Ground report: In forests of the Nilgiris, illegal gold mines trap humans & wildlife

On the one hand are mining workers who risk their lives deep underground. On the other hand are elephants and other wild animals who fall into these mines and lose their lives. Both are trapped in a vicious cycle for survival.
A group of miners washing extracted gold in a stream inside Devala forest in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu
A group of miners washing extracted gold in a stream inside Devala forest in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu
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It is better to watch every step if you are planning to walk into the evergreen thickets and steep ravines of the Devala forest, located 70 km from Ooty along the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. Forest officials tell TNM that there are 5,000 illegal gold mining pits in an area of just 640 hectares. Some pits have been long abandoned, others are still used by mining workers in the hopes of finding gold dust and sometimes larger chunks. Narrow jungle trails are the only safe routes through this maze of boobytraps. A few inches off track and people — even elephants — could vanish without a trace.

In one such recent incident, Gudalur forest officials got information on October 5 that a baby elephant had fallen into a pit. The foresters rushed to the spot and quickly helped the one-month-old female calf out of the 12-foot-deep mine. The video of the incident went viral on social media, with people applauding the officials for rescuing the calf and reuniting it with the herd. However, the message that the Forest Department wanted to convey by releasing the video seems to have been lost. Both the public and the government paid little attention to the problem of illegal gold mining, which poses a serious threat to wildlife in the region.

Chances are high for an animal or a human to fall into a mine but rescuing them in time or even finding their remains is often impossible. Just four days after the calf was rescued, forest officials found a fully grown elephant inside a pit. This time they were too late. Post mortem details shared with TNM by officials show that the hapless animal died nearly six months before it was discovered.

The rescued baby elephant walking behind a forest official and the 12-foot-deep mining pit the elephant had fallen into

A trap for humans and animals

When TNM visited the Devala forest, we found a classic man-animal conflict. Human survival depends on working the illegal mines, and the survival of wildlife depends on keeping humans out of the forests.

At first we heard only whispers but soon we could clearly hear the miners calling out loudly to one another. It's not difficult finding them inside the forest. Officials say there are hundreds of workers spread across the forest but they manage to nab only a few in their raids.

Amid light showers, Guru* (name changed) and three of his friends are preparing to enter a 50-meter-deep mine on a Wednesday afternoon. Five others in the gang get the pumps and pipes ready, to drain the water from the mine in case of a heavy downpour.

Guru tells us extracting gold is patient work. “It is already drizzling and the weather here is unpredictable. If there is heavy and incessant rainfall, the mines will fill up, forcing us to pump the water out and continue the work. Judging by today’s forecast, it looks like the eight of us will halt here until we finish the work and find something worthwhile.”

It's a risky job for the miners even without the constant threat of arrest. The mining area is full of wild animals and bang in the middle of an elephant corridor. And it's all for a pittance. Venu (name changed), a miner said, “For one week’s work, I will receive a wage of anywhere between Rs 1,400-1,700. I’m new to this job, so I’m unaware of whether it is legal or not.”

Work moves at a frenetic pace here. As hundreds of men toil by crawling into the unstable mines, women stay outside and wash the soil extract. The women then clean the impurities in forest streams using mercury. The sandy ore is given to mills where the gold is finally extracted and pushed into the black market.

For the last few decades, middle-aged men and women from economically weaker backgrounds formed the bulk of the workforce. With the economic downturn of the last few years, many educated young people too have started entering the forest mines. Some of the miners today, our sources tell us, even have engineering degrees.

“Once the mother of an engineering graduate came crying asking for her son. She said that she got him educated under severe financial difficulty, but now he was indulging in this illegal activity, which could even cost him his life,” said a forest staff.

A group of miners washing extracted ore in a stream inside Devala forest

The illegal gold mining is mostly carried out by neighbouring villagers who have thorough knowledge about the land and forest. Earlier, only local miners were involved in the activity, allowing them to take their full earnings home. However, over the years a slew of richer and influential businessmen from the same villages have begun ‘owning’ mines. Sources tell TNM that currently mines are leased out by a few businessmen who employ a middleman to monitor the activities on the ground.

Speaking to TNM, an official who did not wish to be named said, “Several groups of miners are spread out in the forest. They often stay in the area for weeks to extract gold. When one set of miners is extracting ore, the others prepare food and build shelters.”

"For cooking fuel, these miners cut trees in the forest. They disturb wildlife through their persistent activities. Due to strict action since the past few months, the activity has lessened, but not stopped,” added the official.

The officials have no clear data on how many animals have lost their lives in the mining pits. They carry out rescues based on tip-offs or hearing an animal’s cry. Sometimes they find carcasses of animals, including elephants, in the pits.

N Mohanraj, conservationist and former consultant with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – India, confirms two instances of elephants caught in mines. “The area is honeycombed with mines. Till now we know two instances of elephants caught in the mines, however there can be several wildlife and even humans lying dead inside pits.”

Mohanraj says that human deaths are covered up and barely accounted for due to fear of police action.

Speaking about the environmental damages caused due to mining, Mohanraj added, “The usage of mercury to separate gold from its ore by washing it in the riverside is polluting the water, and melting the amalgamation of mercury and gold later is polluting the air in the region.”

“The polluted water is consumed by wildlife like elephants and even humans when it flows through and out of the forest. From an environmental point of view, besides water and air, mercury is dangerous to both wildlife and humans,” he explained.

