Linking Journalism with the Web of Life
This report for Inter Press Service looks at how anthropogenic pressure has systematically reduced mangrove forests whose unique ecosystem supports species that cannot survive in a different habitat. People have not been discouraged to come in and settle in these rather inhospitable (swampy and home to saltwater crocs, king cobras and pythons) places owing to what we in India call “vote bank” politics. The political party that supports the immigrants to stay on, secures a substantial chunk of votes from the entire community for future elections!
BHUBANESWAR, Orissa, India, June 1, 2010 (IPS) - When a super cyclone
devastated the coastal districts of Orissa state in 1999, the government
pledged to regenerate 3,000 hectares of mangrove. Or so forest official Chandra
Sekhar Kar thought.
"Where are the regenerated forests?" he asks as he scans the vast
swath of land comprising the 672-square-kilometre Bhitarkanika Wildlife
Sanctuary run by the state’s forest and environment department.
Mangrove forests – which include trees, shrubs, ferns and palms – have been
severely depleted, he notes, having given way to villages and hamlets, 80 of
them located right beside what remains of the forests. Some 240,000 people are
found living inside the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, says Kar, a senior researcher
at the forest department.
The Bhitarkanika sanctuary is the smallest of four major contiguous mangrove
forests in India. Yet, it is the richest in terms of biodiversity, according to
environmental studies conducted by the forest department and similar
institutions in India. Its habitats range from tidal rivers and creek networks
to riverine islands, coastal wetlands and inter-tidal zones.
Of the 58 mangrove species – out of 70 found worldwide – that are available in
India, 55 are found in Orissa, the bulk of which is in Bhitarkanika, according
to the forest department. The eastern state’s floral biodiversity is the second
largest in the world after Papua New Guinea.
Experts say the mangroves in Orissa, particularly in the Bhitarkanika area,
have been under heavy human pressure as a result of population growth and a
vast range of human activities that serve both domestic and livelihood needs.
Mangroves provide shelter and serve as breeding grounds for a wide variety of
aquatic species. As a vital component of coastal ecosystems, they are also
known to provide protection against erosion and other destructive natural
forces. Their loss can adversely affect marine and terrestrial biodiversity,
says retired zoology professor S.K. Dutta.
Orissa, located on the east coast of India, accounts for about 5 percent of the
total mangrove forests in India, estimated at 4,639 sq km, according to India’s
‘State of Forests’ report of 2009.
At Hatiaganda village near the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, where mangroves are
still relatively denser, Sushanta Maiti, 25, a resident, says, "people
still collect wood from the mangrove forests," unmindful of the law
restricting this practice.
"Each household uses 14 kilograms of firewood daily for cooking, of which
12 kg come from mangroves," says Chandra Sekhar Kar.
The forest guards, Maiti alleges, take 5 to 10 rupees (about 10 to 20 U.S.
cents) in bribe payments from unscrupulous villagers and let them get away with
their illegal acts.
"Communities use 51 species for traditional and medicinal purposes,"
says Sudhakar Kar, another senior researcher with the forest department.
Moreover, timber and fronds found in mangroves are used for construction
purposes while fisher folk make boats, rafters and paddles from suitable
mangrove tree species, he explains.
Based on the latest mangrove mapping conducted by India’s National Remote
Sensing Agency in 2004, agriculture accounted for 52 percent of the
Bhitarkanika sanctuary, leaving only 22 percent of dense mangrove cover while
some of the remaining areas have been used for human habitation.
Another major threat to mangroves are grazing cattle, numbering at least a
hundred thousand in the 80 villages near the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, says
Chandra Sekhar Kar.
In 1971, hordes of illegal immigrants from the then newly formed Bangladesh
started coming to Orissa, where they cleared massive areas of mangroves along
the entire east coast for farming, environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty recounts
to IPS. "They built embankments that choke off the tidal waters,
mangroves’ lifeline," he says.
In 2005, the state government served deportation notices on some 1,500
Bangladesh nationals that had illegally settled in India. The opposition
political parties raised a furore, arguing that the immigrants should be
treated as refugees instead. Such notices were never served again on
Bangladeshis occupying areas planted with mangroves.
"Immigrants or nationals, there is no law restricting people from settling
inside the sanctuary. There has to be one," says forestry expert Chandra
Then by the early 90s, "the global shrimp export turned hugely
lucrative," says Mohanty. "Sheltered creekside mangrove forests,
mudflats, even agriculture fields were converted into illegal brackish water
prawn culture ponds indirectly funded by non-local shrimp traders."
"After the crackdown on shrimp ponds built on government land, private
lands are now being bought for the purpose and there exists no law restricting
this," says Bibhas Pandav, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of
India. Selected areas within the sanctuary are still in the name of their
"Unless we have a law against land use conversion inside the Bhittarkanika
sanctuary, it will be impossible to check species extinction," says Kar.
"People simply do not want mangrove regeneration in the land they have
cleared for income generation," he adds.
According to the Red List of Threatened Species – an inventory of the global
conservation status of plant and animal species – released last month by the
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one in six mangrove
species worldwide is facing extinction due to coastal development, aquaculture,
logging, agriculture and climate change.
India, alongside South-east Asia, has lost 80 percent of all mangrove areas
over the past 60 years, states IUCN.
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