Food Cliffs in the Nilgiris
Food Cliffs in the Nilgiris - building a bridge from honey hunter communities, farmers to urban settlers and tourists.
The Nilgiri hills and its adjoining regions were millet growing areas, for the most part, growing a range of
millets including finger millet, foxtail millet, little millet, mustard pumpkin and a range of local beans.
This kind of a mixed crop field, thenai kaadu, has been declining in these regions over a period of time
due to reasons such as increasing raids by wildlife, declining village sizes and uncertain rain patterns
amongst others. The decline in traditional crops has been followed by
a range of local food which includes dishes made of Ragi and other millets local grown in the village. The greens are local wild spinach.
Bio input training are held across the Nilgiri Biopshere region to help communities use alternative bio-inputs in their farms using local plants found in their region, envisaged to push communities move away from chemical pesticides.
Seed exchanges are held semi annually for farmer to exchange local seeds and learn traditional sustainable farming techniques by each indigenous communities.
The seed basket (known as Vidhai Puttu Koodai in Tamil) is a very important agricultural seed and storage implement that is traditionally used to collect the first harvest from the mixed crop field (Thenai Kaadu) before offering to their deities.
The picture was taken at vagapanai - a Kurumba (the indigenous community who are traditional honey hunters) village. The harvest in the picture is from her kitchen garden set up in her millet farm.
Millets are an important cereal crop for food and livelihoods in the Nilgiri region. the type of millet grown depend s on the evelvation and landscape of the residing terrain. In the Nilgiris, millet cultivation is purely organic, highly adapted to low soil depth and can grown on rocky land surface
Honey Hunting in Nilgiris by Kurumbas.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Large NGO (over 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
* Last Forest Enterprises Private Limited - social marketing enterprise, Green Shops - Kotagiri, Coonoor & Ooty, Place to Bee - Slow Food Restaurant. Annual Turnover: USD 417433.50
* Aadimalai Pazhangudiyanar Producer Company Limited - Tribal-led, owned Producer Company. 1605 tribal shareholders, 6 women Directors. They collect Non Timber Forest Produce and value add at the village level. Annual Turnover: USD 139144.50
* Nilgiri Natural History Society - nature education, outreach, mainstreaming bringing Natural History. Annual Turnover: USD 1400
* Keystone Foundation, Not for Profit Trust, 10 thematic groups, Annual turnover USD 1391503.00
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Kotagiri, Nilgiris district, Tamil Nadu
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Nilgiris District - 2565 km square. Located in the Western Ghats. Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Keystone Foundation - NGO that we have founded, as a field-based group for eco-development initiatives has been in the Nilgiris since 1995. Keystone works on Livelihoods, Conservation, Enterprise & Environmental Governance with indigenous, marginalized communities. Honey hunters & traditional beekeepers have been our principal partners, clients and entry-point. In Nov 1993 we founded Keystone Foundation - 3 friends, each with an Ecology, Economics & Rural Management background. We wanted to work in the cross-section of ecology-economics and understand how does it translate into real life with local, tribal people who are honey hunters. 1994, we did a Tamil Nadu Honey Hunters survey and came to Kotagiri to start our work with Kurumba, Irula, Kotas, Todas. Our work grew organically - looking at homestead gardens, traditional agriculture, nutrition security, local value addition of forest and agriculture produce,creating markets for sale and better returns. Today after 26 years of work, we have incubated 3 more institutions that closely work together addressing Conservation, Enterprise & Livelihoods. Keystone has become a field-based learning, resource and empowerment center to show models that work from concept to implementation in a mountain area which is ecologically sensitive. We directly work with 30,000 people in more than 135 villages. Seed banks, traditional mixed agriculture, honey, bees wax and other natural resources which are part of the local food systems we engage, help to transform. From soil and moisture conservation techniques to setting up Green Shops for their produce - we are intrinsically connected to the community, land, natural resources and food cliffs. Food cliffs according to us are cultural spaces, where ecology, economics, equity merge. Wild foods, Non Timber Forest Produce, Ancestral domains, Honey collection zones, local pollinator habitats are all found in Food Cliffs. Our work has gone deep into the community and global. High relevance
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The Nilgiris is a mountain zone nestled in the Western Ghats. It has an elevation from 200 meters to 2600 meters above mean sea level. Home to several endemic plants, animals and ecology of grasslands-shola forests. Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) are found here and no where else in the world. Badagas - agriculturists, Kotas - artisans, Todas - pastoral, Kurumbas - honey hunters & Irulas - dry land agriculture. Each of these communities have a symbiotic relationship among each other and live in distinct altitude zones in this mountain system. From grasslands - shola in the upper areas, Nilgiris plateau is a bowl of agriculture and plantation economy to the steep cliffs where Non Timber Forest Produce is found. Nilgiris is gradually becoming urbanized, more and more settlers are coming from outside for a piece of the good climate and weather, clean air and water. Local communities are migrating out for better jobs, city life. Youth are not interested to be in these quiet hills anymore. Tea - main economic engine of the district is falling down as rising labor costs, markets become difficult to sustain. Farming is mainly vegetables in the valley and local millet, amaranthus, honey, pepper, mace are found in the lower elevations. Intensive pesticide usage is rampant in the tea estates and agriculture. Water bodies are getting contaminated, diseases and illness are common, fatality by consuming pesticides through foods is observed on bonnet macaques. Health of the people is precarious as common heart, sugar and hypertension is common among marginalized communities. Massive impacts from booming tourism industry has its toll on food and water systems. Annually more than 15 million visitors come to this fragile ecosystem. Infrastructure is collapsing.
