Anita Varghese

About Me:

My name is Anita Varghese and I have lived and worked in the region of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR), Western Ghats, India since 1993, soon after completing my Masters in Ecology. During the Master’s I specialised in Human Ecology and worked on a dissertation topic that was to change my life quite completely. I chose to write about the hunting gathering lifestyles of the Cholanaiken who live in the rain forests of Nilambur valley in the NBR. It was an experience in how indigenous people’s knowledge about the forest worked; living with them for a few months I learnt more than I had through nature clubs and university! I decided early then that I want to understand more about the relationship between ecology of forests and indigenous people. I work for an NGO called Keystone Foundation (www.keystone-foundation.org) which is located in the NBR while doing my PhD in Botany from the University of Hawaii.

About My Research:

Most of the world’s remaining biodiversity occurs in human forest landscapes and its conservation requires participation of local communities. My research focuses on the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot in India, and seeks to establish linkages between the ecology of wild harvested plants, the ecosystems where they are found, and the knowledge of indigenous gatherers. The NBR which lies within the Western Ghats is home to more than 20 indigenous forest dependent groups who derive a part of their livelihood from collection of forest produce. These forest products range from leaves, barks, seeds, fruits, resin and animal products like honey. My research objectives are to assess the impact of resin harvest methods on the biology of Canarium strictum (Burseraceae), an evergreen forest tree also called the Black Dammer tree. I am also keen to understand the factors that shape indigenous people’s motivation to be gatherers of forest produce. Finally I want to understand what indicators do the indigenous people use to predict ecological changes either to the forest produce or to its habitat.

Research update-January 2013

For the past 12 months I have been looking at 90 Canarium strictum trees in 5 different regions, every 15 days. Of course I couldn’t have done this alone, so I have a number of people who assist me. One might imagine that it is very boring to look at the same tree for such a long period of time, but it isn’t. I am amazed at how much is happening on a tree even though it’s not moved an inch from where I saw it last.

One of my favourite month of tree gazing has been January, simply because the trees are sending out new leaves and the colours are stunning! Most Canarium trees throw out young leaves which are blood red and quite velvety.  In one of my sites I have 5 trees that are behaving very differently and their young leaves are light green in color. I am still wondering why that is happening.

Canarium strictum new leaves

Velvety red flush of Canarium strictum

Velvety red flush of Canarium strictum.

It takes me 5 hours by road to get to one of my sites and the last time I went there a week ago I reached late in the afternoon. That was absolutely a not so bright thing to do. The trees are located inside a coffee plantation very close to the forests. And even though the coffee berries are ripe, red, and ready to drop the coffee pickers leave the area by 2 pm.  Why do they do this? There are wild elephants in the forests that move in the afternoon to the water sources located in the plantation. The best way to avoid conflict is to stay out of the elephant’s way and that’s what the people were doing. It was eerie doing field work that day, but we made it and safely too. The elephants were around but I didn’t see them, I wonder if they saw me. The photograph is from an earlier visit in July.

Elephants on a hill close by

Elephants on a hill close by

Research Update-February 2013

This month I have spent majority of my time interviewing harvesters and trying to understand from them about the methods, tools and seasonality of resin harvests. Resin is usually harvested by the men from the indigenous communities. Sometimes women accompany the men but do not harvest the resin.  I have so far interacted with people from the Irula, Kurumba, Soliga and Kattunayaka communities. Besides having their own methods of harvest there is also a deep understanding of the factors that affect harvest and the conservation status of the trees in the forest. Some communities harvest at a particular season and some others harvest when- ever there is a need for some money. The resin is a big part of their rituals and is an important product from the wild. The resin may be traded with neighbours, gifted to visitors or sold in the local market. Only a few individuals in the village are involved in resin collection and they seem to enjoy the forests and being there. One aspect of harvest which was common across all the communities I interviewed so far was that there was no clear demarcation of who owned the trees and who has the right of harvest. I was told that it was demarcated in the past but in more recent times it is not regarded and treated as a common pool resource ; the harvesters didn’t seem to think that was bad for the tree. I was told that in some areas the harvesters were impatient and collecting the resin even before it was ready or mature. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to think of resin collection as opportunistic and if one was lucky one would get the resin from the tree that one had prepared! And if you didn’t get the resin this time you still prepared the tree by improving the incisions to prepare for the next harvest.

