Teak – Boon or Bane”

- Walking with Lakshmi, Sunil, Aneesh, and Madhavan through Nilambur forests, April 2023

Teak – Boon or Bane”

- Walking with Lakshmi, Sunil, Aneesh, and Madhavan through Nilambur forests, April 2023

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"Her Majesty's Ships 'Amphitrite' & 'Trincomalee' beating out of San Francisco on September 23rd 1854." Both vessels were built from teak, owing to a shortage of oak. They were built at the Wadia Shipyards at Bombay (Mumbai), near the teak forests of Malabar. Master shipbuilder Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia supervised construction, one of 14 ships he would build for the Royal Navy during his life.

“The climate here is ideal for teak. That is why H.V. Conolly, Collector of Malabar, established the plantation in Nilambur in the first place” … Shareef P., Range Forest Officer, Nedumkayam.

Teak, ‘King of Timbers’, grows in tropical forests along the Western Ghats, specifically in Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar in southwest India. The trees of the Nilambur forests in the Western Ghats attain remarkable size due to the tropical climate and fertile soil. Growing up to 50 metres in height with a diameter of up to 2.5 metres, these yield teak logs of significant size that are highly valued in the market. Moreover, Nilambur teak stands out for its superior colour. The oily heartwood of the teak tree has a rich, golden-brown hue that darkens with age, which is highly sought after in the market.

In 1792, following the defeat of Tipu Sultan in the Third Anglo-Mysore War, the British took control of South India. The Western Ghats, abundant in valuable timber and species such as Teak, Anjili, and Rosewood, were particularly interesting to the British colonial state. By the early 19th century, the collection of natural resources, particularly teak from the Western Ghats, was at its highest, with indiscriminate felling and overexploitation of teak forests. The colonial state began the conservation and preservation of teak species, well-suited for humid tropical climates and salt water. Malabar teak was used to make articles that could be exported and for shipbuilding in port towns.

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The signboard in the Nilambur plantation marking Conolly’s Plot. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023, 2023
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Teak plantation (two years old) in South Malabar. Image: Schlich's Manual of Forestry, Vol 1, 3rd ed. 1906, pp. 130

Conolly’s Plot: The First Teak Plantation in the World

The plantation that hosts the 165-year-old teak is on the outskirts of Nilambur town. Famed as Connolly’s plot, the world’s first teak plantation was planted in Nilambur in 1846 by the then district Collector of Malabar, H.V. Connolly, to provide an estimated 2000 trees annually. With one million trees, it was spread over 607 hectares (ha). Today, Connolly’s plot is a permanent preservation plot in memory of Conolly and has shrunk to 2.3 ha, with just 117 trees.

In 1843, H.V. Conolly and Chattu Menon succeeded in establishing India’s first viable teak plantations in Malabar. Menon’s approach involved boiling teak seeds and growing them in water before sowing them broadly under leaves in a nursery, resulting in successful saplings. The British established timber depots in various ports, such as Thalassery and Kollam, to facilitate the export of teak wood to Britain.

Since the introduction of the first teak plantation by the British in Kerala in 1842, almost all states of India have introduced teak plantations in forests under different schemes to create or convert existing forests into high-value timber-based forests.

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The wide root system of teak is visible in this century old tree at Nilambur Plantation. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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Teak plantation floor in leaf fall season. “The presence of teak leaves on the ground poses a formidable obstacle for seed germination, further impeding plant growth.” Madhavan, Village Pulimunda, Nilambur. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Other Plants in a Teak Plantation

“The growth of tuber crops has been severely hindered as a consequence of teak expansion, jeopardizing their viability.” … Sunil & Madhavan.

A teak plantation, with numerous giant trees closely planted, with just enough space between them for light to reach the ground, dominates a large stretch of the forest floor. Teak roots spread horizontally in the topsoil layer, and the tree consumes most of the soil nutrients and moisture to ensure its survival, and so does not allow other plant species to grow around and under it.

Other trees, creepers, and shrubs disappear gradually in a teak plantation, making it useless for local people and wildlife. Furthermore, the slow decomposition of teak leaves makes the situation unhealthy, as they accumulate on the ground for prolonged periods, generating elevated temperatures within the soil.