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Nilgiris food cliffs today are not in focus to the various stakeholders in the food systems chain. Conservation, Enterprise & Livelihoods synchronous with environmental governance of local food systems, local governance protocols, access & benefit sharing, organic gardens or zones are gradually pahasing out intensive chemical/pesticide zones.
The Nilgiri Mountains is an exceptional landscape with abundant natural ranges of forests (Dry deciduous, moist ever-green, shola and grasslands) that has nurtured a range species that is found nowhere in the world and indigenous communities who have been living in these hills since the 1600, perhaps, even before. Imagine the fertile ecological state that this mountainous region would’ve had that provided to life – ensuring food security to people & animals.
Let’s move a bit forward to the last one and half centuries. Tea, introduced in the 1850’s by the British coupled with exotic plantations was the starting point of degradation of the natural ecology that diminished traditional ways of living and growing food.
Currently (2020), markets have taken over, traditional seeds and ways of growing food are being gradually erased. Chemically grown food is the norm. Monetary gains are blinding health concerns. Vegetables are grown with beyond maximum allowable levels. Their residue affects soil, microbes & other organisms of the soil -food web. Most importantly, affecting water resources on which downstream communities also rely on.
Exotic vegetables (lettuce, zuchinni, carrots, potatoes etc) grown here are transported across the country. The demand is growing day to day. Profits are made at the cost of local ecology. If this is not addressed, there will be no more natural wealth to exploit. In 30 years the situation could deteriorate further if the same consciousness and practices continues.
In the future (2050) more and more native landscapes will be given away, succumbing to market demand to grow more food, mainly because of the altitude and equatorial proximity the land offers. Food will be grown only to satisfy demands elsewhere. This will wipe away all traditional – seeds, practices and food sovereignties; wild bees will vanish.
Food security may not be an issue in 2050, but the toxic effect on people’s health and the soil will be very evident. Assuming climate change will intimidate people to change their ways, we would’ve already reached a point where it would be impossible to revive, leaving no room for natural food to be grown.
Hypothetically speaking, if systems change now, and if all works by 2050 – excessive demand for the new range of food can or will surely bring in inorganic ways to boost profits and increase the number stakeholders. At that time, we will need to develop new strategies with appropriate technologies that can benefit the investors from outside and the locals.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Keystone Foundation with its 3 incubated organizations works with diverse stakeholders in the Food Systems - from growers, traditional seed priests, farmers, transporters, traders, consumers, shops, outlets, federations at regional, national and International - such as Slow Food, IFOAM. Food Cliffs in the Nilgiris is a new concept - honey cliffs which surround the Nilgiris massif is a buffer for the Food Chain /web. Over 26 years we have addressed the sustainability question for food systems - be it pollinators like bees, wildlife, insects as foragers and soil and moisture conservation works for degraded lands. Water, wetlands restoration, planting native grasses, trees, shrubs, calendars and corridors for useful berries, food and Non Timber Forest Produce. Keystone works with communities - provides training, builds Livelihoods, Conservation & Enterprise linkages. Aadimalai is the community federated producer company - women leaders who forage, collect, clean, value add, pack and sell their homestead produce. Last Forest is the social marketing enterprise - that deals with markets, clients, branding, international exchanges and training and capacity building. Nilgiri Natural History Society takes the Natural History message to all stakeholders, bringing a movement around the Ecology of Food Cliffs.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
To Enhance the Quality of Life & The Environment is our mission statement. Food Systems - land, water, soils, cliffs, pollinators, people, markets each of these ecological, economic features, forces and factors have the ability to change the narrative. Today the tipping point for a destruction in Food systems in the Nilgiris - higher pesticides, poison green plantations, haphazard constructions, land use change, diversion of water sources and wetlands, massive human - wildlife conflicts. This needs to change and now. People realize it but can't do anything. Vested interests need to be shown a new paradigm - through a Food Vision that is local, appealing, self-regenerative we will protect nature to thrive, marginalized poor communities will be less vulnerable. It's a political message. It has to be done, creatively with imagination and boldness.
