India’s Little-known Rocky Biodiversity Hotspots Need Attention

Vegetation and ponds on the Bhagwati Moll laterite plateau in Goa, India
The Morning Context
Goa, India

India’s Little-known Rocky Biodiversity Hotspots Need Attention

Francisco Rebello swings a traditional curved knife and hacks away at everything in his way—creepers, climbers and thorny shrubs—as he clears a steep path for us through the dense forest. Nearly 70 years old and wearing a pair of rubber chappals, shorts and a t-shirt, he turns around and smiles.

A few paces behind, I pant in the humid air. Shafts of sunlight pierce the thick canopy of trees and create kaleidoscopic patterns on the wet, dark soil. One wrong stop would have us sliding down into a torrential stream. “Be careful and grab a branch if you need,” says Rebello. “We’re almost there.”

This is not a scene from the Himalayas or an equatorial rainforest in Indonesia or the Congo; we’re standing on a tiny strip of forest, not too far from southern Goa’s Galgibaga beach. Ahead of us is a vast meadow of grass, wildflowers, springs and ponds.

Twenty minutes into our hike, the wet soil gives way to a rocky surface, bronze-hued and pockmarked with tiny holes—this is laterite rock, weathered by millions of years of rain and wind. The ground is covered in short grass, interspersed with white, violet, blue, maroon and pink blooms of tiny herbs. Some of these plants trap and eat insects. Others, with their tentacles, look like they belong in the deep sea. The screeching calls of Malabar pied hornbills can be heard in the distance.

Rebello pauses before a sacred rock to pray. The former toddy tapper and hunter has guided me atop a laterite plateau, behind his home in Loliem village.

Found across Goa and parts of neighboring states, these rocky highlands stand up to 100 meters above the surrounding land and are typically spread over 300 acres, with rainforests covering their steep slopes. If you have visited coastal Goa, you’d have likely driven through a plateau. If you have flown to or from Goa, you’ve walked on one—the Dabolim airport stands on a plateau.

In recent years, research has found that laterite plateaus are huge reservoirs of biodiversity and hotbeds of evolution. They are home to hundreds of birds and plant species, along with protected wildlife such as pythons and leopards. New species of flowering plants are being discovered regularly, with one reported in June this year. Laterite plateaus have also been found to capture and recharge aquifers with millions of liters of rainwater.

But laterite plateaus, scientists say, are in urgent need of conservation. While India’s biodiversity law provides options for conserving these landforms, not enough has been done. Plateaus are instead described as “rocky and barren land” in India’s wasteland atlas and other regulatory documents.

With no legal protection, they are encroached upon for residential, industrial and infrastructural development; an example is the international airport being constructed on Goa’s Mopa plateau. Similarly, the plateau I visited with Rebello, locally known as Bhagwati Moll, was initially earmarked for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Goa campus. The plan was scrapped after villagers, including Rebello, resisted. Bhagwati Moll is one of the last remaining ecologically valuable laterite plateaus in the country.

A bloom of Utricularia albocaerulea, an insectivorous flower, atop the Bhagwati Moll plateau.
A bloom of Utricularia albocaerulea, an insectivorous flower, atop the Bhagwati Moll plateau / Credit: Nihar Gokhale

Biodiversity hotspots

In 1991, a young man alighted from a train at Goa’s Madgaon railway station. Malapati K. Janarthanam had just earned his doctorate in botany in Kerala, and was called to be interviewed for a teaching job at the Goa University’s botany department.

Janarthanam—or Jana, as he likes to be called—took a bus to get to the university. Halfway through the 30-km trip in a state where the landscape and language were alien to the Chennai native, Jana found something familiar. It was the monsoon season, and the bus was on the north-bound highway, passing along the laterite plateau in Verna village. The plateau was in full bloom.

“I was like: My god! I know this,” Jana recounts. He was even more thrilled when he arrived at the university; the campus sits atop a plateau.

As a student in Kerala, Jana had earlier studied plants growing across similar plateaus in the state. He had even discovered a new herb species. Goa University hired him, and thus began a lifelong quest to delve into laterite plateau ecosystems.

Over the years, he has discovered several new flowering plants, guided students researching plateaus and published seminal research on the subject, including a 2004 paper that showed that plateaus are hubs for what ecologists call “endemic species”, meaning they are found nowhere else.

