More than 100 million people in India are forest dependant (1), many of them live by hunting and gathering and practice subsistence agriculture. Tenure and access to forests in India for communities is being redefined through the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which ensures rights and insists on responsibilities of forest users.

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) is a region of high biological and cultural diversity and part of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. The reserve has diverse, rare and endemic flora and fauna which co-exist alongside twenty distinct indigenous people groups who have a deep understanding of their environment. The majority of the indigenous people in the NBR are dependent on gathering forest products that range from fruits, flowers, seeds, roots, barks, leaves to wild honey for their livelihoods. The reserve spans a total area of circa 5520 sq. kms; more than 70% is under protected area status in the form of tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. Indigenous people who live within these protected areas are largely seen as a threat to biodiversity by park officials. As a reaction to this indigenous people, in recent times, consider any form of protection of biodiversity a threat to their livelihoods.

Keystone Foundation is a local NGO based in the NBR. Our work has centred on forest produce gathered for trade and subsistence by the indigenous people of the region. Our focus has been on the linkages between conservation, livelihoods and enterprise placed in an appropriate cultural context against the backdrop of a good governance mechanism. Often we are asked the question “is the harvest from the wild sustainable?”. Our response has been that we are trying, through ecological monitoring protocols, to establish “under what conditions harvest may be sustainable”.

One of the forest products that is harvested extensively is honey from the wild rock bee – Apis dorsata, a migratory species which returns to the mountains every year. Traditional methods with specialised skills unique to communities and regions are part of the honey gathering culture; linked to this is an understanding of the forest and bee ecology. The honey gatherers are paid a premium price for the honey they bring to the enterprise division  of the organisation and they are required to fill out a data sheet about the ecology of the harvest. As a result of this effort, data from the past 15 years on the dominant flowering species of the region, honey seasons, honey volume, bee nest number, nesting trees, gathering groups, etc. is available. This data has been backed up with research on the population of the bees and phenology. Simple analysis of the data and results are shared with the honey gatherers coupled with trainings on hygienic collection methods and issues with regard to sustainability.

A participatory approach to ecological monitoring with communities or institutions that are stakeholders of biodiversity rich areas is a direction that a forestry-based livelihood approach should take up. A network like SULi would be an ideal forum to bring together such groups and share the experiences of those already engaged in similar work, so that together a framework for monitoring could be developed. Monitoring across different regions would inform about ecological processes globally and would mean communities or institutions which are committed to conservation and livelihoods can play a major role in generating a knowledge pool about the ecosystem, wild produce which is harvested and the ecological conditions under which the produce sustains itself. Habitat degradation, unchecked fires, unregulated grazing and anthropogenic climate change are likely adding to the impacts caused on biodiversity by overharvest of wild produce. There is little information out there on the impact of harvest and even less on the other ecological factors at play. Involving forest user communities in recording and understanding the impacts on biodiversity could be an area of work within SULi and it would be interesting to hear from others in the network about the possibilities and relevance of this approach. 

Anita Varghese is Programme Coordinator for Conservation at the Keystone Foundation.


(1) Kabra, A., 2009. Conservation-induced displacement: A comparative study of two Indian protected areas. Conservation and Society, 7(4), 249.

Photo: Below and top right - Harvesting honey from the wild rock bee. Credit: Keystone Foundation.