“After the forest became plantation, the proliferation of medicinal plants, which were once abundant in this area, has been dramatically impeded.” … Sunil, Village Nedungayam, Nilambur.

History and Memory: The People of the Forest

“We, the Adivasi people, used to govern the forest. They took advantage of us, our knowledge of the forest, and took over and started ruling the forest. We were made into slaves by the British.” … Madhavan

Different oorus co-exist inside the forest—Cholanaikkar, Kattunayakar, and Paniya communities. These oorus have different stories based on their levels of interaction with the outside world. The Cholanaikkar community resides in the deepest parts of the forest, while the Kattunayakar community occupies an area which is not as deep. The Paniya community is located right inside the forest, the area closest to the town.

Among them, the ‘Chola’ (evergreen forest) and ‘Naikkan’ (king) people of Nilambur forests are among the few surviving hunter-gatherer communities in the country, and some still live in traditional rock cave shelters. Today, their language is a mix of Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam.

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Statues of Sri Karimpuzha Mathan, eldest of the Cholanaikkas and his wife Karikka , who were part of the Republic Day celebrations at New Delhi in 2005. Unfortunately, he died after being trampled by a wild elephant in 2022. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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Bailey Bridge over the Chaliyar river at Nilambur. Constructed 1933. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Colonial Arrivals and Locals

The Kattunayaka and Paniya gothrams inhabited the area before the British arrived. The Paniya community worked on the land, while the Kattunayakar and Cholanaikkar communities brought hunted animals, honey, and forest produce. The Muthuvan community had the best relationship with the Kovilakam.

All these lands used to belong to the Kovilakam. The Kovilakam lands were used by Britishers, causing a rift in the relationships among the communities. Adivasi communities within the forests maintained their connection, while others outside the boundaries were restricted. Forest laws restricted free movement, deteriorating relationships and preventing reuniting.

History and Memory: Breaking a Connection

“All kinds of trees and plants existed inside the forest. This was not a plantation at the beginning. It was a normal forest—all kinds of trees were there, small and large.” … Madhavan.

To work in the Nedumkayam forest plantation, the British recruited individuals from various resident Adivasi communities. The primary task assigned to the workers was to catch and train elephants, while another crucial task was the plant teak saplings. These significantly changed their existing lifestyles and dietary habits. Outside the plantation, trees were cut down indiscriminately, and the forest department cleared natural forest areas under the guise of agricultural benefits for the community.

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Members of different oorus gathered for a meeting in a Paniyar ooru in Nedumkayam forest. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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A section of the teak plantation at Conolly's plot, April 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Initially, a designated area was cleared by the forest department, and teak saplings were planted. Local community members were informed that they could engage in agricultural activities in this plot for three years. However, at the end of this period, they were required to relocate to another plot for another three-year cycle. This practice was implemented due to the significant growth of the teak trees by the fourth year. Sunil, a resident, said that local community members expressed their discontent, feeling that although the land belonged to everyone, the forest department was exploiting it for itself.

The Adivasi communities like Paniya who lived outside the forest boundary, could not walk into the forest like before. This led to a break in relationships between families and communities who lived inside and outside the forest. They could not see each other because of the restrictions caused by the Forest laws. This led to a younger generation growing up not knowing each other, even though their elders shared a good relationship.

Nilambur Forest Timeline

“Trees, creepers, and shrubs in this area have disappeared gradually, and it has become useless for local people and wildlife.” … Sunil & Madhavan.

1792: As per the Srirangapatna agreement, the entire Malabar Area came under British control, later extended to Wayanad. Colonial law considered forests as private property, in contrast to Travancore and Cochin laws. Teak is still regarded as private property.

1806:  Captain Watson appointed the first Conservator of Forests, responsible for the forests of Malabar and Travancore. In 1807, the government imposed restrictions on the extraction of teak, anjili, and other valuable trees.

1846:  Conolly’s Plot, the first teak plantation, was established in forest land leased from Thrikalayur Devasom, Nilambur Thirumulpad, and Zamorin of Kozhikode. This was a response to the felling of immature teak trees in Malabar forests in response to demands of shipbuilders at the Naval Dockyard, Bombay.