The extent of endemism is a common measure of the biodiversity value of an ecosystem. Simply put, the presence of endemic species is a sign that the habitat is rich and unique. The greater the number of endemic species in an area, the higher its biodiversity value. For example, half of the 652 tree species found in the Western Ghats are unique to the region. On laterite plateaus, Jana and others have identified over 100 endemic plant species, including flowering herbs like Dipcadi concanense and Dipcadi goaense, which are named after the Konkan and Goa, respectively.

M.K. Janarthanam, an expert on plants growing on laterite plateaus, at the Bhagwati Moll plateau
M.K. Janarthanam, an expert on plants growing on laterite plateaus, at the Bhagwati Moll plateau / Credit: Nihar Gokhale.

Although Jana retired this year, his passion for fieldwork endures. At the end of an over two-hour-long interview at a cafe in Panaji, Goa’s capital, the 62-year-old insists that we visit a plateau to understand the full scope of his findings. The next morning, we drive down to Loliem, 10 days after my first visit to Bhagwati Moll with Rebello.

Within five minutes of reaching the top, Jana has already identified about a dozen endemic plant species. But how do they flourish on a rocky plateau?

What looks like a flat surface from a distance is actually clusters of crevices, ravines and depressions, which are formed when rain chips away at brittle laterite rocks. Over time, rainwater and soil keep collecting in these hollows—these could be finger-deep holes or gaps big enough to grow a banyan tree.

All of these, Jana explains, are microhabitats—self-contained ecosystems with different levels of soil depth, nutrients, capacity to hold moisture and sun exposure. In that sense, some are like one-bedroom studio apartments; others are like penthouses. Each microhabitat shelters plant species that are adapted to those conditions. The result is a dizzying array of plants, including insectivorous ones that adapt to soils with low nutrients. “On a plateau, a single flowering plant like the Eriocaulon has been known to have evolved into 15 different species to adapt to different microhabitats,” Jana says.

The diversity is not just across space, but also time. As the temperature, sunlight and moisture change, plants of one species die out and those of other species grow in their place.

The result, Jana says, is that “any given area on a plateau has more biodiversity than a similar area in a forest, even though when we think of biodiversity, it is forests that first come to mind”.

I noticed different kinds of blooms 10 days apart in the same spots on the Bhagwati Moll plateau; others have narrated similar experiences. “Every time I come to the plateau, it is different,” says Pooja Rani, an ecotourism professional who guides hikers along nature trails to the Socorro plateau in north Goa. “I feel like the more I come here, the less I actually know about [the plateau].”

During the monsoon, the plateau resembles a painting of lush meadows and ponds. Once the rains end, the area turns into a dry grassland. The herbs dry out and leave behind seeds that survive the dry weather and harsh sun, until the next monsoon.

Apart from plants, the plateaus are also home to hundreds of bird species. The Socorro plateau in north Goa has recorded nearly 238 bird species. These include crested serpent eagles, Malabar pied hornbills and even Amur falcons, which migrate every year from Siberia to South Africa. Besides, bison, leopards, pythons, wild boars and freshwater otters have been seen on plateau tops as well as in surrounding forests. While bigger animals are found even beyond plateaus, ecologists have found that some small reptiles, like white-banded geckos, are unique to laterite plateaus.

The rich biodiversity of laterite plateaus is not the only reason they need to be conserved.

The pockmarked laterite rock allows water to percolate into the plateau, which then emerges as springs and streams.
The pockmarked laterite rock allows water to percolate into the plateau, which then emerges as springs and streams / Credit: Nihar Gokhale

Interwoven ecosystems

“What is interesting about laterite plateaus is that they are also socio-ecological landscapes, where the ecology, biodiversity and habitats have evolved within the landscape,” says Aparna Watve, an ecologist who has studied the plateaus of the Western Ghats for over two decades. “People have adapted to challenges like the dry habitat and seasonality, and shown how it is possible to do so without harming the biodiversity.”

In 2013, based on a decade-long study across 67 locations in the Western Ghats, Watve published a paper on the subject in the peer-reviewed Journal of Threatened Taxa.