By banking on indigenous knowledge, - traditional agricultural practices can be revived; with local appropriate technologies, a new range of local crops can create a better demandable market for local farmers. Furthermore, enhancing food sovereignty will show in the health of the people. Ultimately paving the way for pollinators such as wild bees to do what they do best – pollinate for food security.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Food Cliffs in the Nilgiris - Building a bridge to various stakeholders - from the producer, gatherer to the consumer, end product - market. Vision connects to the Ecology & Environment through the honey cliffs of the Nilgiris - which are traditional spaces of food - honeybees, pollinators, springs, grasses. Figuratively these cliffs act like bridges of knowledge, experience, practice and wisdom. Diets need to be brought back to these local, safe, healthy practices. Diets have moved away - impacting culture, environment and local economy. Food Systems need to be thought in a whole a new way - not just supply chains and consumption. This zone in the Nilgiris has the potential to illuminate a new path towards local, global practice and living learning from the past, wisdom and connecting to the future in a comfortable way. Technology in our area in the Nilgiris for food systems is appropriate technologies for drying, processing, packaging at the village level. Policy of Organic Nilgiris is a big a push with the present District Collector, Ms. J. Innocent Divya, IAS. She has been in the forefront to create an association of farmers and phasing out the pesticides. But it's not easy. Consumer consciousness needs to drive and leverage the push for clean, safe, healthy, nutritious food - that has a story, recall, connection to the honey gatherers and millet farmers. For this to happen - strategies have to work at different levels - simultaneously. Food Cliffs in the Nilgiris - becomes a central message, a movement for local environment, ecology, diets that need to be questioned, health issues that need frank discussions, pesticides and fertilizer companies need to be advocated and won over. Collector, Ministries in Chennai & Delhi need to see a model worth replication in other areas of India. Where the challenge lies is not all are interested in the Local. Not all interested in organic, high priced, exclusive. How to make this totally common, in the bazaar, in the haat, a common practice. That will have to be worked through a systems approach - using various players - in our case - Markets, Government & Society. Each of these role players can be divided into several sub players - Markets: traders, consumers, transporters, certification agencies, suppliers, customers - each of them need to play a role in the Food Systems. Today they don't see the benefit. That paradigm shift has to happen, the buy-in of all these role players need to be got for success to happen. Society - tribal people and their clans, organizations, traditional governance systems, the urban society in a hill district - schools, estates, clubs, associations each of them needs to get that nudge, empower them with a key input to connect the dots and start the process. In 26 years we have played with these players, know the game to an extent, some success, some lessons to learn. The other challenge is the aggregation of different populations, people from different walks of life to come together on a common platform. We will create a bridge for them to access several platforms. In the next 30 years - 2050, for a nourishing and regenerative food future for Nilgiris and its People will be to demonstrate Conservation, Enterprise & Livelihoods (CEL) model for Food Systems Ecology that works. Pivot from our 26 years of experience and deepen our efforts through slow food chains like the Place to Bee, Green shops that sell local, farm, homestead produce, advocate with the Government for Local Food Malls for tourists, visitors. Bring focus on indigenous, local communities and their practices without exploiting them and making them as displays, but what do they have to impart, what do we as city - educated, elite people need to imbibe from light foot-prints, foragers of food systems - that is culturally rooted. Yet can be contemporary, modern, mainstreamed. Economics of Food Systems today are totally skewed, with no real attribution - this effort of collecting, forming a network of Markets, Government and Society has a larger appeal.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?