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Perched on a hill in the western division of ptr and surrounded by evergreen forests is Sabrimala, the shrine of Hindu deity Lord Ayappa, which draws five million pilgrims annually. The most propitious time to visit the shrine is the Makkaravalaku season, which begins mid-November and lasts about 60 days. Besides this, the shrine is open for devotees the first five days of every month and during festivals celebrated in Kerala.
Till a few years ago, the pilgrim rush used to pose a huge challenge to the fd: hundreds of shops would mushroom along the routes, tonnes of firewood cut from the forests and the hills littered with plastic wrappers and bags. The villagers would complain of high pollution in the river Pampa, where all devotees used to bathe before proceeding on the pilgrimage.
The powerful Temple Devasom Board used to auction shops along the major routes -- Azhuthakadavu-Pamba, Sanyadhanam-Uppupara and Pamba-Sannidhanam -- to bidders from outside the region. Those who won the bids for the shops further sublet them at exorbitant rates. The shops were constructed with bamboo taken from the forest and their huge firewood requirement adversely impacted the ecology of ptr.
In 1998, fd decided to involve the local community in catering to the pilgrims with the formation of Swami Ayyappan Poongavanam Punarudharana Ecodevelopment Committees (sapp-edcs).
Rights of setting up stores for pilgrim needs along two routes -- Azhuthakadavu-Pamba and Sanyadhanam-Uppupara -- were granted to sapp groups. fd advanced Rs one crore from the iedp fund to sapp-edcs to purchase utensils and procure lpg for cooking.
Now, only about 250 service centres operate here. The stores are set up with the use of steel rods. Sometimes bamboo poles and plastic sheets are also used for roofs.
The sapp-edc s now want access to the 4 km long Pampa-Sanidanam route, which remains in the hands of the Devasom Board. Meanwhile, an impact study of these changes carried out by fd shows reduction of the ill effects on the forest along the routes, which have regenerated and become lush.
Not only the pilgrims but even the villagers living in and around Thekaddy have seen many positive changes since 1998. The villagers say before the iedp, they depended on the forest for firewood, thatching grass for their own use and for sale. Illicit smuggling of vayana was common as was poaching of bison, buffalo and small game. "Earlier we were scared of the forest department as they restricted our entry into the forest," says Jose Elavankul, chairperson of the village edc of Kurushumala.
The ex- vayana bark collectors edc typify the changed relation fringe communities have developed with the forest. ptr has become a source of legitimate livelihood for several other edcs. Tribal villagers can access their basic needs such as fuelwood or fishing without any hinderance. "We no longer have to fear the men in khaki," says a village woman.
The iedp implementation at ptr went beyond the goals of the project to permit the fringe community access to forest and non-timber forest produce, says Krishnan of Project Tiger. "We had to go beyond the project and involve the people and that is where we have been successful," he adds.
After the focus on protected areas (pa), foresters here are looking at how to take conservation further to the landscapes beyond. Linking the pa with landscape would involve dealing with livelihood concerns of the people in the development zones. "Any development should have the ethos of sustainability. Converting threats into opportunities has been the strategy at ptr," says field director Anil Bhardwaj.
While community empowerment has been ptr's success, classical wildlife management appears to have been neglected. Protection of forests outside the pa, especially in the Kallakad-Periyar area, remains weak. "Male tigers have a migratory route. Though they are safe in ptr, what is the use if they are killed outside," quips Rajesh Gopal, director, Project Tiger.
Community empowerment at other wildlife reserves in the country would perhaps require other techniques to be evolved kepping in mind their peculiar conditions.
But what the Periyar experience has shown is that looking inwards at the forest to create economies and bringing people and parks closer can make a big difference.