Monsoon Diaries

Song of the rain: On the monsoon trail in the Western Ghats

The behaviour of plants and animals in Kerala's Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary shows monsoon is going awry.

I love being at home, in Wayanad, when the south-west monsoon arrives. This hilly district of northern Kerala is still full of tall trees and myriad creatures, and drenched in rain for several months in a year. From my window, I see Banasuramala, a beautiful mountain 2,000 metres high, gracing the southern horizon, and canopied hills to the west. Small farms make scruffy patchworks on the other sides. To the north-east are the shola grasslands of the Brahmagiris. All around, streams born of millions of seeps gifted by trees gather to flow to the Kabini river and then to the Kaveri.

Mist covers the Banasuramala mountain. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
Mist covers the Banasuramala mountain. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

I work at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, where a small team of dedicated ecosystem gardeners, skilled in various aspects of horticulture, plant conservation and Western Ghat ecology, grow native plants of this mountain ecosystem, or biome, through techniques honed over four decades of experimentation and practice. We cultivate plants that are highly endangered in the wild, some 2,000 species in all, accounting for 40% of the Western Ghat flora. We deploy a range of methods, from intensive care nurseries to outdoor habitats rich with herbs, tubers, succulents, shrubs, trees, creepers, climbers, epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) and lithophytes (plants that grow on rocks). These species were initially brought from different parts of the Western Ghats, mostly from areas that have already been deforested. Much of our work is a search and rescue mission, and we refer to these plants as refugees, similar to human refugees suffering the depredations of war, displacement, climate change and general toxification of the environment. We also speak of species being rehabilitated when they form mixed-species communities that eventually become quite independent of our care.

A stream, headwater of the Kaveri river. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
A stream, headwater of the Kaveri river. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

Surrounding these “refugee camps” are once-denuded patches, adding up to an area of over 60 acres, which are recovering to forest through natural processes of succession under our vigilance. Since we are on the edge of a reserve forest, still rich and diverse despite its small size of about 100 square km, reforestation happens easily if the land is simply protected – because insects, birds and mammals transfer spores and seeds. Beyond all this, we educate students and visitors about the centrality of the natural world, first of all to itself and then to human lives, including the economy, something most urban people seem to deny, to our collective peril.

Over time, this botanical sanctuary has become a zoological sanctuary. We have noted 220 species of birds, including Malabar trogons, flycatchers, frogmouths and laughing thrushes. Many unusual mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects abound, and several are endemic to the Western Ghats such as the iridescent shield-tail snake, the Nilgiri marten, a nimble and ferocious small mammal, and many species of bush frogs.

The sanctuary has become a river-maker too. I have seen how moss-laden trees condense mist, how droplets of water gather on downy grasses, how cool it is inside the infant forest we have grown, and how water trickles out of the toes of trees to form tiny rivulets, which flow into neighbours’ fields. By leaving large areas of the land to natural succession, and not deliberately planting trees, as practised by other agencies, and giving time, a slowly restoring area acquires many important properties of a healthy ecosystem. These include species diversity, a thick layer of leaf litter decomposing to humus, a robust water cycle, layered and dense vegetation, and different climates from the canopy all the way down to the shady interior.

Monsoon clouds over Gurukula. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
Monsoon clouds over Gurukula. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

As gardeners and habitat-restorers we, of course, are dependent wholly on the timing and duration of the monsoon, on its intensity and quantity – because our wards, namely the land and the plant species we conserve, are. On an average, we require 500 cm of rainfall a year, and most of it from the south-west monsoon. The weather features regularly in our speech. Much of our work hinges on the fine sensibilities of land-based peoples: common sense knowledge to do with life-cycles in the forest and our own intuitive understanding of weather patterns, instead of measurements and forecasts alone.

Changing for worse

Most Indians believe that the monsoon is unassailable: a wind system 18 million years old, which has breathed life into the subcontinent since the rise of the Himalayas, whose formidable heights block it from travelling to Central Asia, condensing it instead into long hard rain. Its intensity varies from year to year, but we believe it will blow. But ever since I have been here, for about 24 years now, I have heard people talking about how the monsoon has gone awry, that it is no longer what it used to be. We also know this from scientific data, but crucially for us, we know this from the behaviour of the plants and animals in our sanctuary.

