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People and Plants: Training Darwin Mentors

Number 25 - December 2002

S. Seeni, V.S. Manickam, Lucy Sutherland & Julia Willison





That India is a land of teeming millions is known to many; but it is also a land of vast resources. Resource conservation and utilization is closely linked to the social and cultural diversity of the people. The country ranks 10th among plant-rich countries of the world and fourth among the plant-rich countries of Asia. Nearly 70% of the population live in over 576, 000 villages and the villages are mostly located close to the known centres of biodiversity in the Himalayas in the north and the Western Ghats in the south.

In the post-independence period in particular, the rich bio-resources of the country were injudiciously exploited and depleted at an alarming rate. This state of affairs was compounded by factors such as uncontrolled population increase (current rate 2.3% per annum), illiteracy, poverty, increase in income and material needs of the people. The current deforestation rate is in the order of 27,000 hectares per annum. Forest degradation activities such as conversion into plantations, hydroelectric and irrigation project sites, grazing, fire, firewood collection, tree felling, human inhabitation and over collection of minor forest produce continue unabated.

Among the various biogeographic zones of India, the Western Ghats in peninsular India are a unique 1600 km long unbroken chain of hills extending along the west coast from Kanyakumari in the southern Tamil Nadu to Tapti river in Gujarat. As a mega-endemic centre, they constitute a number of hotspots of endemic species and are a home to at least 4,000 species, of which 1,500 (37.5%) are endemic. This represents nearly 75% of the total number of species endemic to the whole of peninsular India.

The southern ranges of the Western Ghats consist of certain unique evergreen forests called Shola forests which play a distinct ecological role, and their species find multifarious use. Both the Nilgiris and Palnis being important tourist destinations, are under severe pressure for human settlements, commercial plantations, power projects, fuelwood and other tourism-related developments. Despite this widespread recognition, awareness of the importance and value of the native flora and natural vegetation is still limited at the local level.

Nearly 50% of the people in Tamil Nadu state are illiterate. Most of the illiterate dwellers inhabiting the fringes of the forests make a living by injudicious collection and sale of non-wood forest products including firewood, medicinal plants, wild edibles and fruits and rearing of the domestic cattle by grazing on the forest land. Fortunately, largely due to free education and noon meal schemes introduced by the local government, the children of these rural dwellers attend primary and middle schools. An opportunity therefore exists to influence the stake holders - the school children and their parents - about conservation and sustainable uses of natural resources through environmental education programmes at primary level.

Forming a Partnership

The Darwin project, 'People and Plants: Training Darwin Mentors', a collaborative venture between BGCI and Kodaikanal Botanic Garden (KBG), India was launched in June 2001 in five districts of Tamil Nadu bordering the Western Ghats. The aim was to impart environmental education to the masses through the primary school teachers and children and thus to the parents. The two year project is expected to create and strengthen grassroots support and to complement the ongoing governmental and non-governmental efforts to protect the remarkably diverse flora and vegetation of the Western Ghats region in Tamil Nadu in general and of Palni Hills in particular.

The main target group of the project is school children via their teachers. It is based on the surmise that children in the age group of 5-12 are most receptive to newer ideas, and are easily motivated to develop concern for others and to lead an environment friendly life in the future. The primary and middle level teachers, equipped with training and newly gained knowledge in EE from the project, will certainly influence the children to adopt new life skills and awareness. This will no doubt have an influence on their parents. The project aims to develop a younger generation which refrains from an exploitative mode of life, and to look upon the plants as precious resources that need to be preserved and judiciously and scientifically utilised for the very survival and prosperity of community members. In addition the project aims to promote Kodaikanal Botanic Garden as a model for the development of community and school botanic gardens throughout Tamil Nadu. The project aims to have a real and lasting impact on the capacity of India to meet its obligations under the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Need for Partnerships and Networks

The Kodaikanal Botanic Garden (KBG) is a two-year old private conservatory garden. It was started with lofty ideas and limited resources in a 100-acre area at Eettippallam (1500 msl) 10 km from Kodaikanal town in the Palni Hills. The Government of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests graciously extended financial assistance to fence the area and also to establish a living collection of over 200 ferns, palms and orchids. Otherwise it was essentially a barren plantation area, infested with Pteridium aquilinum and Lantana camara, together with a disturbed natural forest segment harbouring more than 40 medicinal plants and trees of ethnobotanical importance.

