If you visit the green campuses and protected areas of Chennai, an arch of sturdy, twisting lianas that form a connected canopy overhead will welcome you, promising cool respite. In the understorey (the layer just below the canopy) you might find dazzling purple-blue Memecylon flowers, and catch a whiff of the spicy, citrusy aroma of Glycosmis leaves. In the more sunlit patches, a dwarf date palm with a sword-sharp leaf tip may thrive, while in the deepest shade, you might find large, shy colonies of Sansevieria, whose leaves provide the perfect anchor for whole colonies of spider webs. The understorey is the foraging ground of flycatchers and thrushes, and arboreal reptiles and mammals make use of an elaborate network of climbers.
This is but a glimpse of a forest type distinct to the Coromandel Coast of India called the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF). Found in patches from False Divi Point in Andhra Pradesh to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, these forests seldom have trees that are over 12 metres tall. In Chennai city, TDEFs exist as diluted, urbanised versions of their original selves, their canopies heavily dominated by exotic raintrees and acacias. But in rural areas, in sacred groves in the heart of the Coromandel Coast, these intruding species are replaced by native trees. Each grove possesses a unique character: one may be dominated by Pterospermum suberifolium, another by Garcinia spicata. A lone emergent deciduous Indian rosewood tree might tower over these evergreen species, as is characteristic of the structure of these forests. TDEFs grow in both sandy and lateritic soils, and are adapted to the vagaries of the northeast monsoon which provides much of the rainfall in this region, from October to December.
Vegetation on the Coromandel Coast – then and now
The native vegetation of the Coromandel Coast has long been used, manipulated, and shaped by human societies. For close to 2,000 years, this region has been an important centre for trade, and permanent settlements have thrived here for at least the past 1,000 years — since the reign of the Cholas. More recently, in the 16th century, Europeans arrived on the coastline, causing significant alterations to the landscape with increased trade. In the past few decades, the steadily growing population of the region has put enormous pressure on natural resources, as has been the case in much of the country.
Today, the remnants of this forest type exist in highly fragmented and degraded patches along the coastline. Only about one per cent of this forest type is protected, and the largest such tract falls within the Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary, in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu. Outside protected areas, sacred groves offer these forests some protection through the prevailing cultural values of some communities. At least 75 such patches are present in parts of the Tamil Nadu coast alone, and the biodiversity within these groves provides myriad services to people nearby. Over 50 species of plants find use as traditional medicines, and are used to treat fevers, colds, skin diseases, animal bites and more. Other species provide fuel wood, fruits, fodder, and several more are deeply interwoven with religious practices.
Scholars disagree on what the native vegetation of this region might have looked like before extensive manipulation by human societies. Some researchers believe that TDEFs represent a climax community — one that has reached a state of ecological balance, and will prevail until some disturbance causes its destruction. Others believe that these arid landscapes have always been home to coastal forests that take several forms. To them, today’s TDEFs are only the latest opportunistic assemblage of tree species that are adapted to tolerate the specific climatic conditions of the region.
Protecting coastal forests in the east coast
Whether a subtype of these forests is deserving of the special classification as a TDEF or not, people agree on the need and potential for its conservation and restoration. Dr Jayshree Vencatesan, managing trustee of a Chennai-based research organization, Care Earth Trust, is emphatic about it. “More than anything else, flood resilience can be built up only by restoring these forest patches along the coast. And when I say ‘the coast’, I am not restricting myself to the 500 or 1,000 metres that the law stipulates. There are remnant coastal vegetation patches even 13 kilometres inland in some places in Chennai, adapted to marine and brackish waters,”she says.
In Auroville, near Puducherry, the Pitchandikulam Forest team has steadfastly been restoring TDEFs for over 40 years now. They collect seeds from nearby remnant forests and propagate them in their nursery to restore habitat that has undergone severe degradation over the past 200 years. Today, their efforts have resulted in the greening of a once arid area of the region, and they are now focusing on restoring other patches nearby.
There have been other movements to protect forests in this eco-region as well. “One of the interesting things about the reserve forests of Chennai is that most of these have been quarried areas in the past. Nanmangalam, for example, was a blue metal quarry, until it was taken over by the forest department and recovered,” says Dr Vencatesan. She strongly believes that a landscape-level view must be taken. “When you erect one stereotype of a forest, and don’t pay attention to other kinds of forests, you are doing a disservice to the landscape.”
Despite the work Care Earth Trust has been doing for two decades to build resilience, conserve biodiversity, and engage with communities in this region, Dr Vencatesan believes there is a long way to go. She believes even misguided projects that look good on paper, like tree planting (of the wrong species in the wrong area) often get funded at the cost of more difficult, but highly beneficial projects such as the restoration of an abandoned quarry to its original vegetation. “There are many people who tell us that Care Earth has done wonderful work. I agree. But I think we should be doing better,” she signs off modestly.