As 2022 was coming to an end, we decided to visit Arittapatti, which boasts of being Tamil Nadu’s first biodiversity heritage site (BHS). Known as a place of ecological and historical significance, Arittapatti village in Madurai’s Melur block has around 250 species of birds, including three important raptors—the laggar falcon, the shaheen falcon, and Bonelli’s eagle. The slender loris, the rock python, the monitor lizard, and the endangered Indian pangolin also are also found there.
As we entered the village looking for the BHS, which was notified in November 2022 under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, a village elder guided us to a nearby hillock rising out of the rolling green plains. We made our way past the historical Anaikondan lake (built during the reign of the Pandyan kings in the 16th century), where we struck up a conversation with Balasubramanian (75), who was taking a dip in the waters. Balasubramanian belongs to the Idaiyar community, which inhabits the Arittapatti area. The Idaiyars are pastoralists who settled across grasslands and forests of ancient Tamil country. They traditionally raise cattle, buffalo, and sheep.
Balasubramanian and his family have been praying for over five generations at the rock-cut Siva temple of Arittapatti called Kudaivarai Koil, believed to have been constructed in the 8th century.
The Kudaivarai temple is also named Idaichi mandapam (Idaichi is the feminine form of Idaiyar) after the community. The hillock, which the Idaiyars call Kalinjamalai, has many sunais (natural springs), from which Balasubramanian collects water every day for the rituals. As we walked with him, he described how their life is intricately linked with the hillock.
There are over 72 lakes, three check dams, and more than 100 sunais in the Arittapatti area composed of seven hillocks—Kalinjamalai, Vayuthupullamalai, Ramayimalai, Aaputtanmalai, Kazhugumalai, Thaenkoodumalai, and Kodangimalai—which are an integral part of the local people’s lives. Besides hosting a wide variety of wildlife, the hillocks are also steeped in history, with the Kudaivarai Koil, rockbeds of Jain monks, and Tamil Brahmi inscriptions dating back to 2nd century BCE found here.
According to archaeologist V. Vedachalam, the old name for these seven hillocks is Thirupinnaiyanmalai, which is part of the enperungundrangal or eight big hillocks of Madurai district. A sculpture of a Jain Tirthankara in the Arittapatti hills has an inscription stating that Kalinjamalai was earlier called Thiruppinaiyanmalai while another inscription says that the village was called Paathirikudi. The village might have been an important trade hub around 700 years ago.
The Biological Diversity Act, 2002, was enacted for the conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of its components, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of biological resources and traditional knowledge. A three-tier structure composed of the National Biodiversity Authority, the State Biodiversity Board, and the Biodiversity Management Committee implements this Act under which local communities are assisted to maintain areas designated as BHSs. There are 36 BHSs in India. The seven inselbergs of Arittapatti BHS together cover an area of 193.21 hectares.
Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Climate Change and Forests, Tamil Nadu, is quoted in an article in The Hindu as saying: “A joint integrated management plan will be chalked out to protect Arittapatti and Meenakshipuram villages by the Archaeology and Forest Departments, among others, along with the locals. Declaring spaces outside forests as a Biodiversity Heritage Site helps in protecting a rich and unique ecosystem easily accessible to all.”
When we talked to the local people, we got a sense that there is support as well as disgruntlement concerning the BHS tag. Veerammal (80), the panchayat president of Arittapatti, said: “The Kalinjamalai hillock is an integral part of our life. Ten years ago, the granite mafia tried to start mining here but our village stood united in protest against it. The then Madurai District Collector, U. Sagayam, visited the area and managed to save it. Since then we have been seeking protected status for the hillock, and we have got it now. I believe that the BHS status will save the hill from mining.”
But there are fears among the local pastoral communities that the government might stop them from using the land for activities like grazing, fishing, and herb and honey collection, which they have been doing for generations. Herding her goats on the hills, 60-something Nachiammal (name changed) said: “This hillock quenches our thirst, so we cannot allow mining here. We thank the government for protecting it. However, we should be continued to be allowed to graze our livestock.”
There are other concerns associated with the BHS tag. A farmer who cultivates paddy in Konar thopu (grove) located just below the Arittapatti hillock said: “Earlier we used to cultivate three crops but now only one is possible because of monkeys that frequently raid our crops, resulting in huge losses for us. The monkeys should be captured and released in the Alagar hills [a reserved forest in Dindigul division where monkeys are found in abundance].”
Another farmer who cultivates vegetables had a similar complaint against peafowls, which, according to him, have increased in number in recent times. The farmers fear that the BHS tag will provide more protection to the wild animals, affecting agriculture. Nachiammal, who has been collecting narantham pul (lemongrass) and kanjaran kodi (a climber) from the hills for years, said that she had stopped doing so ever since Arittapatti was declared a BHS.
What needs to be done?
Along with Arittapatti, Vagaikulam wetland, a well-known heronry in Tenkasi district, was also proposed as a BHS. But the local community strongly opposed the proposal during the public hearing. They believed that the declaration would affect their existing rights. Not only the community but also the Public Works Department, which maintains the wetland, refused to issue a no-objection certificate to the proposed BHS on the grounds that it would give more power to the Forest Department in managing the lake.
Shekhar Kumar Niraj, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Secretary to Tamil Nadu Biodiversity Board (TNBB), visited Vagaikulam and had a conversation with the stakeholders where he explained that the Forest Department would not put any restrictions on the BHS, which are maintained by Biodiversity Management Committees consisting of members nominated by the panchayats concerned.
“When we talked to the local people, we got a sense that there is support as well as disgruntlement concerning the BHS tag.”
The TNBB should make the following points clear:
* The creation of a BHS does not put any restriction on the prevailing practices and usages of local communities.
* The creation of a BHS does not affect existing land ownership.
* Local communities play an important role in the management of BHSs.
The TNBB had not framed the rules for implementing the Biological Diversity Act until 2017. The government should be proactive in creating awareness among people and line departments before declaring an area as BHS. The myth of “no access”, which tends to make local people wary of conservation tags, needs to be dispelled so that communities cooperate with the government in protecting ecologically and historically sensitive zones.
- Arittapatti boasts of being Tamil Nadu’s first biodiversity heritage site (BHS)
- Known as a place of ecological and historical significance, Arittapatti village in Madurai’s Melur block is also rich in wildlife
- There is support as well as disgruntlement concerning the BHS tag among the local people
- There are fears among the local pastoral communities that the government might stop them from using the land for activities like grazing, fishing, and herb and honey collection, which they have been doing for generations
- The government should be proactive in creating awareness among people and line departments before declaring an area as BHS
M. Mathivanan is a senior research associate and coordinator at Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre, Manimutharu, Tirunelveli district, of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). T. Ganesh is a senior fellow and faculty at ATREE, Bengaluru.