A case in point is Loliem. The village sits along the slopes of the Bhagwati Moll plateau and, like the plants that grow across the plateau, humans have also adapted to the features of the landscape.

Atop the plateau, locals carry out rain-fed farming and graze their cattle and goats (this is a good thing, as their droppings fertilize the soil, Jana points out). Some people also inhabit the plateau top, like members of the Dhangar community, a tribe of nomadic herders native to western India. Besides, locals routinely climb the plateau to collect medicinal plants and wild leafy vegetables.

The forests on the steep slopes are left untouched. Houses are built only where the gradient is less steep. Further down, where the land is nearly flat, there are orchards of coconut and areca nut. At the lowest level lie paddy fields and fish ponds. In most villages, the land beyond this gives way to a wetland or a river. Freshwater streams and springs across the plateau irrigate land and support life, binding the plateau-village ecosystem.

The plateau in Loliem is also part of local cultural beliefs. Villagers believe that the plateau stands on the path trodden by Betal, a deity whom they regard as their protector. Every year, a procession carries a Betal idol down this path.

“When you look at how water has been channelized, how fields are cultivated on top of the plateau, the sacred spaces, the stories and myths associated with it, the way pastoral communities have used it, it points to clear indigenous knowledge systems and cultures which have evolved here,” says Watve.

The only other places in the world where cultures have evolved in a laterite landscape are Brazil and Australia, says Watve.

“We have evidence from petroglyphs [rock carvings] that at least for 4,000-5,000 years, people have lived there,” she says. “With low-lying laterite plateaus, we’re talking not only about conservation of the plateau, but also about the whole knowledge system associated with a very unique landscape.”

But laterite plateaus in India are not protected under any laws or environmental regulations.

Drosera, an insectivorous plant, is commonly found growing on laterite plateaus.
Drosera, an insectivorous plant, is commonly found growing on laterite plateaus / Credit: Nihar Gokhale.

Fuzzy law

The Indian government came close to preserving most plateaus in a landmark plan to conserve the Western Ghats in 2014. The draft Western Ghats Ecologically Sensitive Area regulation described lateritic plateaus as being among the “unique habitats” that made the Western Ghats rich in biodiversity.

But the eco-sensitive zones have not been finalized, and plateaus have been left out in subsequent dilutions to the proposed plan.

“The [eco-sensitive zoning] was a lost opportunity to preserve plateaus, as it gave the rightful recognition that the plateaus are part of the Western Ghats landscape,” says Abhijeet Prabhudesai, founder of the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, a Goa-based environmental action group that has opposed several projects coming up on plateaus.

In December 2019, the Goa State Biodiversity Board declared the Rivona plateau in the north-east of the state as a biodiversity heritage site. The declaration was issued under India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002, which implements India’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

Recognizing plateaus as biodiversity heritage sites is a good way to conserve plateaus, says Watve. She explains why: It is a ground-up approach to conservation that is helmed by the gram sabha (village general body) and protects local land use and knowledge.

“A biodiversity heritage site is a superb provision that allows people to ascribe what value an area has on paper and get the government to support it,” says Watve.

But it is a lengthy process that requires cooperation from panchayats and state governments. Moreover, “if you have private or revenue land, then it will be contested. It will take a long time to generate that kind of awareness and get people to do it. We’re progressing on that path slowly and carefully,” says Watve.

That said, the Goa State Biodiversity Board is interested in declaring more plateaus as biodiversity heritage sites, says Pradip V. Sarmokadam, the board’s member secretary. But “an important criterion for biodiversity heritage sites is that a cultural heritage has to be associated with the plateau,” he says. “Either a sacred grove, a temple or some such heritage. All of them do not have that.”

Meanwhile, the board is preparing an action plan to preserve the plateaus, he adds. This is part of Goa’s contribution to India’s action plan under a new global agreement on biodiversity set to be adopted at the UN Conference on Biodiversity in December. Called the “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework”, the initiative is expected to encourage countries to preserve important biodiversity areas.

In that global framework, Goa’s plateaus are fighting for space.

Nihar Gokhale produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published by The Morning Context on 24 September 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.

Banner image: Flowers bloom on the Bhagwati Moll laterite plateau near Loliem in Goa, India. Credit: Nihar Gokhale.

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