For a cup of tea

 The hills of Ooty. Picture by Mathew McDermid

The hills of Ooty. Picture by Mathew McDermid

On my many visits to Tamil Nadu, India, I would often visit the Nilgiri Hills, by way of Ooty and Coonoor, where my uncle maintains a farm. The Nilgiris are a startling juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, order and chaos, the controlled and the wild. The region is characterized as subtropical highland, and hosts a Biosphere Reserve, including populations of tigers, elephants, bucks, monkeys, and a host of bird species, as well as the dense, stunted, tropical montane Shola forest - dark as night when you stroll under its canopy.

Encroaching upon these natural ecosystems - and dominating them, in fact - are the endless tea plantations that were instated during British rule, not unlike those of Darjeeling and Assam. These plantations cover hectare after hectare, as bush after bush is carefully curated and managed, forming a rich green carpet of tea in any and all directions. As tea tends to burn easily, particularly as young leaves, they are sparsely interspersed with beautiful, yet somewhat solitary silver oaks, whose leaves provide them the necessary shading. 

The boundary between tea and forest is often abrupt and jagged, as pictured above. In many areas, there is hardly a buffer zone separating, and shielding, the natural ecosystems from the heavily managed monoculture. As such, there is a tension between these systems that manifests in many forms, from water use to erosion (1). Landslides in the region are quite common and highly disruptive, requiring that the roads and infrastructure be constantly repaired. 

That said, there are movements emerging to upscale conservation efforts in the region, from maintaining and expanding wildlife refuges, to conserving water, to managing and preventing the copious amounts of erosion. My uncle's farm is among these initiatives as he is organically growing herbs selected for their heartiness on the exposed hillsides, and has implemented a range of management techniques designed to precisely and minimally utilize his water resources. He does this while maintaining natural ecosystems around his farm, allowing for re-growth and a healthy riparian buffer towards the bottom of his sloped fields, where lies a river that attracts the many types of species that roam freely throughout the region. While this has been a fruitful undertaking for him, he however admits that such a venture can prove expensive under current economic pressures, and the scaling-up of such farming techniques proves challenging. However, the explorations of such initiatives, along with appropriate policy measures and economic incentives, may eventually help pave the way for healthier regional agro-ecosystems.

1. Kumar and Bhagavanulu (2008) Effect of deforestation on landslides in the Nilgiri district - A case study. J. of the Indian Soc. of Remote Sensing, 36:1, 105-108

 Tea bushes are given some (minimal) shading by silver oaks and other trees that are planted among them. Heartiness to full-sun conditions can also depend on the tea variety. Photo by Mathew McDermid

Tea bushes are given some (minimal) shading by silver oaks and other trees that are planted among them. Heartiness to full-sun conditions can also depend on the tea variety. Photo by Mathew McDermid

 My uncles herb farm, planted on previously cleared hills. These herbs require less water, and are organically grown. Natural vegetation is allowed to re-grow along the farm boundaries and down toward the river at the bottom of the slope. Photo by Mathew McDermid

My uncles herb farm, planted on previously cleared hills. These herbs require less water, and are organically grown. Natural vegetation is allowed to re-grow along the farm boundaries and down toward the river at the bottom of the slope. Photo by Mathew McDermid