Celebrating our eco-heroes with Mongabay-India

Today is World Mangrove Day. And we're collaborating with Mongabay-India, a nonprofit environment and conservation news platform that brings high-quality, original reports from nature’s frontline in India, to highlight Wetland Champions, a series of illustrations and stories celebrating champions who protect our mangroves, lakes and other wetlands.


A wetland occurs where water meets land. It could be the lake in your backyard or the river that runs through your urban hometown or the mangroves that line your coast. It could be the water body that you see from the window of your hotel-with-a-view or it could be rice fields you drive past on a holiday. Any area inundated with water, permanently or seasonally, is a wetland.


For thousands of people across the country, a wetland is more than a pretty picture. It is intrinsically linked to their very survival – it is a source of water for drinking and domestic use, for fishing and for agriculture. In many other places, the wetland is where migratory birds and other wildlife thrive. And for some, a wetland is part of a region’s environmental heritage.


The linkages in some parts are even deeper and more complex. In Bundelkhand for example, getting water home is the woman’s responsibility. But women’s participation in ensuring that their source of water remains intact is restricted. With the loss of water bodies in villages, women have to adapt by walking longer distances to get water or bear the brunt of the anger of their family members. Reviving a local wetland, in such a case, then becomes linked to health and even domestic peace!


Recognising the importance of wetlands, over the past year, Mongabay-India, an environment and conservation news portal set out (albeit virtually!) to find people across the country striving to preserve the wetlands – protectors of lakes, rivers, mangroves, ponds and other water bodies in the country. Stories of 25 such eco-heroes are captured in Mongabay-India’s special series, Wetland Champions.


From a 70-something shepherd in rural Karnataka to a 26-year-old engineer in urban Noida, from the women of Sindhudurg and the community around Tsomgo lake - the Wetland Champions are of all ages and backgrounds. Complementing these special stories, are illustrations that capture the mood, the environment and the personality of the champions.


The illustrators, many of them not associated with the environment field or journalism, had a unique task at hand – to tell the story of people, their inspiration and the challenges in protecting wetlands. The artists had to make the image look beautiful and different, but also scientifically accurate.


Through 25 stories, the Wetland Champions series goes around the country, from the mangroves to the mountains, from big rivers to small streams and from individual heroes to active communities:

A community-created mangrove forest protects a village from eroding away


Over the past 12 years, the residents of Badakot have converted degraded land into a 25-acre mangrove forest that protects their village from eroding away. Vulnerable to natural disasters and erosion, Badakot lies along the periphery of Bhitarkanika, one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in India.


Born and brought up in Kendrapada district, Odisha, Bijay Kumar Kabi had seen the damage caused by the super cyclone of 1999 in the state’s coast. He knew the importance of mangrove belts against strong cyclonic waves. He led the community to develop the mangrove forest and also negotiated with the forest department and others for seeds, training and other requirements to ensure the mangroves are grown scientifically and the toil of the community doesn’t turn futile.


While the mangroves protect the village, the villagers are also getting firewood and grass in return. The local forest department has recognized Kabi’s efforts and has given him the designation of Honorary Wildlife Warden in Rajnagar Wildlife Division.


Illustration by Sudarshan Shaw for Mongabay. Story by Manish Kumar.

Women revive ponds for water security in Bundelkhand


In drought-prone villages of Chhatarpur district of Bundelkhand, ponds had gone dry. Superstition, cultivation, geographical terrain and more kept the communities from reviving the ponds. The impact however was on the women, who were responsible for the household's water. They had to walk long distances in the heat, to another water body to fetch water. Consequently, home chores would get delayed and there would be altercations.


Being most affected by water problems, the women took the lead to revive their village water bodies. A women’s network, called Jal Saheli (women friend of water), was set up with about 30 members, facilitated by Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, a social organisation led by Bundelkhand’s waterman Sanjay Singh.


In Chaudhary Khera and Agrotha villages, two women are shining examples of Wetland Champions - Ganga Rajput and Babita Rajput. They have led the women of their villages to successfully revive ponds and lead their villages to water security.


Illustration by Anwesha for Mongabay. Story by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

A group of women protect Sindhudurg’s mangroves through ecotourism


At a two-hour-drive away from the tourist-packed Calangute beach in Goa, the Mandavi creek and its neighbouring villages remained largely anonymous on the map. That was until 2017, when Shweta Hule, her husband, and a group of eight other women launched what has popularly come to be known as the ‘Swamini Mangrove Safari’ in Mandavi Creek, Vengurla on the coast of the western state of Maharashtra. Led by Shweta Hule, the senior-most woman of the group, Swamini is a self-help group involved in various income generating activities, with their flagship project being the mangrove safari.


Sindhudurg, the southernmost district in Maharashtra, covers only 3.8 percent of the total mangrove vegetation in the state. However, with occurrences of some rare and endangered species, it is the richest in terms of its biodiversity. The mangrove safari programme by Swamini has been recognised as a model for community-led conservation through ecotourism and the State Forest Department has made efforts to replicate the model in other parts of coastal Maharashtra.


Illustration by Pearl D'Souza for Mongabay. Story by Sneha Pillai.



It takes a village – and an inspired leader – to protect Kutch’s unique inland mangroves


Mangroves, by definition, are small shrubs or trees that grow in saline or brackish water and are found in coastal areas. The mangroves of Guneri and also of Shravan Kavadia, both in Kutch, however, are completely landlocked and are therefore unique. Kutch’s inland mangroves are among the very few, maybe three-four, of their kind recorded in the world. The others are in Brazil, Peru and South America.


