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R. Kannan is showing highland villagers and farmers in Tamil Nadu how to "hold the forest," grow crops, and diversify the rural economy at the same time, and also to protect the region's dwindling water supply and attract the interest of forestry officials and other conservationists.

This profile below was prepared when Raveendran Kannan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


R. Kannan is showing highland villagers and farmers in Tamil Nadu how to "hold the forest," grow crops, and diversify the rural economy at the same time, and also to protect the region's dwindling water supply and attract the interest of forestry officials and other conservationists.


Kannan has convinced one-time skeptics–from farmers to government officials–that crops, trees, and wildlife can and must coexist. Kannan is demonstrating to poor upland farmers that by making incremental changes to how they work the land and by putting local plants and insects to practical use, it is possible to improve their standard of living and simultaneously protect valuable forests and watersheds. His program, which has been developed over many years, effects a managed transition from destructive, water-intensive crops to a diversified, rural economy that also incorporates preservation and renewal of forests, watersheds, and community integrity.

A farmer himself, Kannan knows well that the natural environment will be protected only when rural people can earn a living. He has ingeniously married these two concerns by having farmers in the Western Ghats range of Tamil Nadu plant high-value native trees that later on they can log in an informed and managed way. The trees, then, are grown not for their own sake but as capital investments that also protect the old-growth shola forests of the upper highlands from logging and other unwelcome encroachments. Kannan teaches farmers that the market for timber is more stable and lower risk than many annual crops like coffee, encouraging them to think long-term: "One-hundred-fifteen-year-old trees will clear your debt and pay for your child's college education," he points out. Kannan then merges the farmers' long-term and short-term needs with those of the environment by further encouraging cultivation of drought-resistant crops, setting up beehives, and growing native flowering plants.

By working predominantly with tribal communities, Kannan has tapped into indigenous knowledge of plant species while challenging stereotypes and contributing to long-term economic stability. Local awareness of plants and wildlife is supplemented with additional skills and knowledge from outside. Tribal women, who suffer some of the most intense discrimination in India, are placed in managerial roles, thereby changing social relations and concepts of women's work.

Kannan is aware that for his idea to have real impact he needs to build partnerships with powerful agencies. He has attracted the interest of government and has begun collaborating in a number of areas. He sees a strong possibility of replicating the work elsewhere in India and is currently building links with persons and organizations in the vast central region.


The old-growth forests and watersheds of Tamil Nadu, like other parts of India, are in crisis. For hundreds of years, land there has been cleared to plant imported crops like coffee, bananas, and cardamom. In the 1960s intense logging left vast areas of land lying idle. The National Wastelands Development Board now estimates that 20 percent of Tamil Nadu is denuded and disused land. As the land is cleared, the water table falls. It is further affected by soil erosion, misuse of hazardous chemicals, and inappropriate crops.

Although the deteriorating natural conditions have had a negative effect on livelihoods, the farmers have persevered in the mistaken belief that a choice has to be made between crops or trees. Farmers have not wanted either to become involved in planting programs or to change to less water-intensive crops, fearing that both would reduce their already declining incomes. The behavior of most nongovernmental agencies has not helped either: coming for short-term projects, they thrust some seeds and saplings on farmers and disappear when the funding dries up, thus leaving communities without support and advice, giving rise to a sense of betrayal and mistrust. Commercial growers, too, just sell whatever will make a profit, without farmers' best interests in mind. Meanwhile, as rural economic conditions worsen, more people migrate to the cities in search of jobs–those remaining behind become demoralized, often slipping into alcoholism or crime.

Outside attitudes have also contributed to the problem. Despite nationwide water shortages now being discussed publicly, few persons have really understood the connections between water, forests, and wildlife. There is a tendency simply to blame government and ignore the role that communities might play in finding and implementing solutions. This is particularly the case where tribal groups are concerned, as widespread and intense prejudice causes them to be treated as backward and incapable of making a useful contribution.

Finally, government response is often characterized by inaction and seemingly intractable conflict. While state governments across the country are battling one another for increasingly scarce water resources, few are looking for creative, mutually beneficial remedies. The government of Tamil Nadu is itself engaged in a bitter dispute with neighboring Karnataka over the shared watershed that has been at the center of Kannan's work. Neither side has yet suggested a cooperative approach to managing water, agriculture, and forests. The search for a lasting solution, then, cannot be left to shortsighted bureaucrats and politicians; it must start with the local users of the water and forests.


For Kannan the primary challenge is how to re-forest cleared land and make it economically useful at the same time without causing farmers extra expense. His strategy, developed in response to deteriorating regional conditions, is practical, long-term, and proven.

The Palni Hills Conservation Council is the vehicle for Kannan's work. Its tree-growing program begins with staff collecting seeds from the surrounding forests under government permit. The seeds are all local, native species with economic, multiuse potential: they are trees that can be logged for timber, used for firewood, serve as food for animals and insects, or act as shade for crops. The seeds are gathered at a tree-seed center where some are selected for growing and others are processed, packed, and marketed outside. The seeds to be grown are sent to tree nurseries that monitor and select good quality saplings. Those saplings are then made available to farmers through distribution centers; currently there are 15 grouped in three zones: foothills, middle hills, and upper hills. In some cases, saplings from the upper hills have been successfully redistributed and grown in lower zones, where earlier the same species had been lost because of deforestation. Saplings are typically sold for only two to three rupees each; keeping the cost as low as possible is important to minimizing the risk to farmers. The Conservation Council further reduces risk by applying an important criterion for approving sales of trees to farmers: they must be able to demonstrate that they can protect the saplings from livestock damage. The Conservation Council also offers ongoing technical support, advice, and publications, both directly and through farmers' collectives, including information on how to grow and log the trees, on their market values, and on the regulations on cutting high-cost timbers that are on government schedules.

