5. Life in the mangroves: Impressions of a vulnerable ecosystem

Sonia Mehra Chawla


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My artistic practice is concerned with the construction of nature that is defined not just as the physical world around us but also, and especially, the conditions of our physical, metaphorical, social and ecological interactions with it. Research for my ongoing project Scapelands began nearly half a decade ago and led me to explore the intricacies of two diverse mangrove ecosystems of India on the Coromandel and Malabar coasts, in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I was instantly drawn to the majestic anatomy of the mangrove tree. There is an impending feeling of wonder, desire, fear and death in these forests that drew me close. The mangroves invoked associations with bones, coiled intestines, the amniotic environment and intricate networks of veins and arteries that map the bodies’ interiors. It is through the course of these systems both sublime and decadent, that the entire mechanics of evolution is revealed.

The diversely rich landscapes of what is now the state of Tamil Nadu find mention in ancient Tamil poetry of the Sangam period. Sangam literature illustrates the thematic classification of five geographical landscapes such as Kurinji, or mountainous regions, Mullai or forests, Marudham, the fertile croplands and plains, Neidhal, the seashore, and Palai, the desert or wasteland. Each of these describes a particular emotional state or imagery, and formed a framework to explore some of the exquisite natural wonders of the state.

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Forests in India have remained central to its civilisational evolution. Furthermore, every major Hindu shrine has a sacred tree, which is revered as much as the presiding deity. The thillai tree, for instance, a mangrove species (Exocoeria agallocha), is worshipped in Chidambaram’s Nataraja temple. The temple sculpture depicting the mangrove tree dates back to the second century A.D. This civilisational principle became the foundation of forest conservation as a social ethic through millennia. Dr.Vandana Shiva says and I quote ‘Its erosion began with the spread of colonial methods of management of forests in India, where trees were felled in rotation to meet the requirements of the British Empire. The result was not merely the destruction of forests but also the destruction of a culture that conserved forests.’

Unscientific management practices such as the ‘coupe system’ implemented during the colonial period were amongst the major causes of large scale degradation of mangrove belts in the state. Healthy mangrove forests were clear felled in coupes by rotation every 20 to 25 years for revenue generation. The felling of mangrove trees triggered the development of trough shaped areas and hyper saline soil conditions preventing the natural growth and regeneration of mangroves. Tidal water entering into the troughs during high tide stagnated, and its evaporation led to increase in salinity levels that could not be endured by the plants. The result was a vast degradation of the mangrove cover in Pichavaram and Muthupet wetlands. The post-colonial phase in India, led to the rapid expansion of forest based industry, large-scale clear felling of natural forests including mangrove forests, and their conversion to monocultures of commercial species.

The mangrove belt is the membrane between land and sea and is disappearing at rates faster than virtually any other ecosystem on Earth. Mangrove belts are nature’s ‘bioshields’ which play a crucial role in mitigating the impact of tsunamis, act as filters for our water supply, reduce soil erosion, serve as nurseries for commercial fisheries, nurture vital marine biodiversity, and act as carbon sinks, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mangrove ‘systems’ display highly evolved morphological and physiological adaptations to extreme conditions, and support various micro-systems within it.

Mangroves have more juvenile fish than the adjacent coastal waters, and most of the fish and shrimp including those of commercial importance spend part of their juvenile stage in mangroves. Mangroves also play a pivotal role in the life cycles of numerous marine animals such as crabs and jellyfish that inhabit the ecosystem.

The destruction and degradation of these natural systems because of factors such as climate change, development and land reclamation for tourism and shrimp aquaculture farms, wood extraction, and non-sustainable farming and fishing practices, bring about tremendous ecological, social, and economic losses, the extent of which we are only now just realizing.

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The great Vedaranyam swamp is one of the largest coastal wetlands found in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is located in the southernmost end of the Cauvery delta. The Muthupet mangrove wetlands form a part of the colossal swamp. During my site visits to the wetlands, I witnessed vast and immense expanses of decaying and degraded mangrove belts constituting over sixty percent of the wetlands. Research indicates that the wetland is degraded due to changes in the micro topography, the cumulative effects of past management practices such as clear felling and the reduced inflow of freshwater. The degraded landscapes speak chronicles of past histories, politics, the environment and economics of consumption, a living document of a vicious cycle of depredation that is the tale of 21st century globalization.

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Tied to the fragility of these ecosystems, is the ecological and livelihood security of coastal communities, who depend on mangrove resources. The traditional skills and techniques used by the fishermen are under threat and at the risk of being replaced by modern unsustainable technologies that damage ecosystems. The fishery resources of the Muthupet mangrove wetlands and the adjoining sea coast are essentially tapped by two communities: the traditional sea fishers, and the traditional inland fishers who utilize the fishery resources available within the mangrove wetlands as well as in adjoining coastal waters. The local fishermen possess an exceptional understanding of the ecosystem from the resource utilization patterns. The success of all efforts directed at restoring the ecosystem depends on recognising the important role that the fishermen and their knowledge of traditional and indigenous techniques can play in coping with the environmental damage.

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The western part of Muthupet wetlands is also characterized by the presence of a number of man-made canals which are fished intensively. Interestingly, the mangrove forest is healthier in areas where canal fishing is practiced, but highly degraded in areas where it is not practiced by the local fishermen. This technique of trapping and harvesting fish and prawns in man-made canals is over 200 years old and the knowledge of this traditional practice has been passed down from generation to generation. Almost eighty man-made canals are found in different reserve forests of the Muthupet mangrove wetland constructed across the north-south direction. Adult and juvenile fish and prawns are trapped in these manmade canals during the late monsoon season and harvested periodically by fishers till the end of the post monsoon months.

