Natham background


Natham is a taluka in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu, made up of three villages on the Karandhaimalai hills, and about 40 others dispersed over the hillside and the foothills. The forests of Dindigul are spread over 138,167 ha., of which Natham forest area is 27,380 ha.

The soil is red, fine loamy, very deep, with medium water-holding capacity. Soil productivity is average. Mean annual rainfall is 859.8mm. Tropical dry deciduous forests predominate. Principal plant species, cultivated and wild, in the forests of the Karandaimalai hills are Vembu (neem) Azadirachta indica, etti (Strychnos nux-vomica), sirukurinjan (Gymnema), neikottan (Sapindus emarginata), maravatta, nelli (Phyllanthus emblica), pala (jack fruit) Atrocarpus heterophyllus, munthiri (cashew) Anacardium occidendale, puli (tamarind) Tamarindus indica, ma (mango - Mangifera indica), Sterculia spp., Bombax spp. Wild animals in the forest include spotted dear, wild pig, bison, cats, slender loris, fox, and birds like cuckoo and eagle.

The Valaiyar community has been in Natham for the past five hundred years and lives by hunting and agriculture. Traditional systems have prevailed in the hill top villages because of lack of accessibility and, therefore, poor intermingling with outside influences.

There has been an unofficial open access regime and extraction of NTFPs is driven more by these outside interests, so the benefits related to forest produce favour non-local entities. In addition, the state has done away with the contractor system, which has reconfigured market dynamics in favour of outside commercial interests. As a whole, community stakes are unorganized and not oriented towards managing harvest or ensuring better returns to the community. Village-level organizations are unformed or weak. This, combined with state unwillingness to provide basic facilities in this reserve area, has resulted in conflicts, disenchantment, apathy and lack of ownership towards the ecosystem.

The Valaiyar community has been notified most backward of tribes. There are no outward signs of poverty, but occupation is mainly for fulfilling a subsistence level need, especially in the hilltop villages. There is a clear demarcation of agricultural systems and practices, and livelihood systems, in the hilltop and foothill villages. The foothills are more commercialized and evolving at a different pace and manner from the hill villages because of proximity to the road and trade.

Agriculture forms the basis of the economy. Prevailing agriculture practices point to conservation of traditional systems and knowledge in the hill villages, but not in the foothills. Acceding to outside influences and market demand, the foothills have moved away from their traditional crop mix to commercial crop cultivation. Changes in customary practices are evident. Organic farming, as practiced in the hill villages, has been replaced with chemical fertilizers. Hybrid seeds replace native varieties, and diverse cropping has been replaced with mono-crop cultivations that have a market. Changes in livelihood patterns are more marked, with villagers opting for migratory work, apart from other options of livestock rearing and NTFP collection. Collection of medicinal plants for commercial purposes is a new development in the foothills, initiated by women NTFP collectors.