Mangroves are forests' less-understood, poor cousins. If forests are getting a bad deal you can imagine what mangroves are going through. In a state like Kerala where backwaters run through bursting human habitats, mangroves have been cherished for long, though lately they have been considered dispensable impediments in the way of economic development. But now there is hope. A group of enthusiastic, lay naturalists have risen to the task and the tenacious family of flora called mangroves is gamely fighting back. Some of newly legislated state laws of course will help, but it is the peoples' movement that will save the mangroves.
A mysterious resource:
Along the edges of backwaters, closer to the sea is nature's inventive exuberance called mangroves. Central to it are many species of halophytes, which are plants adapted to thrive in salt water. And how cleverly they thrive! Roots grow up out of the saline, oxygen starved mud to breathe. Seeds grow into seedlings while still attached to the tree and when mature, spear themselves into the soft mud. To protect the formation of a new colony, a thorny vanguard --Acanthus Illicifolius-- arrives first. Roots of trees are in fact a network of tall stilts in the ebb and flow of tides. In 1969, biologists of the University of Florida discovered the detrital cycle: within hours of the leaves falling from the trees they are colonised by marine fungi and bacteria that convert difficult to digest carbon compounds into nitrogen rich detritus material. And feeding on the detritus and evolving outward is a parade of species in a food chain: worms, snails, shrimp, mollusks, mussels, barnacles, clams, oysters, crabs,fish, birds and marine animals, culminating in --can you ever keep him out?- man.
Until recently man had not understood this productive ecosystem that in fact makes it possible for him to live an amply endowed life. Mangroves give him fish to eat, small timber to cook with and shade against nature's fury. They turn sea water into a better tolerated brackish water which he can use for agriculture. They trap nutrients brought down by rivers. They are recyclers of pollutants. They prevent erosion and silting of the channels. In Kerala man may not have scientifically understood it but he has lived in harmony and derived much pleasure.
Mangroves are known as Kandal Kadu in Malayalam. Of the 1700 hectares of Kerala's mangroves more than half are in Payyanur. Before they enter the sea, two rivers --the Perumba and the Pullankode-- form a channel called Kunhi Chayal. It is beautiful picturesque country and it is difficult not to be appreciative of nature's ways.
Prof. M Jayarajan gives the credit for formal environmental awareness in the district to the legendary John C. Jacob, the Professor of Zoology in Payyanur College in 1970s. It was a time when Kerala's Silent Valley was being threatened with 'development'. The college campus was politicised with a section of students trivialising environmentalists. John C. --as he is affectionately referred to-- braved physical violence and spoke out against invasive development in the Silent Valley. "John C. organised a street march of citizens set to save the Silent Valley," says Jayarajan. "It was the first ever march in Kannur Dt. for a purely environmental issue." Silent Valley was saved.
John C. started a Zoology Club at the Payyanur College in 1972. It was prophetic step. The club attracted school children, housewives and even forest officers. The focus was on personal responsibility to environment- how our food, clothes and behaviour affect the world we live in. Picnics, meetings and treks have been regularly organised. In 1979 the Society for Environmental Education in Kerala [SEEK] was started to somewhat formalise this activity. Since 1981, SEEK has been publishing 'Soocheemukhi' a monthly devoted to environmental issues. It has a print run of 1000. Environmental awareness has spread in Kerala. Environmental groups have mushroomed all over. Though small by themselves they have learned to network across districts. "Today the seventies' children are very committed adults," says Jayarajan
P P Rajan in nearby Kunhimangalam is one such product. He had been organically farming his family's 2.5 acres abutting the backwaters. "I used to go out in my canoe and bring loads of mangrove mud for my paddy. It was so rich in organic matter," he says. The backwaters teemed with fish and birds. He used to get 1.2 tonnes of rice per acre with just that for input. And he cropped twice a year.
Then in the late seventies the economy of Kerala began to experience the Persian Gulf Boom. Almost every family had a member working out there sending back money. Farm labour became scarce and farming was being abandoned. Later in mid 1980s, a craze for blind 'money-making' took hold of the people.
And that was how aquaculture-for-export arrived in Payyanur. The shrimp in the water was abundant for the personal consumption of people but the new entrepreneur wanted to feed the overseas market.
"It was not even about commercial aquaculture. It was in fact a well organised scam," say Rajan and Jayarajan. "Racketeers arrived from Kottayam with bags of money and mysterious plans. They bought up huge tracts of agricultural land, hacked the mangroves down, built ponds and cut channels. And when they seemed to have collected unspoken subsidies, showed no further interest in the project." More than 100 acres stretching from the backwaters to the Ezhimala railway station was laid bare.
SEEK began to highlight the price environment was paying. There were protest meetings and petitions and finally a case was filed in the courts. Nothing seemed to work. It was then, that the thought of direct action took root. A group called One Earth One Life began to organise the fight back. Kerala State Mangrove Protection Committee was formed, headed by Lukose Kadalikattil as Project co-ordinator and Rajan as convener.