A miner breaking stone extracted from one of the deep mines inside Devala forest

Difficulty in enforcing the law

The Devala-Pandalur forest region has been notified under Section 17 of the Gudalur Janmam Estates (Abolition and Conversion Into Ryotwari) Act, 1969. This Act was passed to contain exploitation of the forests by those who owned lands inside the forests. Armed with the law, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department entered into negotiations with the land owners to free up ecologically sensitive zones and designate them as Reserve Forests.

Nilgiris Collector J Innocent Divya said that over 80,000 acres of land in the Pandalur-Gudalur area has been identified for settlement under Section 17. However, only about 30,000 acres have been freed up and designated as reserve forest in all these years. At least 35,000 acres of land continue to be caught up in litigation. Most of the illegal mining happens in those areas that are not yet under the Forest Department. The Department claims that without a solid legal claim over these lands, which include elephant corridors, they are not able to come down heavily on illegal mining.

Chief Wildlife Warden Shekar Kumar Niraj told TNM that clampdowns have increased recently but reiterated that not all land is under the Department. “The district police and forest officials have been informed to take stern action on miscreants, following which arrests are also being made.” He also hoped that the state government would use its discretionary powers to notify more lands as reserve forest.

Sobha Madhan, tribal rights activist and resident of Gudalur, however cautions against blanket attempts to take over lands. “There were attempts to evict people in 2019 using the Tamil Nadu Forest Act. But due to several protests, the eviction notice was stayed. It is illegal and inhuman to evict people from the land; they have lived here their whole lives.”

As there were major protests in the region at the time, the Collector assured those living in areas that come under Section 17 of the Gudalur Janmam Estates Act that they will not be evicted.

Mohanraj said that the government should first take efforts to shut all illegal mines. “Mining experts should be brought to address the closure of mines in a systematic manner, so that the pits are not dug out in the future,” he added.

He said that with gold prices going up, people are attracted to mining. And this is true. The interest in the gold in the area has only grown with time; it’s nothing short of a mini gold rush today. A search on social networking sites such as Quora can easily show you the locations of the mines in the Pandalur-Devala area. We found many discussions on Quora where participants discussed the gold-spots and methods of extraction.

Meanwhile, speaking to TNM, Minister for Forests K Ramachandran said, “Following the recent elephant incident, we are planning to inspect the spot and take necessary action regarding both the mining and the thousands of mining pits, both abandoned and in-use, that are posing a threat to wildlife and humans.”

He said that though illegal gold mining has been going on for over 50 years, no one seems to have mined a large amount of gold till date. “Most of the local villagers are misled into believing that they will hit the jackpot. In the end, they are only paid a daily wage of Rs 300 to 500,” he explained.

A woman washing extracted ore in a stream inside the forest

History of gold mining in Pandalur-Devala

PJ Vasanthan, a historian and resident of Coonoor in Nilgiris district, described the region south-east of Wayanad as a “goose that laid golden eggs” where gold prospecting started as early as 1793 when the region was still under the British. Here’s an excerpt from one of his chronicles:

“The Collector of the Malabar is known to have written to the Government at Madras in response to a query made in 1828, that gold was found in Nelliyalam, Ponnani, Devala and Nembalakotta, and efforts to mine them were rolled out. It appears that the gold was panned in stream-beds from deposits collected in the soil, and later separated from residual impurities by amalgamation with mercury.

“After finding a regular set of mines in the Nilambur Valley, with shafts from 10 to 50 feet in depth, the large landlords of Nilambur put nearly 600 slaves to mine in the region. Despite an enthusiastic start, the matter was shelved in 1833.”

Speaking to TNM, Vasanthan said that the earliest prospectors were the region’s coffee planters and things got serious only when the Alpha Gold Mining Company was set up in Devala in 1860. A geological survey was conducted by the government which made positive forecasts. Following this, two more companies were started and more reefs were opened up in 1878.

In 1879, leading geologist Brough Smyth visited the area and his surveys projected more humble prospects. He warned that large-scale mining would prove unprofitable. Undeterred, six new companies were set up the same year Smyth made his gloomy prediction.

A few abandoned mines used during British rule inside Devala forest

“Shares skyrocketed when company directors in London predicted high profit. Coffee estate owners gladly sold out their property to these companies at a profit, and others started looking at reefs existing within their estates; mining experts materialised from nowhere and began reporting on properties they had never seen. Devala and Pandalur blossomed into busy mining towns, with rows of substantial buildings, post and telegraph offices, hotels, saloons, and more. Pandalur even boasted a race course with regular and well-attended meetings. Stores to hold the extracted quartz for crushing mushroomed, and so did the bungalows of mining captains,” Vasanthan said.

He added that although the shares slumped in 1881 because of mining difficulty, the market boomed once again after one of the mines began crushing. “Alpha Gold Mining Company alone saw a fifteen-fold increase in share,” he said.

According to Vasanthan, in July 1881 the yield was once again poor. “The shares dropped and never recovered. A few, including Alpha, were shut down. The last one was closed in 1893.”

“Attempts to open some of the reefs using alternate methods of extraction, by a local syndicate in 1901 and later by the Indian Glenrock (Wynaad) Co., proved to be in vain,” he said.

The mining industry came to a halt and killed the coffee industry with it. Pandalur and Devala slipped back into oblivion and became just boulevards of broken dreams. “They were perhaps the most mournful scene of disappointed hopes in all the Presidency, and continued to remain so till the tea sector took over much later,” Vasanthan said.

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