When the idea of organising a series of environmental education training courses for capacity building of the teachers was promoted in July 2001 there were no takers. The local school groups from the mountains, as well as those from the plains, largely ignored the garden as they had better alternative tourist attractions in and around Kodaikanal town. Advertisements were published in the local daily newspapers promoting courses proposed in 2002; but they evoked a poor response. Less than 20 teachers responded although 200 were required. Then it was decided to approach the Christian management schools as they are known for imparting quality education in the region. Although the managers of the schools were impressed with the Darwin project and the proposed training courses, the school teachers were less enthusiastic about their participation as there was no duty leave granted by the State Elementary Education Department. Nobody was interested in participating in the courses during week ends. Women formed the bulk of the teaching staff in all the primary schools showed and most were concerned about being separated from their families during the training period. We had to tread cautiously to mobilise 200 teachers for the EE training courses and an order from the Government was indispensable.

We feared the entangled bureaucracy to obtain permission from the education authorities to release the teachers from the public and government-aided private schools. The learning curve to develop partnerships with the key players in the Education Department was steep. At least five visits had to be made to the office of the Director of Elementary Education, Chennai, to pursue the matter and finally the order to release the teachers from the five districts was issued on 23rd January 2002. The District Elementary Education officers acted immediately on the copies of the order personally handed over to them by the Project Officer. However, the selection of the teachers was made by the Assistant Elementary Education Officers in nearly 50 unions of different districts. The selection of fairly large number of teachers from the Palni hills area in Theni and Dindigul districts was facilitated by forming partnerships with NGOs such as Literates Welfare Society, Theni; Ideal Trust, Genguvarpatti; Palni Hills Conservation Council, Kodaikanal; and Primary School Teachers Society, Dindigul. The Sacred Heart College, Shenbaganur, was also a helpful partner and a host to the training courses. Since the training course comprised visits to forest segments, the officials of the State Forest Department had to be contacted for necessary permission and assistance from forest guards. Eventually, what was initially conceived as a simple selection of teachers from Christian schools proved to be complex with the networking of education authorities, school managers, school teachers, NGOs and officials of the State Forest Department. The Project Officer played a role in establishing contacts and networking. Without the networking of the various partners needed at different stages of the process the series of training courses organised in March would never have taken place.

The much needed support extended by these institutions and welfare groups varied from provision of classroom accommodation and boarding facilities, facilitating visits to various forests segments in the Palni hills, selection and release of teachers and on site demonstrations. In fact, the PHCC took a crucial role in the training and briefed the training course participants about their excellent work in seed propagation and multiplication of endemic and economic trees of the shola forests for afforestation programmes. Needless to say at least some of the NGOs and other self-help groups who worked in tandem with the project were expected to play a significant facilitative role in taking the message down the line to the village communities. As a matter of fact, for many of them this kind of training helped to enrich their knowledge and modify their existing methodologies in tune with the needs and aspirations of the students and communities at large.

Environmental Education and Training for Capacity Building

The month long series of 3-day EE training courses were organised in March. 180 out of the 200 teachers selected from the five districts participated. As expected men outnumbered women teachers. Altogether there were 8 training courses, with 20-30 teachers attending each course. The teachers found the objectives of EE in generating awareness, knowledge, skill, attitude and participatory tendency very instructive. Though the existing curricula for primary and middle schools touch upon some of the environmental problems and biodiversity aspects, they do not emphasise the interdependency of various ecosystem component functions. Nor do they seem to inspire either teachers or students to get involved in problem solving mode. Teachers on the courses were convinced of the need for renovating the present education process based on a broader understanding of the environmental problems today, and on socio-economic and developmental needs and aspirations of present and future generations. Establishing a link between the present day activities of human beings and the consequences for tomorrow should sensitize young minds to think differently and take environmentally responsible decisions to build a better tomorrow. Establishing such a link and providing skills and attributes also helps individuals to develop a shared vision for biodiversity protection and sustainable living.

