India: The Attappady Wasteland Comprehensive Environmental Conservation Project in Kerala


The Attappady region of Kerala has experienced severe ecological degradation stemming from a number of sources and now exhibits the largest extension of wasteland in the state. The progressive loss of vegetation, erosion of exposed topsoil, decline in soil fertility and scarcity of water resources has seriously jeopardized local livelihoods and given rise to a situation in which more than 80% of the population lived below the poverty line at the beginning of the 1990s. It was under these circumstances that the Attappady Wasteland Comprehensive Environmental Conservation Project (AWCECOP) was begun in 1996 with the objective of halting the processes of ecological and social deterioration and improving the economic base of the affected communities. The AWCECOP has been conducted by the Attappady Hills Area Development Society (AHADS) using models of participatory eco-restoration and sustainable resource management, and has been quite successful at mobilizing local community members and fostering dramatic improvements in the state of the forest ecosystem. It is hoped that, through this project, the trend of degradation will be replaced by an ethic of stewardship, and the local people will develop the capacity to effectively manage the resources vital for their survival.

Quick Facts

Project Location:
Kerala, India, 10.8505159, 76.27108329999999

Geographic Region:

Country or Territory:

Tropical Forest

Tropical Forest - Moist Broadleaf

Area being restored:
11,000+ hectares

Organization Type:
Community Group


Project Stage:

Start Date:

End Date:

Primary Causes of Degradation

Agriculture & Livestock, Deforestation, Urbanization, Transportation & Industry

Degradation Description

The process of deforestation began in Attappady in the 1950s with the influx of migrants from Tamil Nadu and neighboring districts of Kerala. By the 1970s, it had reached alarming proportions, and forest area in Attappady had declined from 82% of the total geographic area in 1959 to 28% in 1971. Massive encroachment over forest and cultivated lands, introduction of unsustainable cropping systems, and excessive grazing inflicted heavy damage on the ecosystem and the livelihood support systems of the people. Due to deforestation of the catchments, perennial rivers dried up, springs disappeared and water quality worsened considerably, leading to a series of diseases, ill health and starvation among the region’s tribal inhabitants. Furthermore, the extensive felling of trees and the tilling of slopes with bullock-driven ploughs led to increased soil erosion and rainwater runoff, sedimentation of streams and rivers, and depletion of the groundwater. Subsequent changes in the structural and chemical properties of the soil gradually altered overall land use patterns and gave rise to even more unsustainable practices such as the manufacture of bricks with the thin topsoil that remained (Karat, 2003). The extent of soil erosion in Attappady is now one of the highest in the state.

Project Goals

ecological restoration of degraded wastelands of Attappady and development of replicable models of participatory eco-restoration, so as to prevent further degradation and promote a sustainable model of livelihood for the local people (with special emphasis on the tribal population) and in harmony with the resource base.


The project does not have a monitoring plan.


Restoration activities were planned and implemented using a participatory approach on a watershed basis. The area’s two major river basins, the Bhavani and Bharatapuzha, were sub-divided into 15 watersheds and 146 micro watersheds (with no consideration given to state administrative boundaries) (IRMA, 2004). A User Association (UA) was then organized to represent the total population of a given micro watersheds. UAs include both tribal and non-tribal people and are primarily responsible for implementing project activities outlined in micro plans prepared by the Attappady Hill Area Development Society (AHADS) with the participation of local people. Out of 146 micro watersheds, only 93 have human inhabitants, and UAs were formed in all of these 93 micro watersheds. The executive Committee of a UA has nine elected members, and elections have been held every two years. In order to ensure the equal participation of tribal people and women in the committee, the following norms were instituted (AHADS, 2004): (a) out of the two positions- the president and secretary, one post should be held by a tribal person; (b) out of the four positions- the president, the vice-president, the secretary and the treasurer, at least one position should be held by a woman; (c) out of the nine members, at least five members should be women and four members from the tribal group.

UAs were found to be too large to address all the needs of their respective constituencies; therefore, Local Action Groups (LAG) were organized for project implementation at the local level as a representative body of all the beneficiaries within an area of 0.5-1.0(km)2 in a micro watershed. This group is responsible for the coordination of various activities to be undertaken on these lands, including the employment of labour.

Ooru Vikasana Samiti (OVS) is an un-registered organization in each tribal hamlet created to address the common issues of these marginalized communities. OVS have been formed in 160 of the 188 tribal hamlets. In order to ensure the participation of women, five of the nine elected members of each hamlet are supposed to be women.

A Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) is an unregistered organization formed for the reforestation of degraded forest lands located near human habitations. All adults in the neighborhood were eligible to become members of a JFMC. At present, 29 JFMCs have been formed. Each committee has a president, vice president, treasurer and five executive members based on elections. The post of secretary is held by staff of the AHADS. In order to ensure the participation of women and tribal people, executive committees were formed such that, out of the eight executive members, five were to be women and five were to be from the tribal community, irrespective of their gender (Karun et al., 2005).

Description of Project Activities:
Afforestation and forest protection works in State forestlands - Forest regeneration works completed through JFMCs on 10,999.91 ha of forestland (that includes 3,776.25 ha of forest plantation and 7,223.66 ha of natural regeneration) - 157 km forest fencing completed to control grazing - 782 km fire protection lines constructed - Watchmen provided to ensure site protection during the initial period of treatment - Avenue plantation completed on 33-km road length - 3.83 million seedlings raised by People's Institutions (i.e. UA, JFMC, OVS) for the afforestation works - To contain the usage of fuel wood, 4000 units of energy-saving devices have been popularized Agricultural development on private wastelands - Agroforestry plantations were established on 4939.27 ha, with prime importance given to the promotion of multipurpose tree species to fit the diverse agro-climatic zones of the area. The species used include horticultural crops such as cashew, mango and other fruit species, and silvicultural species such as neem, silver oak, casuarinas, etc. (Karun et al. 2005). - 3.73 million seedlings raised by the People's Institutions for the agro-forestry development works - Organic farming and medicinal plants promoted on 18.2 and 15.8 ha of land respectively - Organic fertilizer required for the plantation works produced by the People's Institutions themselves. - Innovative farming practices like mushroom production, vermi-composting (28 units), and coir-pith composting promoted to generate income and help ensure sustainability of project - As part of sustainable income generation, rubber cultivation has been initiated on 127 ha of land. Promotion of field crops - 1822 ha of fallow land brought under cultivation by distributing 71698 kg of seeds like groundnut, maize, blackgram, redgram, cotton and cowpea. - National Seeds Corporation (NSC) declared Attappady as Organic Seed Village and is directly procuring the seeds from the OVS and UA. Promotion of livestock - 15 rabbit units distributed to tribal households as an additional income source for tribal women - Aimed at production of 2.5 kg of meat per family per week - 0.22 ha of fodder grass area supported Promotion of biogas - Aimed at utilizing organic manure, which would otherwise move out of Attappady - Time saving, smoke free and faster cooking option - Controlling grazing, firewood collection and to promote integrated farming practices - 160 Units of biogas plants commissioned so far Promotion of vegetable cultivation - Aimed at encouraging vegetable cultivation in the backyards of users - 10 basin and 100 basin units promoted depending on family size and available land - 630 farmers benefited so far, of which 221 farmers are tribal Soil and water conservation - Controlling the ravines and gullies that are prominent features of erstwhile eastern Attappady is the key to rejuvenating rivulets and wells. Running water from hilltops is made to "walk" the valley and percolate beneath arid tracts through such works as percolation ponds, contour trenches, check dams, gully plugs, sub-surface dikes, diversion weirs, contour bunds and terracing. - Soil and water conservation works completed on 4,664 ha of forestland (6.60 lakhs staggered trenches, 8013 check dams) - 5820.48 ha of private wastelands have been treated with soil and water conservation works - 281.14 km of drainage lines treated - Summer ploughing promoted on 1547 ha - Irrigation facilities arranged for 123.45 ha of farming land in seven tribal hamlets Water resource development works - 1,786 structures including gravity irrigation systems, wells, tanks, spring protection works and groundwater recharge works have been completed - A soil and water-testing laboratory has been instituted - 9 meterological observatories established Socio-economic improvement programs - Income Generating Activity Groups (IGA Groups) are being constituted to facilitate micro crediting, group savings and sustainable micro enterprises. These activities will ensure continued income for the poor after project support is withdrawn. - Variety of community infrastructure projects underway, including construction of schools, hospitals, and roads - Education and capacitation programs being offered for local community members

