Agumbe monsoon: How water transforms the landscape

Photo-essay | Tasneem Khan and Umeed Mistry | 8.3

Monsoon takes on a whole new meaning when you find yourself in the highest rainfall zone in the Western Ghats – the second highest rainfall zone in India. Agumbe, a wonderfully forested region in western Karnataka, “the king cobra capital of the world”, receives an average of 7640 millimeters of rainfall a year and a record of 4500 millimeters in a single month. With the coming of the monsoon and the first showers, one witnesses a miraculous transformation of the landscape —a change that occurs in more ways than can be perceived by a casual observer.

At first, the thirsty laterite soil seems to absorb every drop of water. But the rain is incessant, and soon every little ditch, depression and trench is converted into a water body. Dry streams, reduced to a series of interspersed pools and rocks in the summer months, begin to trickle and then flow. Rivulets course through plantations and forests, rapidly feeding streams and rivers. As the rivers begin to flow, cascading over weathered rock, fallen trees and dry banks, it sets in motion countless processes of revival, birth, growth, life and death.

Water and moisture have profound effects on germination, breeding, nesting, spawning, metamorphosis, feeding, and movement of organisms. From bacteria to birds, snails to reptiles, frogs to fish, arthropods to otters and everything in between, there is an evident burst of activity. The scene seems straight out of a Hollywood action flick.

Large numbers of toads cluster together in an event of explosive breeding, often forming mating balls. The result of this mass mating is evidenced the next morning with long strings of eggs entangled in vegetation, carpeting the edges of puddles and muddy pools.

Up in the trees, the Malabar gliding frog (Rhacophorus malabaricus) also joins in the mating frenzy. These incredibly well-camouflaged amphibians don’t venture down to the pools of water on the ground. They are treedwellers, and prefer to conduct their business up in the canopy. Their carefully designed foam nests are built strategically above puddles and ditches, within which a number of small off-white eggs are laid. The newlyhatched tadpoles will fall into the waters below to live out the first stage of their lives as entirely aquatic animals before making their way back to the trees as adults.

When the rivulets from the forest empty into the low-lying meadows a dramatic change can be witnessed, sometimes over a period of just a few hours. Who would have imagined that these flat tracts of agricultural land and grassy meadows could be transformed overnight into thriving aquatic systems? With the first flooding of these grasslands, creatures, that one wouldn’t usually expect in such areas – like the catfish – suddenly appear. Over 280 species of fish have been documented from the streams and rivers of the Western Ghats. The health of these freshwater systems is vital to the health of all these fish species and a multitude of mammals, crustaceans, birds, insects and plants.

All these creatures, witnessed over a few days of magical rain-driven transformation, are linked to the water and the coming of the monsoons. Their lives beat to the rhythm of the rain.

Pundits the world over are already predicting our future water woes. It is common opinion that the wars of the not-so-distant future will be waged over water. But that is just the human perspective. What about the millions of other species that inhabit this planet alongside us? The creatures shown here are just a fraction of dependent on the fresh water that the monsoons bring. We have a responsibility to use water wisely, and understand that it is an invaluable and limited resource, for us and the creatures that share our planet.

Tasneem Khan is the Assistant Director of the Andaman and Nicobar islands Environmental Team, India, tasneem@anetindia.org. Umeed Mistry is a diver and photographer, umeedmistry@gmail.com. Current Conservation is grateful to YES BANK & SAEVUS / NATURAL CAPITAL AWARDS for permission to use these images.

 

 

Deepor beel: Entangled in a net of dangers

Photo-essay | India Water Portal | 8.3

Banning fishing in the beel has not only affected the sustenance of the Keot fishing community in Guwahati but it is also threatening the beel’s very existence.

“Posua botah”, he said, “the wind is blowing from the west now so we cannot take you to the beel to show you how we catch fish. This wind cleans the water and we won’t get fish. ‘Bhatial botah’, when the wind blows from the east, the water turns muddy and the fish come up to the surface to breathe. That’s the best time to fish”, he explained. They know the beel like they know their body. They are the ‘Kewat’ (Keot in Assamese), a fishing community of more than 820 families from Keotpara in Azara. They are completely dependent on the Deepor beel for their sustenance. The beel gives them food and they look after her with sincere devotion.

