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February 1998
Preserving the Mangroves: Community Activism at the Tip of India

By Mia MacDonald



For more than 20 years, Nalini Nayak has worked with small-scale fisherfolk along the coasts of the southern Indian state of Kerala, playing a key role in facilitating the formation of unions and marketing cooperatives by male and female fishworkers. In her work, Nayak has addressed a range of issues surrounding fishworkers' livelihoods and rights--including poverty, exploitation, government pressure, mechanization and pollution--at the community, state and national levels.

The coastline of Kerala, India's southernmost state, spans 590 kilometers, 10 percent of the country's total coastal area. Its population of 30 million includes 900,000 fishermen and women, most of whom live at or below subsistence level. Forty percent of Kerala's people live below the poverty line, and land pressure in the state is intense. In the past several years, alerted by steadily declining fishing yields along the Kerala cost, Nayak began researching, and then acting upon, the environmental factors that are crucial to maintaining sustainable fish harvests and a viable economy for fishworkers. There is growing pressure in Kerala to attract business interests and increase foreign exchange earnings through exports, due to India's economic liberalization program, launched in 1992. As in Thailand, India's coastal mangrove forests are rapidly being lost to intensive shrimp farming. Demand for frozen shrimp from India is high in Japan, and increasing among Asia's growing middle class.

Crafting Community Alliances

Liaising closely with community leaders and environmental activists, networks she has worked with for years, Nayak developed programs to restore on a small scale the balance between Kerala's land and ocean ecosystems. Chief among these are mangrove reforestation and chemical-free shrimp aquaculture projects, managed by community groups and located at sites throughout southern Kerala.

To gain local support for the projects, Nayak undertook an education campaign to demonstrate how crucial the environment is to fishworkers' livelihoods, working through her long-standing contacts with union leaders, community activists and fisherfolk, and with the infrastructure of the Program for Community Organization (PCO), a Trivandrum-based non-governmental organization she co-founded. Since 1977, PCO has provided scientific and social services to Keralite fishworkers.

Nayak's project sites include coastal villages near the cities of Trivandrum, Cochin, Trichur, and close to Kanya Kumari, the tip of the Indian subcontinent. Nayak's work is informed by her strong belief in community control--decentralizing decision-making and implementation--and her ability to ground issues in their myriad contexts. "I don't believe centralization can work," she says. "In fact, the movement only spreads where people can make their own decisions, although of course I think there should be an openness for exchange and dialogue, and I think there's a lot of this at that level." Each year, Nayak has vested more and more responsibility for the initiatives' management with community groups.

From Groves to Frozen Shrimp

Mangrove trees, once abundant along the Kerala coast, prevent soil erosion and tidal waves. Erosion disrupts the flow of nutrients to the sea, needed for fish to spawn and grow. The trees' extensive root systems also act as aquatic nurseries for fish and crabs. Most of India's mangroves were destroyed over the past 100 years, and coastal soil erosion is tremendous and continuing.

Traditional shrimp cultivation, which relies on natural filtration and the rotation of rice and shrimp crops for fertilization, is also under siege in Kerala from modern, intensive shrimp culture. These methods rely heavily on chemicals and large tracts of land, and often entail the destruction of existing marshes, mangroves, and shallow-water ecosystems. Coastal land belonging to fisherfolk is coveted by large shrimp corporations, who offer them high prices per hectare. Nayak raises the issues with local people: if they sell to big investors, they'll lose their lands and also have many ecological problems to deal with in future years.

The idea for the mangrove and aquaculture projects grew out of a 1989 ecological march that took place in Southern Kerala. Nayak learned that work on replanting mangroves had been taken up by university students and an environmental organization in Cochin. These groups had not, however, made the link between mangrove preservation and fisherfolk. "They were seeing it in biological terms," she recalls. "It had nothing to do with people....From our point of view, it had to do with people and the need to involve people in it." Nayak then visited coastal areas where mangroves still grew, read about them, and searched out and fostered community interest. In the process, new coalitions were built. The diverse group which carries out the projects, under Nayak's guidance, includes students, unemployed graduates, fishworkers, farmers, priests and college instructors.

Alternative Visions and Replication

Nayak's experiments have, for the most part, been successful--in their physical impacts, in the interest they have attracted from policymakers and scientists, in their potential for replication, and perhaps most importantly, in the community support they have attracted. "Our contribution has been to people's participation," she says. "At that level, it's people who have decided they want to protect their own land and their own resources." The central Indian government is also interested in Nayak's work, although she is skeptical about their commitment. The Department of Science and Technology has made funds available for the mangrove project, and has provided seeds and some advice about planting. The government, however, has not set aside land for mangrove reforestation, and, according to Nayak, prefers capital (and chemical) intensive shrimp farms--seen as potentially strong foreign exchange earners.

Still, Nayak's work provides an alternative vision. As she says: "At least we can challenge government policy on their investments in this sector....It is we who are doing something." And government interest, and commissions, have given Nayak a modicum of leverage: land for the ecological interventions can be more easily protected, without the long legal battles common in cases where the government is an adversary. Nayak has also worked to spread the mangrove and aquaculture innovations to other coastal states in India, particularly West Bengal, Orissa and Andra Pradesh. "We will definitely raise a consciousness of this issue," she says, "[so] that wherever it [the ecosystem] still exists, it will be preserved...we have to return some of the things to nature that we don't bother about now."

Mia MacDonald is a consultant in international development, writer and animal activist who lives in Brooklyn. She spent three months in India, working with three non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, including Nayak.



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