Siddis to the rescue of trees

SIDGAON (Sirsi): Depleting forests, species bordering on extinction and rapid clearances for to development projects. The Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot that is home to some of the rarest animals and insects, is under threat, with over 15 plant species on the verge of dying out completely. Primary among them are the spices and agarbhatti varieties, that are feared to soon disappear completely from these rain forests, that are truly a visual treat.

While different small and big movements have attempted to steer attention towards the Ghats, some indigenous tribes are now taking up conservation work to revive these dying species. A number of Siddi (tribal) families, migrants from the coastal town of Yellapur settled in the dense patch of Sidgaon, have taken up conservation work. The tribal women are setting up nurseries and planting wild species. They have planted thousand of saplings of five varieties, including Canarium Strictum (a rare variety of incense), Garcinia Indica or Kokum and some wild pickle mangoes.

There are just 40 to 50 trees of Canarium Strictum left in the zone, says Prakruti project coordinator Mahabaleshwar Hegde. The endemic species are the most vulnerable. Not just trees, even grasses like Hittalande that grow in swamps are almost extinct due to impacts of climate change. Trees like Matti are flowering two months before the scheduled month, changing the entire cycle of flowering and fruiting.

"Tribes like Siddis live in close proximity to forests and their knowledge is more in-depth. We need to respect their traditional knowledge and help them get market access for the forest produce so that they can earn as well as sustainably harvest the forest produce," said Appiko Movement leader Panduranga Hegde. According to him, the impact of climate change on the forests, especially forest patterns, are very drastic indeed.

"We walk 20 to 30 km everyday to find some of these trees and during rains it's difficult because our legs are full of leeches. But there are not many takers for the forest produce. We sell it in different cities through NGOs and get some money. The untimely rains have affected the forests hugely," said Venkataraman Siddi, a member of the community, who is actively involved in conservation work.

Recently Hydroxy citric acid, a fat reducing medicine, was found in Uppage, after which it has become popular in the international market. "Since it is an endemic variety and there is a huge hype about organic fat reducing methods, it is fetching a good price. We send it to Europe and America," adds Mahabaleshwar.

The tribals, originally forest collectors from Africa, don't remember anything of their culture today. They are being taught to harvest medicinal plants like Tinaspora, Aloe Vera, Asparagus and others. "India is our country now and these forests are our home. All we remember of Africa is our dance - dhamani," says Venkataraman.
The dying species
* Cinnamon - over-extraction and wrong harvesting

* Uppage (Garcinia Gummigatta) - over-extraction and lopping of the branches instead of removal of the fruits

* Kokum (Garcinia indica) - very little regeneration as seeds are taken away for commercial purposes.

* Canarium Strictum or Dhoop - over-extraction.