While farmers may reap the benefits of trees after only one or two decades, Kannan has designed the program also to meet short-term needs: farmers' incomes must be sustained in the interim period for any tree-growing program to be successful. Drought is a far greater threat to annual crops like paddy and coffee than it is to native trees. Falling prices make these harvests less and less attractive, but farmers have not sought alternatives. As a result, Kannan is now promoting drought-resistant crops like oilseed with good results. Observing destructive honey-collecting practices among tribal groups in the forests, he also began encouraging households to set up beehives. Indian bees are docile and easy to manage, and the Conservation Council is now successfully marketing locally produced honey and wax products. Once a family has started a hive, it is also more willing to diversify crops: with a thriving beehive, farmers are prepared to introduce more flowering plants that can generate income. In each case, Kannan leads by example to prove that his idea works: "Farmers must first see that it is possible, otherwise they will not do it," he says.

The program's success lies in its being in the hands of competent local staff and partners drawn from both tribal and nontribal communities. These persons work together collecting seeds, running the various centers, and conducting training programs for new staff and outsiders. Their work draws evenly on indigenous and nonindigenous knowledge: for example, tribal persons already intimate with local varieties of seeds and plants are trained in modern techniques of data collection and resource management. Tribal women are taught the intricacies of honey manufacture, traditionally a male-only domain, which they then teach others from different communities. Scientists and agencies from abroad are welcomed to offer expertise to local persons, but they are given no control over the scheme. Tree-growers' collectives are also being established with a view to their eventually managing much of the work.

Kannan has also identified schools as a useful instrument for expanding awareness of environmental issues, while at the same time contributing to the conservation program. Students from some 50 schools in neighboring regions come on field trips to the hills to learn about water quality, forests, insects, and animals. The students undertake tests and surveys, and the results of these are incorporated into Conservation Council plans and shared with local communities and the authorities. As word travels, Kannan is receiving inquiries from schools much further afield–including those in urban areas–and he is planning to accommodate a more diverse range of students in future field trips.

Through persistence and demonstrated success, Kannan's work is now reaching into the domain of government. The Forestry Department has given the Conservation Council a permit to work in the upper hills, an especially sensitive area that is ordinarily off-limits to citizens groups. Kannan plans to organize farmers there into village water-users associations through which he will advocate for changing what and how they crop, again with a view to increasing income, while reducing use of insecticides and water. In another unusual move demonstrating its confidence in the Conservation Council, the Forestry Department has awarded it a license for the training of beekeepers in one district. Ordinarily such licenses are kept within the government; the fact that in this case the training will be run and undertaken by tribal women makes it all the more remarkable.

With work in the Palni Hills now well established, Kannan is more interested in joining with others to replicate his model across the region and throughout the country. Apart from expanding into other parts of the Western Ghats, he recently traveled to the massive Deccan Plateau of central India, where he observed both great challenges and possibilities. He believes that the current situation in the Deccan Plateau is much worse than that of the Western Ghats, but that it may afford faster turnaround because of better rainfall and soil quality. Because many tree species in the plateau are the same as those in the Palni Hills, the seed center has begun sending species that have died out in the Deccan Plateau for replanting programs there. The next step is to bring tribal people for training in Tamil Nadu. However, Kannan wants to work directly with local communities and their organizations as much as possible, rather than through outsiders lacking genuine commitment to the place and its problems. He is looking for partners who are familiar with the local terrain and determined to take the work forward in the same way he has in his own region. He expects that the Ashoka Fellowship will be helpful in this regard and remarks that, "Only by transferring the knowledge that I have gained over the past 15 years to others who are interested in similar work can the task be sustained." He expects that as the method spreads, it will also attract the interest of international organizations that have assisted his activities in the past. Additionally, there is the possibility of corporate investment; as more urban people become aware that the "wealth of the hills is the health of the plains," the more likely they are to commit resources toward highland conservation.


Kannan was raised in a farming family, but he took up pharmacy at university. Disillusioned, he returned to grow coffee with his father and began studying drip irrigation. In 1985 his interest in the natural environment took him to the Palni Hills Conservation Council. His involvement with the council rapidly increased, as he developed new programs involving rural farmers, students, and others. During a drought in 1987, he began thinking about setting up a "green belt" that would stop people from taking their agriculture and cattle deeper into the hills. In 1988 he began the first nursery, with about 10 women staff and 10 species of trees. Up to 1991 the work was slow. Even when offered free saplings, farmers either did not believe they could grow the trees on marginal land, or they suspected that the council would come and claim them later. After three years, however, farmers were coming to the nursery to request saplings. In that year, with the assistance of a British agency, the tree-growing program was able to buy 400 hectares and increase staff to around 20. In 1994 Kannan, who had been keeping bees as a hobby since 1984, introduced hives into the program and promoted the planting of flowering plants and orchards in upper terraces.

Kannan is now one of the most popular consultants to both government and nongovernment agencies on hill-restoration projects in Tamil Nadu. He has over 50 full-time staff, some of whom have been working with him since the beginning of the tree-growing program. Over 5,000 farming families are involved in the work, across seven areas varying in size from 20 to 400 hectares, and they have planted over 3.5 million saplings from more than 100 species. As a result there has been both a dramatic reduction in damage to the old-growth forests and a significant recharging of water tables in the foothills. Kannan writes about the program in journals and professional magazines.

His success lies in his understanding and approaching the problem as a farmer: he has worked cautiously and steadily, leading by example. Although he accepted money from donors to get the program going, he believes that it is wholly capable of supporting and expanding itself. The oldest nursery, for instance, is now operating completely independently. As for himself, although Kannan receives a small salary, he continues to support his family with the income from his five-hectare coffee farm.