The green deserts of Nilgiris

Heidi Hendersson
Invasive species, exploitative land use, pollution and climate change threaten to turn the lush South Indian Nilgiris into a green desert.


Annavi worked on a tea plantation as a young man. Now he is helping clear it in the name of ecological restoration, together with his daughter Annalakshmi.

The hard-working duo have been clearing the 15 acre plot of land since a local NGO called EBR bought the area five years ago. They stop for a short break to talk to us, but then swiftly return to their task at hand. 

Annavi tears off a tea shrub after laboriously decapitating the colonial plant that covers the hills of Nilgiris in the state of Tamil Nadu, in the southern parts of India: “The white guy put it here,” he says. The roots are firmly planted in the hard soil, an illustrious symbol of the history of the area. He examines the root, but leaves it be. 

He says: “This one has been here more than 60-70 years”. He throws it in a pile together with the other remains of a tea-plantation.

Teashrub carcasses

Annalakshmi grabs a small saw and starts working her way through the thick branches of another shrub while her father watches over and gives advice.

He bends down to inspect the labor and picks up a tiny axe with which he finishes the job. Annalakshmi stands by, drying the sweat off her face.

The pair are both thin, but their colorful clothes hide impressive strength and tenacity. A few feet away lies a huge pile of teashrub carcasses. The steep hill looks barren after it has been stripped of its near century old garment. 

Vasanth Bosco, a 'ocal restoration activist said: “The shrubs are dried up and used as compost for the nursery”. He points down the hill towards a fenced off little garden where small trees are pruning amidst other native greenery.

Annavi takes the lead and strides down to show us the fruits of their work. Here some remnants of the once luscious Nilgiris are allowed to grow strong in order to be re-planted onto the land that has been taken back from the arms of exotic and commercial cash-crops.


Annavi opens the gate to the small nursery and says  that they have 30 species here.

Amidst a variety of long grass bending in the wind and small plants barely visible to the eye, there are also impressive flowers. Vasanth points to a particularly beautiful one: “That one is called impatiens”, he says softly.

Impatience. That seems like a fitting word to describe the sense of urgency and irritation amongst concerned locals living in one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world.

Impatience – but also frustration over the fate of the mesmerizing landscape that has slowly started to turn into a green desert.  

Vasanth lamented: “In an ecosystem like this, which is designed to store water, a tea-estate completely turns it upside down. The soil characteristics change and it ends up needing more and more water to support the tea plants.

"Natural flora supports bees and insects, but tea plants don’t. So it looks green, but it is actually a desert."

Invasive plants

As a tourist it is easy to be dazzled by the green hills of the Blue Mountains, as Nilgiris is popularly called. The slopes are covered by lush tea shrubs, where local women equipped with white cotton bags collect the precious green leaves that then are shipped off to thirsty tea-drinking nations.

The tea is planted in balconies along the hillside and make the landscape resemble James Hilton’s fictional paradise Shangri-la, with its blue, foggy mountains serving as a dreamy backdrop.

But the illusion is quickly shattered sitting in a car with a local conservationist. On our drive up to the restored plantation, Vasanth is quick to point out what is native and what is not. And it is not the most uplifting car game. 

“All of these are eucalyptus”, he says and points towards the trees towering along the winding road. He continues his ominous description of the landscape we pass by:  “All the vegetation you see here? Nothing of it is native, it is grass from Africa and trees from Australia.”

Capitalism and exoticism

I ask him how come the invasive plants have become so overpowering. He has a simple answer: “In a local setting, plants will control other plants, they live in a community.

"But if you bring in a new plant from somewhere else, it has no restrictions. That is how they become invasive. They are like children. They don’t have a family to control them.”

The Nilgiris has one of the highest densities of invasive species in the world. Most of it was brought with the British in various forms when they first settled the area in the early nineteenth century: “A lot of it was ornamental plants. They felt homesick and wanted Nilgiris to look more like home.”

And then the tea-market boomed. A lot of the local and indigenous crops were slowly but steadily replaced with tea monocultures. The Nilgiris is home to a large population of indigenous people, of whom many turned away from local livelihoods to take on wage-labor at one of the hundreds sprawling estates.

And so a new era had begun for the ecologically sensitive area. An era of capitalism and exoticism.

Climate breakdown

The region is now heavily touristic and lands are being cleared for resorts, holiday homes and expensive villas.

