Bandipur -> Wayanad -> Kozhikode -> Guruvayur -> Cochin -> Periyar
Three years ago, looking on the expanse of tea estates on the hills of the Nilgiris, a friend exclaimed –
“Aren’t they beautiful!”
They indeed were. But there was something else running in my mind.
“These tea estates destroy the environment,” I told to her.
“What nonsense, they are also vegetation”, she replied instantly.
It was a casual response, but it hit me so hard that I haven’t forgotten it in these years. Like many other people who visit these estates, she was ignorant of the impact of tea estates but only indulged in its beauty. Ignorance is no crime, and I did not want to go on a boring lecture trip about how tea estates would have changed our surroundings. But I decided to write whatever I know about them some day. With that, here is an attempt to make an analysis of the effects of sprawling tea estates on the local environment.
THE VALPARAI STORY
Valparai was a region in Tamil Nadu with thick evergreen forest that served as a habitat for Lion Tailed Macaques. The Macaques live on the trees, move around from tree to tree and rarely step on the ground. They were a thriving population in the thick forest, until the British started establishing tea plantations in the region. Thick contiguous stretches of forest gave way to tea plantations and only fragments of the forest remained over time. The movement of Lion Tailed Macaques were restricted by the tea plantations and they had trouble finding their food, mates and lost their freedom to move freely. Habitat loss resulted in considerable reduction in their population. Now, Lion Tailed Macaques are an endangered species that can be found in limited numbers, confined to small forest stretches that are still remaining.
The Macaques being a large species, their dwindling numbers were noticed, but many smaller species like birds, insects and amphibians may have gone completely unnoticed.
THE DEATH OF PERENNIAL RIVERS
Thick evergreen forests are a source of the water for the surrounding regions. Pouring rains in these hills bring alive rivers that feed the plains of Deccan Plateau. The rains feed the rivers for only three months in the monsoon, but forest continues to generate water even after the rains are gone. Sholas and thick forests create a cooler than normal weather under the canopy, which causes the moisture in the atmosphere to condense and precipitate in small quantities. This precipitation eventually feeds small streams that become feeders to the rivers. Rivers like Kaveri and Tungabhadra remain perennially flowing due to such precipitation in the western ghats. But since the arrival of tea estates, these feeders have disappeared and many perennial rivers like Amaravathi in Tamil Nadu, originating from Palani hills have become seasonal, creating water scarcity.
Thick forests are a source of streams like this
Mass deforestation and planting of Eucalyptus and Pine in the Nilgiris also has lead to similar effect.
During our many walks in the forests and tea plantations in Kerala, the difference were very evident. We saw many streams running with water in the hills covered with forests of Wayanad, but not much of them to see where there were tea plantations.
LOSS OF BIO-DIVERSITY
We spent a lot of time looking for birds in various regions of Wayanad. That included evergreen forests, and also tea plantations which have replaced the evergreen forests. The evergreen patches were teeming with species of birds. An hour of walking in the forest would yield us 20-30 species of birds. At the same time, we would see only 4-5 variety when we spent an hour in a tea estate. The forest can provide food and shelter to support rich biodiversity, which can’t happen in a tea estate’s environment.
Tea plants are never a substitute to an evergreen forest in holding the soil. In a forest, thick Canopy helps slow down the fury of the rains. And when the raindrops finally comes down, it is slowed down further by undergrowth and grass. Flow of water does not get to carry much of top-soil with its current. Tea plantations don’t have such capacity; lot of top soil gets eroded each year with the rains, resulting in reduced soil fertility.
All the pesticides and fertilizers used in growing tea do not disintegrate and go away easily. They come down the slope with the next rain and join the streams and lakes, and eventually rivers. Drinking water, sourced from these rivers, streams or lakes will end up with traces of pesticides. Dams downstream ensure that the ground water also gets infected. When the same water is used in agriculture, our cereals and vegetables also get traces of these pesticides. The pesticides go into fish in the streams and enter our food. Indeed, tea plantations are not the only source of pesticides, but they do have a role to play.
These are only some of the problems that arise out of rampant destruction of forests in favour of plantations. There would be many more I am not even aware of. At some point of time, I was disturbed enough that I have even reduced my intake of tea! All said, I can’t help admit that tea plantations look beautiful and those green manicured hills are a treat to the eyes. But when we are looking at these things, it helps to be aware of the trouble that comes with them.
To be continued..