Follow Up of Training in Capacity Building:

A important feature of the EE training courses for capacity building was the follow up in terms of training of the fellow teachers back in the schools. This was carried out by the Darwin mentors already trained at KBG. Other follow up activities were also organised. These included: school visits to KBG and natural forest segments, establishment of school gardens, participation in remediation efforts in polluted environments, afforestation and other environment friendly activities. These types of secondary level training and activities have truly galvanised the support of the public for the EE related activities of the teachers and the school children involved. Prominent members of the local communities including the municipal chairman and president of the village panchayat, vaidyas, forest range officers, NGOs and Devaswom Board members have all shown interest in the project. Organised under the guidance of the respective Area Environmental Education Officers this has contributed to the strengthening of the networking and grassroot level partnership. A friendly rapport already established by the Darwin mentors with all those who matter in certain unions truly reflect the revolution in environmental awareness that is taking place slowly but steadily. So far 48 Darwin mentors have trained 371 fellow teachers in nearby schools and in 9 unions in Tirunelveli, Madurai, Dindigul and Coimbatore districts. It should be noted that a single teacher from Vasudevanalloor union in Tirunelveli district organised training for 16 other teachers and 6 teachers from Palni union in Dindigul offered training to 150 teachers of the union. Each training lasted for 1 to 2 days, and comprised lectures by the mentors and project staff, activities and games. The expenses for organising the training including meals or refreshments were met from contributions of local individuals, businessmen and NGOs. In order to encourage the school groups to establish herbal gardens, medicinal plants were freely distributed by the project staff during all the secondary level training programmes.

Apart from the training, the mentors had also taken up several other related activities to spread the environmental message to the public further. Both the ICC Convent and St. Andrews School at Coimbatore and RC school at Tenkasi have now established school gardens with the help of school children. Overwhelmed with the excellent training he received in early March, Mr. Chellappa, a Headmaster and Manager of a Hindu Middle School at Thirukkurungudi in Tirunelveli district, organised a visit of his school children to the KBG. The children replayed the environmental games in the lawns of the Sacred Heart College. Mr Chellappa also implemented a novel scheme of providing a plant to each house in his village and these plants are being watered and reared by a student from his school. This has motivated the public to raise greenery in the vacant places available in the village. Mrs. Sivakami of S.M.M. Middle School in Vasudevanalloor union not only planted trees in the school yard but also organised school visits to the nearby Sivagiri forests. She also organised an Environmental Campaign on World Environment Day on June 5 when the school children went on procession carrying placards and raising slogans through the streets of the village. Yet another teacher Mrs. Santhakala, along with other mentors from Palni town, successfully influenced the AEEOs, Municipal authorities and Devaswom Board officials to organise meetings, debates and cultural events to impress upon them the need for curbing use of plastics in this pilgrimage centre. From now on the plastics are banned in the town and the shop owners and hoteliers now pack up the articles sold in used newspaper. In response to their repeated appeals, the municipal authorities have also arranged trucks to clean the rubbish collected in all the schools of the town every day.

Mention should also be made of the excellent work done by Mr. Veerapathra Babu of Chanarpatti union and Mr. Dhanapal of Reddiar Chatram union both in Dindigul district. On 14th March, Mr. Babu organised an afforestation programme in association with Malappuram Cricket Club. The Panchayat President, Mrs. Dhanajayarani, school students and village communities participated in this programme and 225 tree saplings were planted in barren lands of Guziliamparai village with the help of the students. The Panchayat President donated Rs.1000 towards providing irrigation facility to the planted area. Regular maintenance is being carried out by his students. Mr. Babu is overflowing with infectious interest and confidence to pursue his pet afforestation activity in other parts of the union, with the saplings provided free of cost by the State Forest Department and the Palni Hills Conservation Council. On Independence Day (August 14) he organised another function in which 2 tree saplings were supplied for each school in the union. He was largely responsible for organising the secondary level training to 25 teachers in his union. Apart from developing a herbal garden in his school, he is currently preparing a book on EE with details of water harvesting, organic farming, ozone generation and environmental games for distribution to other schools. Mr. Dhanapal of the Panchayat Primary School at Gurusanapatti not only organised a school visit to the KBG but also imparted EE to his school children through cultural events including dance, songs and drama. In one such dance, organised in the presence of  BGCI's Education Officer, Ms. Lucy Sutherland, his children worshipped a tree with devotional songs. In addition, with the help of his fellow teachers including the Headmaster, and the students, he has planted 30 saplings of gooseberry, Pongamia and neem in the school yard for which a barbed wire fencing is provided with the assistance received from the local AEEOs and an youth club. Enthused with the support received from the Community, he is optimistic that within 2-3 years the entire area will develop into a greenery and the school children and village folk alike will escape from scorching sun in the summer.

