Keystone of Ecodevelopment
The Keystone Foundation works with indigenous communities in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu to improve their livelihoods while conserving their cultures.
The concept of a “keystone” emerges from the nest-building behavior of birds in the wild who construct permanent nest structures that serve as a habitat for several life forms. Such “keystone” species become crucial in providing opportunities for other associated beings to grow and evolve. The Keystone Foundation is born out of this ecological principle of the interdependence of natural systems, says its website. The Tamil Nadu-based foundation has completed 24 years in the Nilgiris, working with indigenous communities on ecodevelopment initiatives. Its work is focused on the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in the Western Ghats in the areas of natural resource-based livelihoods like apiculture, microenterprise development, non-timber forest produce, land and water management, revival of traditional agriculture, and other issues concerning indigenous communities. It has emphasized on community-based conservation and traditional knowledge from its initial days.
What was the impetus behind forming the Keystone Foundation?
Sustainable development and ecodevelopment were theoretical constructs used widely in meetings, reports and conferences in the 1990’s, with less to show in terms of actions or approaches on the ground. We were keen to work in the interface of economics and ecology, and to make a positive change in the quality of the environment and lives of indigenous people. In the Indian context, indigenous or adivasi people usually live closest to the richest biodiversity areas. Yet they remain one of the poorest and most marginalized groups. We wanted to see how these people understand and relate to their environment. We want to bring in cutting-edge solutions, which do not further alienate people from, nor add pressure to, the environment.
Why did you choose particular areas as focus points for your foundation’s work?
Keystone Foundation came to the Nilgiris after doing a survey of honey hunters and beekeepers in 1994. Having surveyed 15 hill areas and interacted with 11 distinct tribal communities of Tamil Nadu, we chose the area of Kotagiri as different tribal groups live and practice traditional honey-gathering and beekeeping there. We wanted to establish a field base to practically understand the linkages between conservation, livelihoods and enterprise for tribal mountain communities. Gradually, land and water-related issues of security, access, drinking water portability, and a rights-based framework emerged. We realized that lower-altitude tribal forested villages were becoming victims of high pesticide use, less water, massive wildlife conflicts and competition for water resources. With time, we started interventions on building water structures, testing drinking water points, trained the local Irula tribal community in plumbing and maintenance, and worked with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to advocate a larger irrigation and drinking water intervention in a select forest settlement of Keelcoupe village.
In a broader context, what are some of the historical or social narratives you seek to tackle and change?
India has a big population, and has some of the largest numbers of tribal communities living in forested tracts of the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats, Central India, Northeast India and the Himalayas. Tribal people constitute about 8.6 percent of the nation’s total population, over 104 million people, according to the 2011 census. With rapid development, often haphazard, especially in mountain areas, we risk losing wisdom, knowledge and life history strategies which can be contextualized and made contemporary to today’s needs and aspirations. Our specific work on honey-gathering, community strategy, biology of the bee, cultural, spiritual practices, economy and barter came out of this deep dive.
In 2011 you were a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at Cornell University. Can you tell us how this award helps to foster U.S.-India connections and how your experiences during the fellowship helped your work in India?
In 2013, Cornell University and the Keystone Foundation began endeavors to develop a Field Learning Center in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve of the Western Ghats. The partnership is an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort that explores questions of sustainable environments and livelihoods. In this way, the experiences I had as a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at Cornell University were of the utmost value, as they fostered such collaborative endeavors. The Nilgiris Field Learning Center was an idea floated during my 2011-2012 Humphrey fellowship year at Cornell. Work of this nature brings together Cornell’s strengths in the ecological and social sciences with the applied fields of regional planning and policy analysis, as well as its established role as a leader in higher education in the U.S. with Keystone’s experience of working with communities and deep knowledge of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.
Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.