When Development Work Ceases to Exist

Development. As the weeks go by at Keystone, I am learning more and more the meaning of that word. Prior to my first steps into adulthood (still figuring that one out) it was merely a far off future sector that focused on social justice endeavors in an official format. Now I am recognizing that it is a constant evolution of creative ideas to attempt to tackle world problems. Often there are risks taken and mistakes made, sometimes solutions are repeated like an antidote, and there is a never-ending drive to fix one of those world issues or learn how to prevent them from happening.


At Keystone the motto is as such – “Our mission is to enhance the Quality of Life and the Environment with Indigenous Communities using Eco-Development Approaches” (Keystone Annual Report 2006). Over the past 23 years this foundation has taken on numerous projects, and several task forces have emerged within Keystone from the Livelihoods team, to the Conservation crew, and a Public Health group. Each new project or goal is a refreshing way to address an environmental and/or livelihood concern in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.

Hill top view from Keystone’s Campus looking out at Kotagiri

One such issue that has emerged (or is being re-evaluated in a new light) is the mental health status of various members of the tribes in the NBR. It was brought to the attention of Livelihoods team that someone was acting in mental distress. When the Public Health group from Livelihoods went to investigate they discovered that several people were dealing with some form of mental distress. This ranged from depression to schizophrenia. Age range was from a child of teenage years to middle-aged adults. As of current only about 20 or so people are being treated for these mental health challenges. Yet who is to say more members of the various tribes are not also suffering such difficulties?


Some of the great challenges that the Public Health team faces is encouraging those dealing with these mental health issues to acknowledge that what they are suffering is a medical condition and to take ownership of their condition. In addition, the team is fighting to reduce the stigma of mental health within the surrounding community, and in general for that matter. These stigmas have to even be undermined within the medical centers. I tagged along for one of their trips to the hospital where they were trying to create a central location for the psychiatrist and the patients to meet. The doctor is not from the hospital but travels all of the Nilgiris to meet with mental health patients. While waiting for him to arrive, a nurse tried to usher us out but the pharmacist explained who was coming and why we were here. In Tamil she replied “Oh the crazy doctor is coming”. This was said directly in front of the patients who came all the way from their villages, from their needed work day, and in front of the public health workers who worked so hard to get these people to the hospital.

Pavitra and Sharanya (public health team) hard at work

Right now the tribal patients are being given medical attention with consultations and prescriptions. This is a great step but the major question is – why are these mental health problems here in the first place? Have they always been around and our modern vocabulary is putting a name to a condition? If so, how did the communities face these issues in the past, if at all? Have modern day developments disrupted these forest dwelling communities in ways we haven’t yet fathomed?

Right now these tribes, once rooted in the forest that which they dwelt and relied upon, are being pushed closer to the fringes of modern development. As the tea plantations encroach upon the forests of these Southern hills there is loss of trees, loss of shelter for the animals, loss of water quality, but also loss of culture for the forest dwellers. This leads to a loss of rituals and language and ultimately identity. People from these tribal communities feel drawn to what modernization has to offer (i.e. education, technology) yet they also strongly want to hold onto tribal traditions (ex: people who left the community to seek work elsewhere will return every year for the honey hunting that starts in April).


Over the years that Keystone has worked with these communities, they have tried to instill programs of cultural rehabilitation – i.e. efforts to have the elderly remind the young of their roots, customs, and ancient practices. These are good, rather great, intentions to try and preserve such old indigenous cultures of the Nilgiris. However, when or is it ever the appropriate time to let modernization take its course? When does an ancient culture and its’ practices become merely preserved as a memory (ideally transcribed) and the people are left to merge with the ever-growing, ever-developing societies of the world? Is it possible to retain these tribes, their cultures, and homes as extant even in the midst of a rapidly modernizing and globalizing world?


Keystone Foundation is doing everything possible to preserve these forests of the Nilgiris, along with the wildlife and people so intertwined with the fate of these unique ecosystems.  They have worked diligently for the past 23 years in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and I believe the ultimate aim is for them to cease to exist as an organization. There seems to be an ideal goal of development work – when the services provided by a group or organization has completely overcome the social challenges it was trying to remedy and those services are no longer needed. Could it be imagined – if the forests of the Nilgiris were let be and given room to grow, if the wildlife (especially honeybees) stopped reducing in population, if the tribes retained access to their forest homes but that the rest of the world also was accessible if they so decided to venture out, if the waters were clean and fuller flowing again, if the balance between culture and nature was maintained, if there was balance overall for these environments? I guess, let’s hope for the day Keystone Foundation and development work in general cease to exist because it has served its purpose.


The sun setting over the Nilgiris Mountains in Kotagiri

Additional note – please take a look at the fundraiser that supports the Mental Health Program for the Indigenous Tribes in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. Development work is far from finished!

Audra believes that India beautifully embodies the inter-relation between people, the environment, and the health of both systems. She is thrilled to be in such a diverse place, both in terms of people and the natural world. She loves that AIF tackles issues from a multi-faceted angle and challenges such as education are also considered connected to health, economy, the environment, equality and feels that it is this interconnected approach that will make changes. Audra wants to combine her passion for environmental justice, activism for local populations, and cultural appreciation during this fellowship, and hopes to gain insight to apply these passions even more so her work. She has traveled around the world, from Madagascar to the Amazon doing odd jobs from primate fieldwork to environmental education with local schools. These experiences have taught her to be versatile and adaptable, and how to fall quickly in love with a new place.

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