Interviewing harvesters

Interviewing harvesters

I had a first- hand experience of what it feels to not get the resin that one has been watching out for, more than 3 months in my case. In one of the sites that I monitor, one tree had started to produce a big chunk of resin from a natural split in its bark. The resin was very dark in color and thick and long. I watched this resin grow till it was almost 30 cms long and had a diameter of more than 10cms. I was so sure that I would get it when I went for the monitoring this month. But as luck would have it somebody had harvested it just the day before, I couldn’t help feeling sad even though the resin was not really important for my livelihood

Large chunk of resin that I missed

Research update March 2013

I continue to interview the harvesters of resin and have informal discussions with them on their methods of harvest.  I have been trying to understand how the harvesters decide what is the standard for a good quality of the resin, and what are their criteria for quality control. After all incense/frankincense has been a product of use since ancient times and there must be a well understood method of harvest. I am keen to understand how this knowledge varies between communities and regions; linking this with the ecology and biology of the species.

Canarium strictum Roxb. (Burseraceae) is a large canopy tropical tree found in India, Bangladesh and Northern Burma. It grows upto 40 m, and inhabits moist deciduous to semi-evergreen forests, at altitudes from about 750 m to 1400 masl. Flowers are insect pollinated and fruits are ovoid or ellipsoid drupes with 1-3 seeds.  C. strictum resin is commercially harvested for making incense, varnish; since it is ‘softwood’ the trees were logged in my study area about 50 years ago for making matchsticks.  The resin is also used locally by indigenous communities for spiritual and medicinal purposes. A decoction of the powered resin is used as a remedy for numerous ailments, including rheumatism, cough, asthma, epilepsy, syphilis, hernia, fever, chronic skin diseases and haemorrhage. C. strictum is listed as a vulnerable species in the Western Ghats, India and is found in few numbers. There is little information on its current status and extent of threat it faces is not clear.

The fruits of the Canarium tree are an important part of the diet of the Hornbills (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Hornbill) which are another endangered species. The fruits are also eaten by the endemic Malabar Giant Squirrels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_giant_squirrel). The flying squirrel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_giant_flying_squirrel) is living in a cavity in one of the Canarium trees that I survey. The local people also tell me that they are eating the fruits. A woodpecker is also nesting in one of the trees that I survey.

And I am sure there are many more birds, animals, fungi and plants that need the Canarium tree as much as human beings need it for it’s resin.

Updates form April and May 2013

I spent a lot of my time over these months sorting my data and getting it organised. I now have more than 12 months of continuous data on 90 trees across the region and am able to make out the variations in flower and fruit production across them. I also have information on how often a tree is harvested and how much resin is taken out each time. Now I will also be able to see how this information links up with the information that the harvesters have given me about various aspects of the tree’s biology and harvests.

Last month at one of the sites my field assistant Karian was able to save up a huge chunk of resin that is about 36cms long and 10cms wide! There are commonly three grades of resin that I have observed. I have seen that when the resin is left to form on the tree for more than 3 months, large chunks can be harvested. When the harvesters go back to the tree in shorter intervals of 2 weeks they end up getting smaller pieces. In the third case when there is no demarcation of who can harvest from where it’s a matter of luck; the harvesters scrape of the resin very close to the bark and get bits of resin with pieces of the bark which is then sold as a powder. The photo on this page is about the common three grades of resin found in the region.

Resin grades

Resin grades

My research will help identify factors that lead to different grades of resin and their impacts on the biology of the tree. I will also be trying to understand who are these people who continue to harvest and what is it that motivates them to keep going for the resin.

June & July 2013

These are the months of the monsoon in Western India. These rains which come us in these months are from the South West Monsoon. We have another one coming in October-November which is called the North East Monsoon, which typically falls on the Eastern side of the country. My home in the Nilgiri mountains is located on the Eastern side, so I get the North East Monsoon, but since the village is located on top of the mountain and is exposed to the West we get bits of the South West Monsoon too! Well it’s a lot of rain till November, but we need it and so does everybody else. We had a failed monsoon last year and this has affected water supply in many towns. The forests are also affected and wildlife too are coming closer to towns and human settlements looking for food and water.

The Canarium trees were looking lush and green and resting a bit during the monsoons. There was not so much resin coming off their barks, but the bees and other insects were already there to collect the resin for building their nests. Some of the trees were already in fruit, which were still green in color. In another two months they will be big and bluish black ready to fall to the forest floor or be eaten by a bird or arboreal animal.

It’s been almost 18 months of continuous data and I realise that its time I got back to University and started to sort and analyse my data. Field work is very exciting and it is always fun to be in the middle of so much action. But if I don’t keep steering myself I will not be able to get my dissertation done in the time that I have set for myself!

I am writing this blog in retro from the library at the University of Hawaii. I am at the Botany department and working under the supervision of Dr.Tamara Ticktin. It’s a fun and great lab to be at and all the people I have met so far have turned out to be so inspiring. I look forward to a couple of months of sorting data, analysing and as someone was telling me as I left for Hawaii –  write the stories of these trees and what they want to tell. I will have to figure that out!