A monsoon stream in Wayanad. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
A monsoon stream in Wayanad. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

We depend on both monsoons, together called the double monsoon, but the south-west matters more, as it brings more than 90% of what we need annually. The north-east monsoon, however, makes this a rainforest, along with locally generated thundershowers between the two monsoons, by extending the wet period to cover more than eight months of the year. Typical rainforests have rain or mist throughout the year, as we do here. Luc Lambs, an eco-hydrologist at the University of Toulouse in France, studies the double monsoon system in South India – its variation over time, the role of the forests in water vapour recycling and what meteorologists call the “gatekeeper” effect of the Western Ghats range. He says the south-west monsoon has weakened considerably over the past three decades, while the north-east monsoon is getting stronger. He also affirms that forests are necessary to condense rain as are the icy heights of mountains.

Impatiens flowers are endemic to the Western Ghats. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
Impatiens flowers are endemic to the Western Ghats. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the monsoon is changing in fundamental ways. The monsoon was much colder when she was a little girl in this valley, says Laly Joseph, my colleague, recalling how it poured from June to October, with a brief break during Onam, which usually falls in September. For the past decade, however, it has rarely arrived on time, often disappearing after setting in, sometimes drying up in August only to rain very heavily in winter.

The garden is open to the public. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
The garden is open to the public. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

Confused plants

All this fluctuation spells trouble for monsoon-dependent plants. Laly propagates 100 species of endangered native balsams, which belong to the genus Impatiens, all endemic to the Western Ghats, with succulent stems and bright coloured flowers, considered by many naturalists to be a flagship group of the range. She says that many species are struggling because they are confused by changing environmental cues: plant hormones are, after all, finely attuned to tiny changes in seasonal patterns of moisture and temperature. For example, species rescued from higher elevations are not doing well at the sanctuary’s 750-metre elevation any more because it is becoming too warm and the rain is often interspersed with long dry spells, which, if too long, can signal the end of the monsoon to these species. Laly is growing these delicate plants in the nursery because their natural habitats have been eroded. The sanctuary’s plant conservation programme envisages that at least a few can be given a toe-hold chance for survival by our tribe of ecosystem gardeners, if lost in the wild, because of rapid alterations to global climate conditions. Also, rising temperatures bring new diseases and many species are succumbing to these.

Upstream from Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
Upstream from Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

For the past three years, Impatiens stocksii, a small plant with white flowers that is endemic to Coorg and Wayanad, has been sprouting two weeks later each consecutive year, says Abhishek Jain, our plant scout at large, who travels through the mountains documenting species in the wild. They are a month late this year, and haven’t sprouted yet in early June. Both Laly and he say that pre-monsoon convectional showers that lead up to the main monsoon are critical to the dormant tubers setting out their annual leaves and shoots. The pre-monsoon allows for the dormant tubers to start growing underground, and once the main monsoon starts, the plants quickly put out leaf shoots as if assured that a long period of growth lies ahead. The tubers gain in size from the starch made by the photosynthesising leaves. Flowering and seed formation can happen once enough energy is accumulated, usually towards the middle or latter half of the monsoon. Shockingly, this year we had no pre-monsoon rain, and Impatiens stocksii is even more delayed.

I have been keeping a diary to note when trees flower, fruit, produce seeds, drop leaves and flush. There’s a marked difference in these timings between last year and now. Jackfruit, for instance, has fully ripened and fallen in end-May instead of in late June or early July. Mala-elengi (Chionanthus mala-elengii) has flowered and fruited a full six weeks ahead of last year. The southern rudraksh (Elaeocarpus tuberculatus) flowered copiously in early February this year instead of the usual March. I am concerned that some of the trees are masting this year, a term used for synchronised and exceptional production of flowers, fruits and seeds. I have heard that this can happen sometimes in anticipation of death by drought. It takes consecutive years of drought to kill mature trees, but when they reach survival’s edge they put their final energy into the next generation by producing copious quantities of seeds.

