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Why Tamil Nadu’s fisherfolk can no longer find fish

“What did you catch?” Alagairi Madhivanan shouts across to the fisherman in a small boat to our left. The young man stops scanning the net he has just pulled out of the lagoon, turns towards us and says, “Five fishes.”

His answer echoes what Madhivanan has been telling me over the past hour as his small fibre-bodied boat nosed through Tamil Nadu’s Pichavaram mangroves – it’s getting harder and harder to find fish. As recently as a decade ago, fishermen like him in this part of the state, midway between Pondicherry and the fishing town of Nagapattinam, made one fishing trip every day. They would head out before dawn and come back with the day’s catch by half-past eight.

But now, Madhivanan does two trips each day – two hours in the morning and another two in the evening. His fellow fishermen – the ones with bigger boats – are staying out as long as three days looking for fish. It is the same story in other parts of Tamil Nadu. Travel further north to the fishing port of Kasimedu near Chennai and you will find fisherfolk who stay out at sea for as long as a week. Head south to Nagapattinam and you will hear that fishermen, in the quest for catch, are sailing into Sri Lankan waters, even at the risk of landing up in jail.

Announcing “Ear To The Ground”

How is India doing?
It’s hard to say. While some of the major changes underway in the country are extremely visible, others, less dramatic or occurring away from the media’s usual hunting grounds, are more difficult to detect. Between them, we have an incomplete understanding of India as it is today.
The fallout is predictable. We live in a balkanised democracy whose people are poorly aware about the lives of their fellow citizens. The country keeps throwing up surprises ‒ the recent lynching in Dimapur, unexpected election outcomes as in Delhi, a strident new religiosity. It’s getting more difficult to comprehend where we are headed…

i am uploading this post late. my first story for scroll’s field reporting series, called “ear to the ground”, appeared on the 19th. that day, i was in central mizoram — in its lunglei district with dim connectivity. the next day, i travelled further south for another 7 hours and ended up in saiha, one of the three autonomous district councils in mizoram. this evening, as i type this post out belatedly, i am in lawngtlai.

these are all parts of the country i have never seen before. and so many of the issues i am encountering are ones i have never written on earlier. like this first story on dampa.

The park is overrun by assorted gunmen, from local hunters to armed insurgents. A senior forest official in Mizoram’s forest department estimates that, given Dampa’s location, abutting Mizoram’s border with Bangladesh and Tripura, the reserve is used by as many as 12 separatist groups variously to enter or leave India.Key among them are splinter groups of the Shanti Bahini, which is fighting for Chakma autonomy in Bangladesh, and the National Liberation Front of Tripura, which wants to establish the state as an independent Christian nation.
In recent years, the NLFT has carried out a set of kidnappings in and around Dampa. The most recent took place in February, when NLFT insurgents, working with the Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram, kidnapped 22 workers of the Border Roads Organisation near Dampa. While the Mizos were released the same day, two non-Mizos were taken hostage. Unconfirmed reports suggest they were eventually allowed to go, but only after ransom payments were made.
Armed insurgents, however, aren’t the only threat to the park. Dampa exemplifies the complexities of wildlife conservation in the North East, a region where not just animals, even people are caught in the throes of upheaval.

ps: have spent close to a month in mizoram. one month more to go. it is a daunting thought. time goes by so quickly. and there is so much yet to understand.

revisiting the overloaded archipelago

at the mayabunder jetty. (the photo sums up my life with almost literal exactness. a beautiful planet, anthropogenic activity, dead biodiversity – that is a dead sea krait at the bottom of the photo – and me watching biodiversity haemmorrage away)

for a while now, i have been trying to go on a cycle ride at the end of every year — have succeeded three out of four years. in 2014, biologist vidya athreya and i went to the andamans. and i came back and wrote this story about cycling up the islands.

The friend is a biologist curious to see what the forests in this archipelago are like — the Andaman & Nicobar Islands were connected to what is now Indonesia before rising sea levels cut them off. As such, not only are life forms on the isles closer in origin to Indonesian than Indian ones, their geographic isolation has resulted in the creation of several species unique to them. As for me, I am looking to get into shape. This is also my second trip to the islands — the first was a reporting assignment in 2004 just before the tsunami. The ride is a chance to see how the patterns I spotted then – water shortages, over-population, and decimation of the indigenous people – have unfolded since.

on the whole, not much has changed on how we manage the islands. see this 2004 story. also see this article, by biologist tr shankar raman, about travelling along the ATR.
ps: the link is to a pdf of the page. my colleagues at et — anirban, manoj, kamal, sunil and amrit — have consistently designed stunning pages for my full page stories. this is just the latest in a long chain. if you want the online version of the article, go here.

on the national tiger conservation authority and its strange disdain for laws…

today’s ET has this story on the NTCA — the national tiger conservation authority.

“On July 9, India’s ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) issued an intriguing circular. It sought candidates for an apex position in tiger conservation — additional director general (Project Tiger) and member secretary at the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) — both roles being performed by one person. The qualifying parameters were strangely specific: Only “IFS (Indian Forest Service) officers of 1979 to 1982 batches are eligible”.”

take a closer look and all manner of other irregularities become evident — mostly around the NTCA pretending to do good work even as it mainly gets used to house a clutch of handpicked mandarins. needless to say, the brunt of these decisions is borne by the country’s already lacerated biodiversity. which is then hidden by cooking up biodiversity numbers.

ps – while working on the story, i was again struck by how unaccountable the moef is. the environment secy, rajesh gopal, prakash javadekar, none of them responded to our questions. i find myself marvelling anew at the berks.

modi sarkar and its env/dev record

and then, there is this story on its environmental track record till now.

If environment minister Prakash Javadekar’s tweets are anything to go by, India is treading a fine balance between development and environmental protection. For instance, on May 31, shortly after taking charge at Paryavaran Bhawan, he tweeted: “The government believes in #environment and #development, and not environment vs development.” However, a look at the ministry’s major decisions between then and now suggests that in the NDA, much like the UPA, the conflict is real.

on the quantum of natural forests in india

India has no more than 3.3 lakh sq kms of land under real forests, less than half the number claimed by the environment ministry in the 2013 forest survey released last week.

for the longest time, india’s environment ministry has been claiming india is adding forests, not losing them. this assertion, as a bunch of academics have argued, is built around increasingly lax definitions re what qualifies as a forests. this old article describes their concerns. the good news is that the forest survey of india, which conducts these biennial forest surveys, has vastly improved its methodology in its latest report. what it found echoes what many have felt — but the state has denied — for a long while. india’s natural forests are in steep decline. and now stand at less than half of what the government claims as forest cover.

it is likely to fall lower yet. the ministry continues to ease forest diversion processes. see this recent story.

the inuit with his beluga

(from tadoussac, i went to the city of quebec. from there, some inuit scupltures i saw.)

an inuit hunter carries a beluga home

an inuit hunter carries a beluga home

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and this, a swimming polar bear. look at the fluidity the artist has captured.

and these carvings on a walrus skull. what do you see? i see huskies, a dog sled, an eskimo, an igloo, another eskimo; on the other side, a seal, a walrus, a polar bear, another igloo and an eskimo; at the back, two small whales and an owl; and at the front, a chick and a bear’s claw.

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an inuit family with their dog