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Nilgiris Field Learning Center

A Project of the Keystone Foundation & Cornell University


Spring 2015 marked the beginning of numerous collaborative projects between Cornell researchers and Keystone partners. Groups of students from both the Nilgiris and Cornell traveled to different field sites around the biosphere to learn about community, environment, and health.

Community Wellness

The community wellness team practiced ethnography in two Kurumba villages to explore the relationship between individual and community health, access to medical resources in and out of the village, and changing traditions. Working with the communities and learning about how health relates to people’s daily lives in the past and present led to interesting ideas about how health care may adapt for the future. 11073927_822732391144578_4161674454580163267_oThe primary data collection methods were semi-structured individual interviews in the communities and meetings with local medical centers. Observations of the research team in the community also led to interesting insights about how community shapes one’s worldview concerning health and well being. One exciting area for further research is the relationship between community health and access to outside care options.

Dietary Diversity

SONY DSCThe Dietary Diversity research project explored the daily diets of two villages from the Irula community, a group indigenous to the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. Specifically, Hanna and Murugaiyan investigated the source and variety of everyday food, and how eating habits and sourcing have changed in the last several decades. To do this, they conducted semi-structured household interviews while living at the study sites. IMG_20140120_145759148One of the most compelling relationships identified by this project has been the link between recent changes in diet and the community’s access to resources inside and outside the village, such as education and employment opportunities, proximity to markets, and political influence, and how these are increasingly influenced by urbanization.

Environmental Governance

nutsThe Environmental Governance project explores land use and land use governance in Baviyur and Metukkal, tribal villages composed of people living and working in forests administered by the Indian Forest Department. Through observation, interviews, and household surveys, students study how people in these communities utilize forest land for food, farming, and trade. While not yet implemented in this state of India, peoplethe 2006 Indian Forest Rights Act (FRA) promises to recognize the legitimacy of individuals’ and communities’ claims to land. This ambiguous situation positions students to study expectations villagers attach to this potential change in governance. Future research will focus on fallows, cleared forest land that is not used for farming.  Specifically, we seek to understand why fallows persist and the role insecure land tenure plays in shaping use of forest land.


Infant Feeding

IF_FeedingThe Infant Feeding project explores the knowledge, attitudes, and practices among five Adivasi communities in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve of the Western Ghats of Southern India. Using ethnographic methods, the study investigates how primary caregivers of infants and young children navigate food and belief systems on a representative sample of 32 key informants. Data was analyzed for themes and patterns in three of the communities studied, revealing forces that influence caregiver decision-making. Maternal health and the presence of support systems, including elder populations and crèche facilities, demonstrated distinct influences on infant feeding practices. IF_VellarikombeThe project informs policymakers and prompts areas for further inquiry, including maternal diet diversity, and the role of elders, community members, and individual belief systems on maternal decision-making.

Water and Waste

wasteAndWaterThe Waste, Water, and Recycling project focused on water and waste practices and infrastructure in Hubathalai, a small Tamil habitation near the town of Coonoor. Some habits are traditional or cultural, while others are influenced strongly by government support and new programs. The research project also explored the private recycling shops and networks which spread out from Coonoor to collect materials and transport them to even larger recycling centers. CoonoorViewThe major data collection methods were household interviews, shop interviews, and GPS mapping exercises. One of the most exciting areas for further research is in ways that communities can work with the local government to better deal with waste.


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