All 13 of us were dozing off on the bus, as we had slept or sat on airport benches the night before. As the bus started its uphill climb to Ooty, however, one by one we woke up with a start as we saw the drastic change in scenery. From concrete and dry mud and farm lots, we were suddenly surrounded by lush vegetation, with mist-covered trees, rocky cliffs with waterfalls, and Bonnet macaques lining the road. We were in the Blue Mountains, and the view was mesmerizing.
For the next four days, 43 participants representing 24 organizations and communities coming from 6 countries exchanged views, experiences, and practices in their conservation work with indigenous communities, particularly with NTFP monitoring. The NTFP Exchange Programme, together with Keystone Foundation, gathered its network partners for this meeting on “Community-Based Monitoring Systems for NTFP Resources” in Tamil Nadu, India. It was emphasized that while the organizations work in different countries with different contexts, the network should try to see where it can make connections as it faces similar issues and similar politics in terms of forest conservation. The Participatory Resource Monitoring system was explained by Dr. Mary Stockdale, who has been testing the system in different sites in the Philippines with NTFP Task Force.
Participant from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia also shared their monitoring efforts for NTFPs such as honey, rattan, fish and small game, wild food and fruits, and resin. In small groups, they made plans on how to start or continue monitoring work for these NTFPs in their communities. Among the eye-opening discussions was the sharing on traditional knowledge and how our enterprise interventions not only affect the environmnt, but also the culture of the communities where we work.
The meeting involved a trip to a nearby medicinal garden and shopping at he Greenshop, Keystone’s retail market featuring products form their communities. The venue was set for Udghamandalam (popularly known as Ooty), the capital of the Nilgiris district, a hill station in the Nilgiris Biosphere reserve at 2,300 meters above sea level with forests and tea estates. This set a perfect backdrop for learning about Keystone’s inspirational conservation work in the nearby villages. As one participant commented, it was the right place to talk about NTFPs and conservation as the surroundings reflected the topics discussed in the meeting.
The participants went on a field day visiting various Keystone projects where they witnessed how the communities protect their sacred forests, gather NTFPs using established harvest protocols, and engage in enterprises and ecotourism. Some groups were able to see how honey and other NTFPs are monitored. Despite the chilly evening, everyone enjoyed the sharing of the day’s experiences and learning’s over bonfire, with traditional music and dancing from the Kurumba tribe.