1880:  All felling of living teak trees was stopped, and the forest department started utilising the wind-fallen and dead trees that were being annually destroyed by fire. This restricted Adivasi use of wood in the forest and was closely followed in 1882 by the Madras Forest Act, which restricted Adivasis from moving freely in forests and halting plantation expansion. After this was resumed in 1886, Mahogany and other exotic tree species were planted in Nilambur, along with teak.

1900:  The Malabar area had the largest area of private forests, as the elephant trenches dug by the landlords to capture wild elephants were considered evidence of private ownership. Due to this, the area of private forest in Malabar was large compared with reserve forests. The settlement officer appointed in 1898 to decide the claim over the forest frequently misused this power, declaring them a reserve forest due to the richness of good quality timber. Mechanised logging was started in Palghat district from 1898 onwards.

1921: The legacy of loss of forest, livelihoods, and homesteads led to many Forest officials being harassed, and many forest buildings were destroyed during the ‘Mappila Lahala’ (1921 revolt). This was followed by the floods of 1924 when many teak plantations were affected. 

1925: The government opened sales depots for timber in many parts of south India for the sale of timber from the forests. The Nilambur-Shoranur railway line was laid in 1927 for the swift transportation of wood from Nilambur to sales depots at market towns along the coast.

1949: The Madras Preservation of Private Forest Act came into force, bringing large private forest holdings under its purview to prevent the destruction of private forests. In 1961, the Kerala Forest Act was formulated. The government took over all private forests in the Malabar area under the Private Forest Vesting and Assignment Act.

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The map shows the Nilambur forest and the different area within the forest range
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JANAL researchers in conversation with the members of Cholanaikkar, Kattunayakar, and Paniya community members. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Forest as Work: Controlling Livelihoods

Until the late 1960s, the community led a secluded life with minimal contact with mainstream urban society. Vinod, the first of his community to pursue a PhD, says, “The food style has changed; unlike in the past, we need money to buy food materials. We get only limited materials and must buy from outside due to our big family. Traditionally, we have the right to collect materials from a particular area in the forest. My family, Panappuzha, can collect from the Panappuzha area only. We cannot collect from areas under other families. Which is why we preserve our area,”

The primary occupation was mainly honey collection, which extended to fishing, preparation and trade of resins, including esteemed commodities like frankincense, and gathering an array of medicinal plants, vegetables, fruits, and mushrooms. Evidently, commodities such as mangoes and gooseberries were procured and commercially traded.  Concurrently, the domain of construction using traditional materials, exemplified by bamboo, emerged as a prevalent occupation.

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The Chaliyar River, the lifeblood of Nilambur Forest, provides sustenance and livelihood to its inhabitants through the art of fishing. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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A moment of reflection as a man assesses the aftermath of heavy rainfall around his home. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Life in the Forest Today

Regrettably, the passage of time has witnessed a shift towards the preference for brick and cement in contemporary house construction, ultimately leading to the waning of proficiency in traditional construction methods. “It is not that people have forgotten skills like using bamboo in house construction. Most have forgotten how to generate income from the forest itself,” said Sunil. Consequently, a palpable consequence of this evolving trend has been the gradual neglect of knowledge and skills related to forest-based income generation, thus ushering in a concerning era of waning familiarity with such invaluable practices.

Over the last two decades, there has been a discernible decline in the availability of forest produce, prompting a significant shift in occupational patterns among the populace. The people of Nedungayam, Mundakkadavu, and Pulimunda ooru have predominantly gravitated towards engagements in loading and unloading operations. Notably, many of these individuals are affiliated with labour unions and rely heavily on the proceeds generated from Teak plantation activities. Their daily responsibilities entail loading trees, clearing shrubs, and managing fire line duties within the forest’s confines.

Life in the Forest Today: Inter-relations

“We do not celebrate Onam and Vishu. All those are recent and new festivals. Each gothram (community) will have a varshika akhosham (yearly festival). Most celebrations are related to the collection of produce from the forest. We leave to collect the produce only after prayers. Everyone knows that there is a god. We don’t know what or who that god is. We imagine this God to be nature,” says Aneesh.

