated during the pre-historic period of dinosaurs in Mesozoic time, even before the continental drifting started. These habitats are now reduced to highly fragmented pockets because of degradation and are critically endangered ecosystems.

Altering natural hydrologic regimes, draining, pollution, introduction of exotic or invasive species and land use change  are the major threats to these swamps. Like their tropical counterparts, these wetland ecosystems are being heavily exploited by human society, often with little regard to ecological consequences.

To reverse this trend of forest degradation, a novel approach of ecological restoration was put into action. The initiative made significant contribution to the science and practice of ecological restoration. Community knowledge and their participation was ingrained into this ingenious approach.

An extensive restoration
Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery and management of ecological integrity. Ecological integrity includes a critical range of variability in biodiversity, ecological processes and structures, regional and historical context and sustainable cultural practices. Impacts of long-term habitat conversion may occur over a much longer period of time as individual species become threatened and eventually go extinct.

Restoration ecology provides a powerful suite of tools for speeding the recovery of degraded lands.

The first thing was the classification of swamps based on physical characteristics and vegetation elements to suggest effective management plans for the swamps in the Central and Northern Western Ghats region. Some of the methods used in the process were: identification and mapping of the tropical freshwater swamps using Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographic Information System (GIS), through extensive field work and meetings with local communities, forest department staff and identifying critical micro-corridors to link the fragmented patches through restoration. Detailed vegetation survey in listing of obligatory swamp species and facultative swamp species was made and demographic studies were also carried out.

By establishing decentralised community nurseries near the swamp forests, swamp species and commercially important species were cultivated and distributed to the local farmers for planting. More than 10,000 seedlings were planted with an average survival rate of 65 per cent. Around 45 species of plants including some critically endangered species like Syzigium travencoricum, Vateria indica, Myristica fatua, Gymnacranthera canarica, Arenga wightii and Pinanga dicksonii were planted. Communities were also technically empowered to collectively cultivate nurseries of swamp species for an operation level planting. This collective effort demonstrated how species recovery and habitat restoration could go hand-in-hand.

Working towards progress
Further, rewetting of the degraded swamp land was done by installing
appropriate soil and moisture conservation structures in the affected areas. Fuel efficient ovens and dryers, solar electricity were installed in the villages and the local villagers were given training on processing, value chain development and marketing of non-timber forest products. Involving the local people ensured long-term commitment to the restoration work.

“If these swamp forests have such an enormous ecological importance, we will assist you in the conservation and restoration,” says Sridhar (70), a local resident and farmer of Torme village. “This is for the first time, local people in our village participated in the protection of these wetland forests, which are dynamic natural environments. For us, it is rewarding to be part of this scholarly project as the entire process was integrated and participatory,” says Padmanabha, a local, who was actively involved throughout the
initiative. 

These wetland forest are critical to the environment. Protecting and preserving them is highly imperative. Commercial activities in such vulnerable areas can  destroy the ecosystem and may also cause extinction of animals over a long period of time. By combining ecosystem knowledge and local participation, it is possible to save these forests.

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