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:
--Revegetation of Hills and Valleys-- As a result of project activities to date, forest regeneration works have been successfully carried out by JFMCs on more than 11,000 ha of state forestlands and private wastelands. Approximately seven million plants have been established on degraded and/or fallow lands of Attappady with a survival rate of 70% in forest areas and 62% on private lands. The growth of the planted stock has brought greenery back to the landscape, reduced surface runoff and improved the subsurface water regime. A study by Kerala University on the changes in land use patterns in Attappady between 2001 and 2005 substantiates the positive outcomes resulting from these revegetation efforts. --Rejuvenation of Water Resources-- The combination of afforestation and soil and water conservation activities has fostered the rejuvenation of streams and watercourses throughout the region that had gone completely dry decades ago. The Kodungarapallam River, one of three major rivers in Attappady, provides an illustrative example of the notable achievements made by the project. Beginning in the early 1980s, the widespread degradation visited upon the forest ecosystem had dramatically altered the river's flow regime such that it carried water only during the rainy months of October and November. Watershed restoration measures implemented in the Kodungarapallam catchment area since 2002--including gully plugs and earthen barriers designed to enhance infiltration of rainwater-- have gradually augmented the aquifers that feed the river and have woken it from its slumber. It now flows year-round, carrying muddy runoff from the erratic showers into the Bhavani, a tributary of the Cauvery. A similar story is emerging in the case of the Varagar River, as well as other streams, such as Alamarapallam, Dhaliyarpallam, Uppungarapallam, Puliyapathi, etc. All of these watercourses have shown improved annual discharge levels. --Increased Groundwater Availability-- Hundreds of thousands of trenches, pits, and water retention and harvesting structures constructed over the project period have improved ground water availability. The dry wells of eastern Attappady have increased their water levels by anywhere from 5 to 40 feet. In a study conducted by Kerala University, it was found that in previously reported dry and semi-dry wells, the water availability has increased substantially from 7 to 37.8 cubic metres per day.

Factors limiting recovery of the ecosystem:
A number of challenges have arisen since the project's inception. The following is a brief summary of the most notable among them. Because the project's implementation depends primarily on local skill and manpower, the availability of adequate labour becomes a constraint during the peak agricultural season, when the time and energy of local people is overwhelmingly dedicated to subsistence activities. This adversely affects the rate of progress achieved. Another limiting factor has been the conditional nature of the project's timeline. Because it is scheduled to run only until 2009-2010, experienced employees of AHADS are wont to seek more secure employment elsewhere. The consequent high turnover of staff has posed a challenge in terms of the project's efficiency and continuity. The inadequate availability of raw materials for civil constructions in Attappady, and the high costs involved in transportation of materials to remote corners, slows down the pace of the project. Project works are executed by People's Institutions (PIs) based on estimates prepared in accordance with government-approved rates. Because the demand equation in terms of skilled man power and raw materials exceed local supply, there is a constant increase in the cost of civil construction. Therefore, many PIs are experiencing financial losses in the construction works they undertake, effectively slowing down the pace of implementation. Interest groups related to the production and consumption of illicit liquor and ganja have acted as formidable challenges to people, especially the women's groups, and occasionally members of PIs have been harassed. Such incidents decelerate the social drive for the project. Resistance has also been met from some settler farmers who are unhappy with the development activities of AHADS due to the fact that the wages given by AHADS are higher than local rates. They complain that the increase in wage rate and non-availability of labourers to work in their field threatens the sustenance of agricultural activities in Attappady. Owing to a long, sad history of alienation and encroachment by outsiders on tribal lands, many tribal inhabitants of Attappady have deep-rooted fears about lending their land to any outside organization or government agency. These fears, coupled with incorrect information, have caused many families to abstain from undertaking revegetation efforts of their private wastelands, thus limiting the extent of the project's restoration successes. Unfortunately, most of the income generating activities developed under the project failed. The broom making unit, for instance, was stopped due to the labour union and vested interest of the traders. Tribal people were selling brooms through middlemen, and once AHADS had taken up this activity, the influence of middlemen was reduced. The formation of grassroots organizations totally diminished the role of contractors, creating great opposition to project activities in many cases.