The monsoon’s needs

So we know that the forest needs the monsoon. But we don’t give as much thought to how much the monsoon also needs forests, although most of us have an inkling that plants cool the land and that forests are intimately connected to rain and rivers. Scientists used to refer to rainforests, particularly the Amazon, as the planet’s lungs. Now, some like Luc Lambs and Antonio Nobre, an earth-systems scientist in Brazil, talk about forests acting as biotic pumps, whereby trees release organic molecules into the atmosphere, thereby changing air pressure, which creates a drag effect to draw in the winds from the sea. The proponents of this theory are a pair of Russian nuclear physicists named Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov, who studied the contribution of forests all over the world to the global hydrological cycle.

Yet deforestation proceeds untrammelled. A report released in the first week of June by the Indian Institute of Science shows that Kerala has lost half of its forest cover in the past four decades. It is no wonder that the quantity of rainfall has also decreased. If we could reforest more of the land and protect whatever remains of old forest, we could keep droughts and floods at bay, because vegetation has an ameliorating effect on both. Indeed, we keep saying that the monsoon is necessary for agriculture, but we hardly ever talk about what the monsoon needs. In an era when an Indian court redefines the Ganga and Yamuna as “living persons,” let me propose that we look at the monsoon as a being, with its own needs: cooler oceans and lands, glacier-bearing Himalayas, forested Western Ghats, a vegetated India. Further afield, it needs the Siberian permafrost to not melt. It needs the Antarctic to remain icy.

Sights and sounds

Lately, I have been falling asleep to the songs of different bush-frogs and crickets. Tonight, they outdo every other sound – thunder, passing vehicles and barking dogs. Last week, birds such as nightjars, frogmouths and owls were clearly audible and now they are drowned out by the insect–amphibian choir. My ears hurt. This raucous medley is a sure sign that the monsoon is here or about to arrive very soon.The trails are full of jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) and smashed, partly-eaten remains of its relative, the ainili (Artocarpus hirsutus), which sports smaller orange fruits with a spiny skin enclosing lobes of sweet flesh and large seeds. Wild jamuns and mangoes, rose apples, guavas and sweet limes, and dozens of forest tree species are also fruiting. Bonnet macaques, Nilgiri langurs, Malabar grey hornbills and giant squirrels are gorging in the canopy. Someone reported seeing a troop of lion-tailed macaques with babies. It is feasting time for everybody in this valley: wild boar, humans and cattle included. Elephants come by at night, attracted from afar by the smell of overripe jackfruit – to them, a delicacy.

A forest in the Western Ghats. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
A forest in the Western Ghats. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

Herbaceous plants and creepers are suddenly exuberant with the prospect of regular rain. They grow fast during the onset of the monsoon, infused by nitrogen from lightning and the perfect combination of sunshine and water. Soon, if the monsoon arrives and sustains, the trails and rock-walls will be covered in Impatiens flowers, ground orchids and ferns – a spectacular visual treat.

I fantasise sometimes about a perfect monsoon. Rain that is not too much or too little, neither lasting the whole year nor only a few days, arriving perfectly on the first of June and lasting till October. Rivers full and flowing, everyone happy and well-fed, reservoirs lasting through the summer, and fields and forests growing lush and fecund.

Students and visitors are taught about the centrality of the natural world to human life. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives
Students and visitors are taught about the centrality of the natural world to human life. Photo credit: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary Archives

I worry, though, that the monsoon, with its moods and savage powers, might altogether cease. Daily, I awaken to an inescapable prospect in the middle of paradise, this botanical sanctuary in Wayanad. Plant conservation is precious work, and it must be done. But what if the monsoon fails? What will happen if forests and drought get into a positive feedback loop? In other words, what if drought leads to forest fires, leading to less rain, and then to more forest fires and so on? What, then, of rivers and the millions of people downstream?

So, I busy myself with thinking about how to conserve the monsoon. I believe it is mostly a matter of stopping toxic or destructive activities. Author Derrick Jensen writes that a single Trident nuclear submarine is capable of destroying 408 cities at once. What sort of a mind could conceive of creating such a machine? It seems to me, it is the same mind that is killing the monsoon. The United States army alone can stop the murder of the monsoon. It is the single largest contributor to global warming. Why do I say murder? We know that the military-industrial complex is destroying the planet, and we know that it is happening wilfully.

Whom shall we serve? The machines or the monsoon?

This article first appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.