“Paniyar, Muthuvan, and Kaattunayakar all have their way of praying. All these poojas happen in March, April, and May.  If it’s a Paniya festival, the mooppan (head) of Nayakkanmar will be invited. Similarly, Nayakkanmar will invite the Paniya mooppan too. Such mutual invitations are a way of showing respect. That’s the way it has always been, and that is how it remains now. Vilaveduppu ulsavagangal—the prayer that is held when we collect honey or other tuber, for example, is one occasion when the prayer is held.”

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Clearing undergrowth for sustainable forest agriculture. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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The Chaliyar river winding through the foothills of the Nilambur forest, April 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Lakshmi also spoke about the importance of prayers before going to collect honey. “When we collect honey, we keep a vettila and adakka (beetle leaf and areca nut) and pray. It is called malakku kodukkuka, where we offer to the gods before consuming it ourselves. If we don’t give to the gods first, some accident might occur.  Honey is collected at night, so it can be dangerous.”

The locals compared themselves to individuals of African origin who are disconnected from their relatives in their homeland due to the forced displacement of their ancestors. People living inside the forest were given pattayam by the Forest Act of the 1970s—between 2, 3, or at most, 5 cents, which is inadequate for housing.

“We depend on work like koolippani (daily wage labour) outside the forest, and don’t get enough from the forest alone for our livelihood. So, we have to go out. Young people do not know the ways of the forest.”

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Tree Number 23—The oldest tree at Nilambur 175 years and going. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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The root system of a Teak tree. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Missing the Forest for the Trees: GI Status with Mixed Feelings

In 2023, joint efforts by Research institutes, Universities, Kerala Forest Research Institute Department of Forests, and various NGOs led to granting GI (Geographical Indication) status to Nilambur teak. The first instance of forest produce being added to the roster of products with the GI tag from India draws attention to the social and political effect teak has had on the forests of Nilambur.

Will the global attention with the GI tagging of Teak let the Nilambur forests remain so, or will it convert the forest into a plantation, like Rubber elsewhere in Kerala?

Moreover, can it draw attention to people’s histories and local ecologies in this corner of the world, describing how trees and peoples thrive because their lives and futures are interconnected and coexist?

Whose forest is it anyway?

Not the forest dweller, with less work and precarious lives

Nor the animals, poached, killed, and forgotten

Or will it be the government’s, as a plantation owner, not a forest carer.

Further Reading

Bhukya, Bhangya. “The Mapping of the Adivasi Social: Colonial Anthropology and Adivasis.” Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 39 (2008): 103–9.

Bijoy, R. “Adivasis Betrayed: Adivasi Land Rights in Kerala.” Economic and Political Weekly 34, no. 22 (1999): 1329–35.

George, Jose, and S.S. Sreekumar. “Statutory Restoration of Tribal Lands in Kerala.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 55, no. 2 (1994): 173–76.

Mathew, Joshy. “Colonial Exploitation of Forest Resources of The Western Ghats.” Indian History Congress 80 (December 2019): 591–99.

Mathew, Joshy. “Colonial Forest Policy in South India with Special Reference to Malabar (1792-1947)” https://www.academia.edu/34325976/Colonial_Forest_Policy_in_South_India_with_Special_Reference_to_Malabar_1792_1947

Munster, Ursula, and Suma Vishnudas. “In the Jungle of Law: Adivasi Rights and Implementation of Forest Rights Act in Kerala.” Economic and Political Weekly 47, no. 19 (2012): 38–45.

Pandey, and C. Brown. “Teak: A Global Overview.” Unasylva 51 (2000): 1–11

Raman, Ravi. “Breaking New Ground: Adivasi Land Struggle in Kerala.” Economic and Political Weekly 37, no. 10 (2002): 916–19.

Ramavarman, T. ‘First for Forest Produce, GI Tag for Nilambur Teak’. The Times of India, 1 January 2018.

Viswanath, Chandrakanth. ‘Road Less Travelled: How a 24-Yr-Old Became the First to Pursue a PhD from Kerala’s Cholanaikkan Tribe’. News18.com, 16 November 2020.