To cap them all, the mentors from Tenkasi union organised a meeting on 15th August at Kattu Bava School, Tenkasi where a decision to register a Darwin Environmental Education Society was unanimously taken with the objectives of networking of school groups in all the five districts, organising model genetic gardens for medicinal plants for demonstration and training and promoting organic farming and green health. The mentors from Palni, Natham, Udamalpet and Reddiar Chatram unions have already lent support to this idea, with the initial establishment of the societies in their own unions, before networking all the societies of the unions in different districts.

The last of these training camps was organised at the Panchayat Middle School, in the Pannaipatti village at the foothills of the Palnis, by the mentors of Reddiar Chatram union in Dindigul district where partnership was displayed at its best. The mentors, together with the school headmaster and teachers, worked for at least 2 weeks to give a facelift to the school and prepare beds and planting materials to raise a small garden in the school premises before the one-day training for fellow teachers could be organised on 18th September. This camp was qualitatively different from others as the local village community leaders, Panchayat President, Chairman of a welfare group (Annai Trust), and the AEEOs not only contributed to organise the training, but also participated in the brief inaugural function and a tree planting programme where the need for environmental preservation and sustainable uses of plant resources of the Palni hills was emphasized again and again. It was a grand event by any standard as 37 participant teachers including the mentors, community leaders, officials from the Education Department and about 300 school children took an oath that they will preserve forests and trees and never resort to injudicious exploitation of the Palni hill flora. A mark of respect for Mother Nature and a shining example of partnership indeed! On this occasion the children themselves had prepared placards bearing messages on environmental preservation including the importance of the ozone layer and top soil, tree planting, hygiene and sanitation in the villages and the need for using local medicinal plants for primary health care. A Headmaster from the nearby village read out the songs he had composed in appreciation of the diverse uses of easily available medicinal plants. The mentors had also organised a poster presentation, with newspaper clippings on local environmental problems, eradication of illiteracy in the area; relationship between local people and plants and strengthening of local health traditions. There were also writings on the black board projecting the importance of Palni hills and local trees and herbs. Both the Project Coordinator and Project Officer participated in the tree planting event and distributed tree saplings and medicinal plants - gifted by the State Forest Department - to the villagers and school children. They also addressed the audience assembled in the school on global environmental problems, against the background of the just concluded Earth Summit at Johannesberg.

Evaluation and Resource Workshops

The success of the EE training in capacity building held in March was evaluated through a second series of workshops in late August. Altogether 99 teachers comprising 22 mentors and their trainees, with more women than men, participated in four workshops of two days each. The evaluation based on a questionnaire prepared for the occasion revealed that the impact of the EE training at school level as evident from such attributes as maintenance of cleanliness in the classrooms and school premises, planting activity within the school campus, transfer of newly acquired knowledge to the students, generation of new knowledge about local plant resources and exhibition of native plant species of medicinal and economic important was considerable. In certain cases it was a two way learning as teachers found new uses of local plants with the help of the children and their parents. However, by and large, the impact of the training at community level was only marginal considering a period of examinations, summer vacation and new school admissions that followed the training courses and relatively longer period needed for interaction with local communities.

What Does it Hold for the Future?

After the series of workshops and secondary level training back at the schools, we are halfway through the later half of the two year project. We have made significant inroads into the public school system with appropriate partnerships and networking of teachers. One of the main advantages of this project is that it addresses the EE issues to the poorest sections of the society and generates awareness and actions at grassroots. The implementation of the project in an otherwise underdeveloped belt at the foothills of the Western Ghats, close to the ecologically sensitive Palni hills, has made it all the more relevant and important. With the stated back-up support from the Department of Elementary Education today and the public at large tomorrow, we are bound to scale new heights and fully realise the objectives of the project, perhaps with an extended period of monitoring and evaluation beyond its expiry in March 2003.