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Economic vitality and local livelihoods:
Improved land value Since the outset of the project in 1996, land value has increased from 10-30% in the project area. Overcoming drought Attappady experienced a severe drought in the year 2002. Even as the drought adversely influenced the agrarian society and economy of Attappady, the employment opportunities generated through the project helped local communities face the ordeal with ease. Just wages When AHADS began implementation of the project, the daily wage rate prevailing in Atappady, especially in eastern Attappady, was as low as 30 to 50 rupees. AHADS has established and ensured a just wage rate of 80 to120 rupees through the People's Institutions. Efforts are currently being made to enhance the daily wage rate further to Rs. 125 for both men and women, in accordance with the wages provided under the Employment Guarantee Programme of the Panchayaths. Abolition of starvation deaths Starvation deaths were reported from Vellakulam hamlet in the year 1999, before the field implementation of the project started. However, no such incidents have been reported during the project period, which is attributed to the availability of year long employment for the local people, especially the tribals. Malnutrition Diseases related to malnutrition were prevalent in Attappady in the past. A health survey in 51 hamlets covering 2,051 families in the year 1999 had reported 437 cases of anemia. However reports from health care centers testify considerable reduction in such cases today. Farming crisis and suicide of farmers The crisis in the farming sector has led some farmers to commit suicide at places like Wayanad, Idukki and Palakkad in Kerala. However, project activities have been instrumental in helping the people of Attappady to face the farming sector crisis with equanimity. Employment The project has so far generated more than 3.45 million mandays of employment. These opportunities, in an area known for poverty and unemployment, have favorably influenced the socio-economic situation in Attappady. Labour migration The widespread tendency of people from Attappady (mainly the tribal communities) to migrate to the plains of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in search of employment as wage labourers has declined considerably since the inception of the project. Leadership development More than 5000 people's representatives are leading 93 UAs, 166 OVSs, 54 JFMCs and 198 IGA groups. The opportunities to officiate responsible positions in these People's Institutions are in turn developing group and regional leadership among the local people. They are also exposed to administrative skills and finance management, which is being recognized by the three-tier Panchayths in the Government. Disproportionate improvements? In spite of the above improvements in the socio-economic landscape, some tribal leaders remain ambivalent about the long-term benefits of the project. According to one such leader, the tribals have gained only terms of wages and will fail to see lasting improvements in ecosystem services. Since most of the lands included in the restoration are in the upper reaches of the hills, the increased groundwater levels will ultimately benefit the lower elevations where lands are generally owned by non-tribals. In fact, according to some, the project has had a negligible impact on tribal lands overwhelmingly located on ridges. Some of the tribals are apprehensive, fearing that as the project draws to an end, the lands of non-tribals will be better off in terms of soil condition and groundwater levels. This will enable them to continue their cultivation and will make the tribals dependent upon them once again for wages. To complicate matters further, the tribals will be denied their traditional access to forestlands--and, by extension, forest resources--under the new regulations evolved by the project. Already, the AHADS project has installed wire fences to deny the access of cattle to wastelands under plantation and regeneration, and some JFMC leaders say this has reduced the cattle population, particularly among tribals.

Key Lessons Learned

The Attappady Wasteland Comprehensive Environmental Conservation Project has been planned and implemented on a community level through grassroots organizations guided by the Attappady Hills Area Development Society. The impact of the reforestation programme, soil and water conservation works, agricultural improvement measures, and infrastructure and income generation activities have put the Attappady region on a path toward sustainable development. Results of the project thus far reflect progressive changes in the environment and substantial gains in the local economy through improvements to the biophysical resource base. Continuing collaboration among multi-disciplinary teams will facilitate the replication of the project’s tangible benefits in other development units.

The experiences gained through this project attest to the fact that environmental degradation can not be remedied without simultaneously addressing the socio-economic problems of the surrounding area. It is of critical importance to recognize the inextricable link between ecosystem services, local economies, access to education, and the availability of basic infrastructure. These factors must all be taken into account in order to implement a successful restoration program.

Long-Term Management

The implementation of diverse project activities has created significant employment opportunities and has thereby improved local livelihoods. However, the sustainability of the project in the long term is still under question, as very low priority has been given to income generating activities (only 0.34% of the total budget). If the project does not generate enough benefits to off-set the costs of construction and maintenance, it will clearly prove untenable. More attention must therefore be given to developing these sources of income, particularly the plantation of tree crops and the various initiatives begun under the IGA (Income Generating Activity) groups.

Sources and Amounts of Funding

4.4 million Euros The project was financed by the Japanese Bank for International Co-operation (JBIC) with a total budget of 4.4 million euros (INR 219 crores), consisting of a loan component of 3.5 million euros (INR 176 crores) from JBIC and 0.8 million euros (INR 42 crores) from the state government.

Other Resources

Attappady Hills Area Development Society

Primary Contact

Organizational Contact