The mangroves are tall trees, 20-25 feet in height — and make a fascinating feature amid the semi-arid landscape of Kutch. Most of these trees are of the Avicennia marina species that are known for their hardy nature, ecological versatility, and long life. For the locals of Guneri, however, the ecosystem is more than ecologically significant. They revere the mangroves which drives their conservation efforts. They believe that the mangroves are there to protect them and in turn, so should they.


The community, led by Deva bhai, stands guard, protecting these mangroves. Cutting of these trees is prohibited and the community keeps an eye out for poachers targeting the wildlife the ecosystem supports.


Illustration by Neethi for Mongabay. Story by Azera Parveen Rahman.

Returning to traditional practices to save Vidarbha’s ‘Lake District’


In Bhandara and Gondia districts on the eastern end of Maharashtra, there is an effort to revive the wetlands of the usually dry region. There were approximately 15,000 tanks, locally called MaMa talao, a short form for “Maaji Malgujari Talao” in Marathi, meaning, lakes from the former malgujari system (akin to zamindari, where the revenue came from the lake). The MaMa talaos were extensively used for irrigation and fishing.


The 300-year-old lakes, of what was formerly one district, now face two prominent problems among others: proliferation of invasive plants (one aptly called besharam) and fish species leading to decrease in local native species and habitat destruction.


With the decline of the wetlands that were used for irrigation and fishing, livelihoods are impacted. But the community has risen to save them.


A bird-enthusiast turned development worker, an older Dheevar (fisherfolk community) and a gutsy young woman from the same community have fallen back on traditional wisdom and encouraged local participation to protect these traditional lakes and safeguard their livelihood.


Manish Rajankar (L), Patiram Tumsare and Shalu Kolhe (R), the triumvirate of Malgujari lake conservation in eastern Vidarbha has not just rejuvenated over five dozen lakes and water bodies in Bhandara and Gondia districts but have also given new hope to the local community, especially the women, of a dignified life.


Illustration by Debangshu Moulik for Mongabay. Story by Nivedita Khandekar.

Story of a river bed, a geological marvel and community pride


For villagers of Bori Budruk, the geological term ‘tephra’ is a local legend. The village, around 100 km from Pune city, is nestled along the banks of the Kukadi river. With a population of around 6,000, the villagers are all well versed with the technicalities of the tephra - the dust-sized particles from a supervolcanic eruption that travels long distances in the atmosphere and settles over time into a sediment layer.


In this case, the sediment has made a journey of 3,000 km all the way from the Sumatran volcano Toba and settled in Maharashtra, indicates research. The geological phenomenon is located alongside the Kukadi river which is the main source for water for domestic purposes in the village.


Bori Budruk’s villagers are currently struggling to protect this tephra. At the forefront of this battle is the couple Pushpa and Amol Korde. Pushpa has been the sarpanch (village head) for ten years now. Two families closest to the site have been assigned the responsibility of maintaining a register to keep track of all those who come and go with samples.


However, the biggest victory for the villagers was stopping a sand mining challenge in 2016. “This was a big win for us all. There was rampant sand mining in the area, and a lot of the tephra was being scooped out since 2012. We took the matter to the high court, which directed the collector to stop the work in 2016,” explained Pushpa. “Now, we feel more of a need to protect this site.”


With plans to develop a site museum, and a five-village cluster eco-tourism trail, the local community has big plans for the site.


Illustration by Svabhu Kohli for Mongabay. Story by Manjula Nair.

As threats increase, community’s effort to save Pulicat lake continues


“I became active because this is our land and I know that no one else but us will fight for it,” says Meerasa who lives in Jameelabad near Pulicat Lake. He has been involved in the conservation of the lake and raising awareness about the ecosystem for almost two decades now.


About 50 km north of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, is Pulicat lake, the second largest brackish water ecosystem in India. Known as Pazhaverkadu, meaning “forest of the rooted fruit”, Pulicat lake was once covered by dense mangrove trees. The lake’s ecosystem is highly threatened by natural and anthropogenic factors. From restoring mangroves to fighting off worm poachers, people living around the lake have been making efforts over years to save the wetland.


Meerasa fears that the expansion plan of the Kattupalli port would have severe consequences. The project threatens ~500 hectares of mangroves, and can result in displacement and even loss of livelihood of hundreds of fishing families.


Illustration by Harmeet Rahal for Mongabay. Story by C.G. Salamander

The monks who protect the Bhagajang wetland


At an elevation of above 4,000 metres in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh lies the Bhagajang Wetland Complex that has around 20 high-altitude lakes. At least 12 lakes, part of the Bhagajand Wetland Complex, are considered sacred by Buddhist communities.


The Bhagajang complex supports several floral and faunal species. Rhododendron and juniper shrubs, along with a variety of medicinal plants are mostly found in the region. Musk deer, Asiatic wild dog, and the red fox have also been recorded in the landscape.


In 2009, concerned about the impact of tourism on the environment, officials from the Tawang Monastery and WWF-India partnered to address some of these issues and conserve the wetlands.


Among the monks who are silently doing their bit in environmental protection is Phuntsok Wangchuk. Over the past 14 years he has spent around three months every year at the Bhagajang Wetland Complex to guide and care for pilgrims that visit the sacred wetlands. They also address the various environmental issues which come along with tourism.


Illustration by Kowsick Borgohain. Story by Ranju Dodum.

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