Kodaikanal Botanic Garden has an important role to play in raising awareness of the importance of the biodiversity of plants in our everyday lives and in supporting the local community in the sustainable use of local biodiversity. However, as a small growing institution the staff know that this cannot be done effectively without working with partners across the districts bordering the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu. By working as part of a bigger partnership, on a local and also a national and international scale, a range of skills, expertise and knowledge can be used to build a future generation who have a respect and understanding for the value of plant biodiversity. In addition, the partnership can help the current generation consider and investigate ways that allow them to sustainably use plant biodiversity while maintaining or working towards a better quality of life.

Les Hommes et les Plantes : Former des Mentors pour le Groupe Darwin


Dr Seeni, Darwin Initiative Project " People and Plants : Training Darwin Mentors in India ", Center for Biodiversity and technology, St Xaviers College, Palayamkottai ­ 627002, Tamil Nadu, India
Les initiatives de partenariat pour une éducation à l’environnement de base sur la richesse de la biodiversité en Inde sont relativement rares. Un projet de collaboration sur deux ans ( 2001-2003) intitulé Les Hommes et les Plantes ­ Training Darwin Mentors, financé par le groupe Darwin pour la Survie des Espèces au Royaume Uni, a été lancé récemment au Jardin Botanique Kodaikanal dans le Palni Hills au sud ouest du Ghats par le Botanic Garden Conservation International et le Centre pour la Biodiversité et la Technologie, au Collège St Xavier à Palayamkottai.

Le projet vise à aider les enseignants à augmenter la prise de conscience des enfants de l’école primaire et de leurs parents, de l’importance de la flore locale et des forêts et de la nécessité d’utiliser des plantes que l’on peut renouveler, en utilisant le jardin comme ressource pour leur enseignement. Au début de 2002, 200 enseignants répartis à travers les districts de Tirunelveli, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul et Coimbatore ont été repérés pour suivre la formation suite à des contacts avec des enseignants et des responsables de l’école.

Tout d’abord, ces enseignants ont participé à l’un des huit ateliers de trois jours sur l’éducation à l’environnement. Ensuite, les enseignants sont retournés dans leur région et, en jouant le rôle de mentor, on leur a demandé de former 5 de leurs collègues en éducation à l’environnement avec l’objectif d’avoir 1000 enseignants formés et impliqués dans l’éducation à l’environnement dans tout le Western Ghat. Cet article décrit le projet, les partenariats établis, les défis et les résultats obtenus à ce jour.

La Gente y las Plantas: La Formación de Mentores Darwin


Hay relativamente pocas iniciativas de colaboración en la educación básica medio ambiental en las zonas más ricas en biodiversidad de la India. Recientemente, el Jardín Botánico de Kodaikanal el las Palni Hills del sur de Ghats Occidental, junto con el BGCI del Reino Unido y el Centro para la Biodiversidad y la Biotecnología del Colegio de San Javier, Palayamkottai, lanzó un proyecto de este tipo de dos años de duración (2000-2003) llamado La Gente y Las Plantas – la formación de Mentores Darwin, y patrocinado por la Iniciativa Darwin para la Supervivencia de las Especies, del Reino Unido.

El proyecto intenta fomentar la capacidad de los profesores para concienciar a los alumnos de los colegios primarios y a sus padres sobre la importancia de la flora y de los bosques autóctonos y la importancia también de utilizar a las plantas de una manera sostenible utilizando al jardín como el recurso educativo. Al comienzo del 2002, 200 profesores de los distritos de Tirunelveli, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul y Coimbatore fueron seleccionados para el programa de formación a través de contactos y conversaciones con profesores y las autoridades escolares.

Para empezar, estos profesores tomaron parte en uno de ocho talleres sobre educación medio ambiental. Luego regresaron a su zona de origen y tomando el papel de Mentor emprendieron la formación en educación medio ambiental de 5 de sus compañeros, con el fin de conseguir un total de 1000 profesores formados y llevando a cabo la educación medio ambiental a través de todo el Ghats Occidental. Este articula describe el proyecto, las asociaciones formadas, los problemas, y los resultados hasta el día de hoy.