March of the dimes:
Their strategy was touchingly simple. Let's buy up tracts of vulnerable mangrove lands and begin securing at least the future. Ordinary citizens contributed their hard earned money and signed away all their rights to the property. Protection Committee began buying parcels of land from disinterested farmers and soon had 3 acres. 39 people had contributed and consented to leave it to nature. In the meantime SEEK too followed with direct action. Its members contributed to buy 4 acres. They now want to keep buying as and when contributions add to a sizable sum. It costs about Rs.25,000 to buy an acre. In a money fixated world the altruism of these unknown Indians is difficult to match.
In nearby Muttukkandi an even more heroic K.Pokkudan was standing alone and tall in the cause of mangroves. He is a Dalit, which is a nice sounding name for a member of India's most abused class, in regard to whom India's vaunted humanity resorts to amnesia. Pokkudan who is 63 today, had grown up in a Zamin. There were 50 Dalit families who were tenant farmers but were in fact slave labourers for the Ezhom Zamindar. About 25 years ago the Dalit families were evicted from their ancestral habitat. They were given less than a tenth of an acre each. Most of them converted to Christianity to gain a higher visibility for their protest. Pokkudan though he remained a Hindu, became a Marxist. He exchanged his seven cents for half an acre of practically derelict land by the backwater.
Once here, he remembered how at Ezhom the landlord had nurtured the mangrove as a protection and a resource. So he and his three children began to plant the 3 km water front, all the way up to to Pazhangadi town. This was a labour begun 12 years ago. The mangroves --mostly Rhizophora with its thorny escorts-- had established themselves. His wife thought him mad for his public labours. But real estate interests thought him evil. In just two hours of one afternoon in March,1998, a mob of paid men scythed through Pokkudan's mangroves.
Turn of the tide:
So what do we have here? Shrimp farms in Kunhimangalam and destroyed plantations in Muttukkandi. Where is the good news?
Let us take a boat ride with Rajan. For some unexplained reason, the shrimp farm project was given up in 1998. Today, the resilience of mangroves is on display. Rhizophora seedlings are spearing into the mud and mangroves are reasserting. "All we need to do is keep man's mischief out of the way and the mangroves will come back," says Rajan. The Kunhi Chayal is a maze of coves and hauntingly narrow channels lined with thriving mangroves. A million eyes are looking out at you. You feel distinctly an outsider. We have steered through many disorienting passages and are at the 3 and 4 acres bought by citizens and turned to go wild. It is eerily silent. Large fish slither and startle you. The bird are back-- cormorant, egrets, herons. "The Brahmany Kite is nesting again," whispers Rajan gazing at the giant bird wheeling overhead watchful if the canoe would near its nest. It's a bird sanctuary rapidly in the making. SEEK and Rajan's group are still canvassing for money to lock away more acres. It does seem a very low-cost way to save an ecosystem. Four acres here is cheaper than what many Indian weddings cost. What if every aware couple bought an acre and turned it wild? Well, well...
Let us revert to Pokkudan. Within hours of the mobs vandalising his planted coast he called SEEK. And they got the press to cover the story. Pokkudan was a hero overnight and support rallied soon. District Forest Officer K K Chandra has come to stand by him. Pokkudan has become a supplier of Rhizophora seedlings to vast new plantations elsewhere in Kerala. School children earn pocket money collecting the seedlings and he transports them in auto-rickshaws. Awareness has grown everywhere. He takes interested people on learning walks. He rattles off where he has supplied seedlings and promoted planting: 20,000 to Payyanur Panchayat, 1500 to Papinessery, 35,000 to Thalassery and Kodumalli, 8,000 to Beypore in Kozhikkode and several thousands to the forest department directly. He gives them free to schools. It would appear that an esteem for mangroves is growing.
"But I will never plant in Muttukkandi again," he says bitter about that day 5 years ago. He poses reluctantly for a photograph. But behind him the children of his savaged mangroves are smiling again.The nicest thing about mangroves is that they are hard to destroy: they spring back soon as they are left alone. And they have been left alone here, since that afternoon of the knives. Of course man can --and is willing-- to pour concrete to build a store or a highway.Increasingly to deter him, legislation is getting tougher in favour of environment. And awareness is making the laws stick. Throughout all this, mangrove seedlings are steadily spearing into the mud.
Prof M Jayarajan
P O Edat - 670 327
Kannur Dt, Kerala
Phone -  250684, 2506873
Kerala State Mangrove Protection Committee
[--which raises funds to buy mangroves as a conservation measure]
Lukose Kadalikattil [Co-ordinator]
Palavayal P O -670511
Kasargod Dt, Kerala
Phone:  2512276
P P Rajan [Convener]
Edat P O 670 327
Kannur Dt, Kerala
Muttukkandi, Ezhom Village
Pazhangadi Post - 670 303