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The unlikely guardians of an Indian mangrove forest

November 24, 2022
topics: Conservation
by: Naila Khan
located in: India
tags: eco-tourism, India, indigenous people, mangrove forests

On the western coastline of Maharashtra, a group of indigenous women are protecting local mangroves while boosting eco-tourism in their village.

On 15 May, 2021, Cyclone Tauktae tore through the west coast of India. The cyclone, which NASA declared to be the fifth strongest storm in the Arabian Sea since 1998, destroyed houses and devastated communities, with more than 90 people reported dead.

Shweta Hule, a fisherwoman belonging to the indigenious Koli (fisherfolk) community in the small coastal town of Maharashtra, escaped the catastrophe. "While the neighbouring villages faced the wrath of gusty winds and destruction of property, our village was not even touched by it," she recalled in a conversation with FairPlanet. "The mangroves acted as a shield for us."

MANGROVE CONSERVATION AND WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT 

Hule’s town, Vengurla, is located in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. And while most people in Vengurla engage in fishing as their profession, a group of fisherwomen have launched an operation dubbed Mandavi Eco Tourism five years ago - an enterprise through which they offer eco-friendly boat rides. The boats, which do not run on engines, do not affect the region's biodiversity.

The group has also set up an organic farm and is selling homemade pickles and local spices to supplement its memebrs' incomes. 

Since she was a child, Shweta Hule was intrigued by the Mandvi creek flowing through Vengurla. When she came up with the idea of starting a mangrove safari for tourists along with eight other women, it was her husband, Satish Hule, a fisherman and deep sea diver, who helped them learn how to row boats. 

But the women faced numerous hurdles in introducing the idea of establishing a mangrove safari to their families and obtaining funding for the project from the local government. 

"When we first started out, the villagers thought we wouldn't survive," Ayesha Hule, 32, a member of Swamini, told FairPlanet. "They would taunt us, saying that we will offer boat rides for three or four days since it requires a lot of physical work. They thought of it as a man’s job.

"But we proved them wrong. Now I feel like I have touched the sky."

Sai Satardekar, another member of the group, told FairPlanet that the biggest challenge was learning how to row the boats. "It was our first time rowing a boat, it takes a lot of physical effort," she said. "Every night I used to go to sleep with a body ache, but I was determined enough to not give up."

With financial aid from the local state government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the women’s group has ferried roughly 2,500 passengers since its launch in 2017, and charges 1.95 euros per ride.

With the help of forest officials, they learned the names of different species of mangroves native to the area and over time came to realise the benefits and significance of mangroves in the local ecosystem and were motivated to protect them. 

Every year now, they organise planting expeditions through their eco-tourism business in which they plant Xylocarpus granatum and Bruguiera gymnorrhiza - two types of mangroves that are useful for sustainable management. 

The SIGNIFICANCE OF MANGROVES

India’s coastline is shared by nine states and three Union Territories, and mangroves make these coastal areas a rich habitat for many species of flora and fauna.

Mangrove eco-systems also help local ecosystems adapt and increase their resilience to changes like extreme weather and sea level rise

A UNESCO study stated that mangroves are among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. Mumbai-based environmentalist Debi Goenka corroborated this finding, stating that mangroves are receding at an alarming rate due to extreme weather conditions.

"Mangroves are one of our best defence mechanisms for carbon sequestration and protection against extreme climatic events and sea level rise," Goenka told FairPlanet. He added, "We need to ensure that mangroves have enough space to expand landwards as sea level rise will start flooding the mangrove areas."

In 2017, the UN reported a 67 percent decline in mangrove cover globally. And while a 2021 report by the Indian government titled India State of Forest Report stated that there has been an increase of 17 square kilometres in mangrove cover, experts like Goenka are wary about the accuracy of the findings. "What is important to assess is the quality of the mangrove vegetation and its ecology - not just the geographical area," he said. 

COMMUNITY-LED MANGROVE PROTECTION 

Local organisations like Conservation Action Trust (CAT), a Mumbai-based non-profit organisation, is also fighting to protect mangroves in India.

Goenka, who is the executive trustee of CAT, said, "It has been a great challenge to get the [local] governments and the Forest Department to protect mangroves despite court orders."

He added, "We have been constantly following up with the concerned agencies to ensure that complaints of mangrove destruction are speedily attended and that areas where mangroves have been destroyed are reforested." 

Back in Vengurla, apart from offering informative boat rides to domestic and international tourists, women of the Swamini group have also become fierce guardians of mangroves, and  are quick to report illegal destruction in the area.

Mangroves are considered sacred to the indigenous Koli community. "The moment we see people coming here to cut mangroves for firewood etc., we are the first ones to report the crime to forest officials," Hule said. "Earlier, we only worshipped these mangroves, but today we also guard them." 

The Swamini group is now on a hunt for suitable land where they could build a mangrove nursery and plant more saplings. 

"In Vengurla, we have become the custodians of mangroves, we organise awareness drives for people of the neighbouring villages to eliminate activities like cutting of mangroves and excessive fishing," said Ayesha Hule.

"I want to save our mangroves for the coming generation."

Image by Vishwasa Navada K.

Article written by:
IMG_3090
Naila Khan
Author
India
“While the neighbouring villages faced the wrath of gusty winds and destruction of property, our village was not even touched by it. The mangroves acted as a shield for us.”
The group of fisherwomen launched Mandavi Eco Tourism, in 2017.
"They thought of it as a man’s job. But we proved them wrong."
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