As Shweta Hule ferries tourists across the beautiful Mandavi creeks of Vengurla, amid the lush green canopy of mangroves, she points out specific mangrove species, mentions their scientific names and explains their importance with precision to the tourists in her boat. “These are not just kandal (Marathi word for mangroves), we know them all by names, as if they are our relatives and friends,” she says.
This is the kind of harmonious relationship that exists between mangroves and the local communities in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. Shweta is one of the many members of the Swamini Self Help Group (SHG), organized as part of the Sindhudurg project for coastal and marine conservation. In 2017, the group was given two row boats, twenty life jackets and trainings on mangrove interpretation and hospitality by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This was done in collaboration with the Mangrove Cell, Maharashtra Forest Department, and funded by the Global Environment Facility.
The support led to the mangrove safari programme along the creek and the setting up of a makeshift restaurant that serves local cuisine. The initiative has turned the location into a major ecotourism hub and was declared a success model by the forest department. It has also empowered the women to share their local culture and relationship with nature with both international and national tourists. Last year, their efforts came to a standstill when the Covid-19 pandemic began spreading in India, but the SHG has managed to recover slightly this year with the economy reopening.
Today, as we face a global climate crisis, I feel there is so much we can learn from local communities and their close relationships with nature. It is also a reminder that the way forward lies in an inclusive approach, one that includes working with local communities, respecting traditional knowledge, and embracing diverse perspectives to catalyze change as we work towards protecting and restoring our ecosystems.
With a forest cover of 25 per cent and diverse coastline of more than 8,000 kilometers, India is home to a wide range of ecosystems. But climate change, illegal mining, unsustainable tourism and farming practices, and commercial exploitation are leading to land degradation and biodiversity loss.
Let us consider, for example, the mangrove ecosystems which are home to a rich and diverse flora and fauna. These are called the ‘lungs of cities’ for their immense oxygen content, and ‘shields during cyclones’ for their capacities to protect the coastlines during natural calamities. The mangroves are also a huge source of alternative income for fisherfolk who largely depend on the ecosystem for their sustenance during seasonal bans when they cannot fish in the high seas. Despite their value, mangrove ecosystems are one of the most threatened ecosystems. Illegal felling of trees, production activities, and pollution are ruining the mangroves and adversely impacting the communities reliant on them.
For a traditionally nature dependent country like India, where agriculture and its allied sectors constitute a major source of livelihood for over 70 percent of its rural population and where fishing constitutes a main source of employment for over 14.5 million people, it is extremely important to lead restoration programmes and take steps towards inclusive conservation measures. While policy makers and enforcement agencies play a crucial role in implementing regulatory measures, individually, we all have an important role in improving our relationship with nature and ensuring the protection of our ecosystems.
How can we protect our ecosystems?
Once during a visit to Goa, I remember taking a boat ride and experiencing up close the beauty of the mangrove forests situated along the Mandovi river. While the sheer greenery of the forests and the variety of wildlife impressed me, I was also disappointed to see plastics and other waste materials floating along the river because of careless human activities. Such unsustainable tourist activities can be replaced by both ecotourism efforts as well as responsible initiatives at the individual level. We must understand that all our choices have large-scale implications, and nature-based and nature conscious alternatives in all areas of our lives are the way forward for a sustainable future. The planet we have inherited is one with beautiful, resourceful and nurturing ecosystems and we are obliged to preserve it for our future generations.
We live in a world where we are accountable for our actions, as individuals, communities and societies. Individual mindful actions and choices, and an integrated approach are the future for both ecological preservation and restoration. And like the women of Vengurla, this starts from not just working with nature but being one with nature.
(The author is the UNDP Resident Representative in India. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)