Vasanth says that “Nilgiris is actually one region where the local population is reducing”. 

The steep hillsides with the accompanying stunning scenery are scattered with construction work: “The ultra-rich are growing and they choose places with views. But that causes landslides and disturbance of the hydrology.

"And the hills are becoming more attractive not just for its scenery, but also because of the increasing heat. Climate change forces people up the hills. It is too warm in the plains.”

The changing landscapes are having a big impact on the traditional livelihoods of the indigenous tribes in the area.

Sustainable tribe

The Todas tribe claimed to be “one of the most sustainable” communities in the world. They are a people dependent on the fruits of the forest and the plants of the Nilgiris for both medicinal and ritual purposes.

Tarun Chabra, a Toda specialist and also the man who started EBR in 2003, said: “In the towns where the Todas used to live there used to be so many plants native to the Nilgiris. Now they are pretty much wiped out”.

Chabra says that there are at least 100 plant species needed for the different rites of passages carried out under a Toda-lifetime.

“With those their culture can continue. They cannot substitute them. So every year they have to go searching for these pockets where to find them.”

But the Todas are not the only one finding their lives, and culture, limited by the veining of the flora. All indigenous tribes rely heavily on a nature-connected existence. In some areas the lack of specific species is becoming life threatening.

Nature connection

Janakiamma, a Kurumba elder who we meet deep in the forest a two-hour drive away, said: “Last week my grandson got a fever. We knew of a plant that would help. You usually find it on the riverside, but now we had to go search for it”.

She is sitting by the fire, roasting coffee beans, in her home village of Vellaricombai, a demanding six kilometer walk through lush woods and spectacular scenery.

There is no way to reach here by car so Janakiamma treks this path every day to tend to her errands. Accompanying her by the fire, watching the sun setting over the mountains with its last rays of suns sprawling over her neat little house, I understand why she does not feel like moving away. It is nothing short of paradise.

Janakiamma is a traditional healer and storyteller and passes down her knowledge to her daughters whom she takes out in the forest regularly to teach them the secrets of nature. But her work is getting more difficult as the landscape around her changes.

“There are fewer plants than there were in the old days, because of climate change. When you get more rain, then you have landslides that cover all the plants.”

A microcosm 

Back at the tea-plantation, Vasanth’s tone changes and becomes almost excited as he explains the pressures of both invasive species, land-use, pollution and climate breakdown on this particularly sensitive region.

Vasanth is writing a book called The Voice of a Sentient Highland, which describes the delicate landscape and its pressures placed upon it over the last nine years.

He says: “The Nilgiris is like a microcosm of Earth. It has a huge amount of biodiversity and almost every kind of pressure that can effect ecology packed into this landscape.

"Here are vital lessons to learn for the rest of the world”, says the young environmentalist who has been writing a book, called “The voice of a sentient highland”.

One of those lessons is the diligent perseverance of the natural flora. Despite decades of oppression and marginalization – it still holds its ground.

Indigenous marginalisation 

Vasanth says sincerely: “There is another level of decline now that even these natural capacities cannot address. The ecology here with its exceptional qualities, seems to be communicating to us that we have to take notice of this and act. The world needs to listen to this.”

So far their fight has not been visible. As with the many indigenous people pushed to the fringes of society, both culturally and geographically, so do native plant species find their foothold on the margins of nature: “You find them towards the edges of the hills. In steep and harsh conditions. Where people and invasive don’t want to go.”

Spaces on the edge, like the ones Annavi and Annalakshmi are working on, need to be restored to help the natives breathe, regain their footing – and speak up.

“The idea is to try and restore the whole valley”, Vasanth says and looks around at the majestic scenery surrounding us. 

Annavi closes the gate behind us and returns up the hill where his daughter relentlessly tugs at the massive bushes.

Defiant land 

It might not seem much. This little piece of defiant land, flanked by even bigger, and still running, tea-estates on either side.

Small plants that you can barely see and trees just about to root as the land is cleared to become home for native grass once again. 

But maybe, just maybe, it is a place for the impatient flowers of Nilgiris to become a little less impatient. And a little more loud.


Heidi Hendersson is a Finnish environmental journalist. She likes to write about minimalism, DIY, community-building and holistic remedies to planetary crisis. This story came about as Heidi was doing an internship with a local environmental organisation, Keystone Foundation, in the area.