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The canal fishers use two types of gear for harvesting fish and prawns from the canal. These gears, I was told are locally known as saar and pari. The saar is a pen made of cane or in some cases the midribs of date palm leaves, and is fixed across a canal as the water from the mangrove wetlands starts draining into the sea. The size of the saar depends on the canal where it is fixed. Adult and juvenile fish and prawns remain trapped in the canal. The pari is a cane basket, with both ends closed. One end could be opened when required. The other end has two openings that are specially designed so that fish and prawn remain trapped inside it once they enter. After the saar and pari are fixed across the canal, two small curved canals are dug near the place where the saar is fixed, known locally as ‘kaan’. The pari is fixed at the lower end of this canal. During low tide, water from the canal starts flowing towards the sea, so do the fish and prawns. They get trapped in the pari, which is removed during high tide or early in the morning. The pari is then placed back in the side canal. This practice continues till March every year. Within this period, the juvenile fish and prawn grow and are harvested. At the end of the season, the fish and prawn remaining in the canals are driven into the fish trap by pushing the water using suaeda bushes. During the southwest monsoon season, a different fishing method is employed.

This method of fishing prevents stagnation of tidal water by ensuring its free flow in and out of the mangrove wetlands through manmade canals. This provides suitable biophysical conditions particularly of moisture and salinity levels for the regeneration and growth of the mangroves. The canal fishing method can be effectively introduced to eco development programs in the Muthupet mangrove wetlands. A step towards understanding these indigenous knowledge systems and incorporating these into modern conservation technologies and fishing practices can encourage local and traditional fishermen to participate in mangrove conservation and management. In fact, the regeneration of large degraded areas of the Pichavaram wetlands through the successful implementation of the ‘canal system’ by M S Swaminathan Research Foundation indicates the effectiveness of this module.

On a completely different note, I had the unique opportunity to engage with the Irular tribesmen and fishermen during my research visit to Tamil Nadu last summer. I witnessed yet another indigenous fishing practice, this time, in the mangrove waters of the Pichavaram wetlands in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. These dense mangrove forests are located between two prominent estuaries, the Vellar in the north and Coleroon in the south.

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Early 20th century anthropological literature classified the Irulas under the Negrito ethnic group. They were a predominantly semi-nomadic tribe of forest dwellers and hunter-gatherers. The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 prevented the use of forest resources and subsequently, the tribe was banished to other areas where they engaged in catching and hunting of rats and snakes, also selling honey, beeswax and firewood for a living.  More than half of the Irulas in Tamil Nadu today live in districts bordering the Bay of Bengal.

Groping is the unique, highly complex and unconventional method of fishing that almost the entire Irular population practices in mangrove waters. Prawns are caught in shallow water mostly during low tide, when the water level is low. The Irulars kneel in the water, keeping their head above the surface, and traverse the waters slowly, gripping a small bag made of palm leaves between their teeth. Keeping the bag submerged to avoid exposing the prawns to the sun helps to preserve the catch for a longer period of time.

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Some of the fishermen and my boatman told me that the fishermen would stretch their hands out at right angles to their bodies; bring them down slowly to the floor-bed, while skimming the surface of the mud, all the way from the sides to the front. When they make contact with the prawn, they hold on to it firmly, bring it up to the water surface and deposit it in the pouch that they hold in between their teeth. This practice is repeated several times as the fishermen gradually move from the shallow to the deep waters of the mangrove wetlands. They do this continuously for five to six hours at a time, till the end of the low tide. Groping for prawns in the wetlands and mangrove swamps is a highly tedious and meticulous activity which takes a toll on their health. The Irulars suffer from severe back and neck pain and tooth decay. Further, there are several cuts and wounds on their hands and feet due to contact with sharp edged oyster shells and consistent contact with highly saline water for long periods of time.

Mangrove forests are highly productive ecosystems and their systematic destruction and deforestation is possibly one of the major reasons for the decrease in the coastal fisheries of many tropical and subtropical countries. The depletion of mangrove belts will lead to soil erosion in coastal areas, flooding, altered natural drainage patterns, increased salt intrusion, and destruction of critical habitats for many aquatic and terrestrial species, with serious implications for biodiversity, conservation, and food security. The role of mangroves in sustaining the ecological and livelihood security of coastal communities as well as the diversity of fish communities must not be understated.

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[1] Scapelands XXI, solar etching on Toyobo polymer plate, printed on Somerset archival paper 2015

[2] ‘Thillai’ Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu

[3] Vast degraded mangrove belts in the deep interiors of the Vedaranyam Swamp, Tamil Nadu

[4] Traditional fishermen carry out daily activities in the Muthupet wetlands

[5] Traditional net fishing in the creeks and canals of the Muthupet wetlands in Tamil Nadu

[6] Saar (6a) and Pari (6b), indigenous gears for ‘canal fishing’ in the Muthupet wetlands

The Saar is fixed across a canal and shown as viewed during the summer season

[7] Irular fisherfolk groping for prawns in the mangrove waters of Pichavaram forest of Tamil Nadu

[8] An Irular woman gropes for prawns while traversing the mangrove waters

[9] Stills from ‘Moving Inwards: Bone Trees & Fluid Spaces’, single channel video in high definition with sound, duration: 13.33 minutes, 2015

 

Sonia Mehra Chawla is a visual artist and researcher based in New Delhi, India. The article is based on Chawla’s research and documentation of mangrove ecosystems of India for her ongoing project ‘Scapelands’. The project advisory includes cultural theorist and curator Ranjit Hoskote and UNESCO Chair in Ecotechnology & Founder Chairman of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Dr. (Prof) M S Swaminathan. The project which is currently in its second phase is culminating into many forms including exhibitions, film and a publication in 2016.

All images are from Chawla’s ‘Scapelands’ series. The artist can be contacted at: soniamehrachawla@gmail.com