With a perennial spread of about 10 km2, which extends up to 40 km2 during floods, Deepor Beel is Assam’s lone Ramsar site, one of the largest wetlands of the Brahmaputra valley and the only major storage water basin for Guwahati’s drainage. Till 2009, the beel was maintained by the State Fisheries Department. Then the state government declared the beel a bird sanctuary for the numerous migratory birds that visit annually and banned fishing. And just like that, the fishermen’s lives went for a toss. Sadly, while fishing is banned to protect the wetland, oil refinery, domestic and hospital waste is still being dumped, choking the wetland, killing fish and spoiling the very beel that the government is trying to protect

Guwahati generates about 450 tonnes of waste everyday that finds its way to the periphery of the beel. Strangely, this garbage dump is home to one of the largest concentrations of the globally-endangered greater adjutant stork (Leptoptilos dubius)

The Guwahati oil refinery waste is directed through the Bharalu and Kalmoni rivers to the beel. The channels also carry other industrial and hospital waste. Official sources say that the release of sewage into the water might have caused the fall in oxygen levels resulting in the death of fishes Earlier, fishing was enough to sustain the Kewat fisherfolk. Now, the situation is changing. Many have taken to other means to support themselves, including pig-rearing. The state government now plans to form a Deepor Beel Management and Development Authority to tackle issues related to the livelihoods of the Kewat commuity and conservation of biodiversity. This is a welcome step. Everyone dependent on the beel – be it fish, bird or man – is important and shouldn’t be ignored. Finding the right balance is the key.

India Water Portal (IWP), an initiative supported by Arghyam, is a national knowledge portal for water set up by the National Knowledge Commission in 2006. It deals with issues that influence water or that are related to it such as climate change, sanitation and food security. IWP engages with local individuals and organisations all over India to highlight and provide critical analyses on water-related issues.

 

Areng valley

Photo-essay | Daniel Hoshizaki | 8.2

The Areng Valley, one of Cambodia’s most socially and ecologically sensitive areas can be found in the depths of the country’s southwestern forests. Home to rare and globally endangered wildlife—and to communities that depend on the valley’s abundant natural resources—the entire habitat may be flooded if officials proceed with the controversial Chaey Areng hydropower project. In addition to the likely impacts on the environment and communities of the valley, the project is politically sensitive, as it raises questions about how the habitat should managed, and who should have access to the resources of the Areng Valley.

The following images provide an introduction to both the Areng Valley and the people who are trying to protect its riches and influence its future. Located in southwestern Cambodia, the Areng Valley is a roughly 20,000 hectare expanse of evergreen forests, wetlands, farms, and villages that overlap with one of Southeast Asia’s most important conservation areas: the Central Cardamom Protected Forest. Designated as a protected area in 2002, the valley and the surrounding mountains are widely recognised as being a part of a broader bioregion that houses significant amounts of biodiversity. The region is host to some of the world’s rarest wildlife. Asian elephants, pleated gibbons, clouded leopards, Asiatic black bears and great hornbills are just some of the 31 globally endangered species that have been recorded in the Areng Valley alone. Of notable importance is the presence of the critically endangered Siamese crocodile in the Areng River, a species now extinct across 99% of its historical habitat range. This biological wealth is made possible by the large habitat range provided by the expansive evergreen montane forests of the Cardamom Mountains.

Some 400,000 hectares of relatively undisturbed ecosystems offer a wide range of species the room to flourish. The abundance of wildlife is also supported by the physical connections between the many ecosystems. Highland forests, for example, remain connected to lowland marshes through hydrological processes, which in turn allow biophysical processes like nutrient flows and migration to proceed unimpeded. Within the broader Cardamom Mountains bioregion, the Areng Valley is only one part of this mosaic of environments, but its river system plays an important role in connecting the diverse ecologies found in the Cardamoms.

At the heart of the valley is the Areng River, which fuels both the valley’s ecology and its residents. The river’s watershed receives an average of 150-200 inches of rainfall per year, with most of the precipitation occurring during the monsoon season (May-October). Seasonal pulses of floodwaters during this time are extremely important in allowing nutrients from the watershed’s forests to be distributed throughout the Areng Valley. Not only do these pulses contribute to the river’s aquatic biomass, but they also help nourish the valley’s agricultural fields. Connected to the river are also networks of seasonal streams, wetlands and ponds that allow many freshwater fish species to perform migrations between the river and the valley’s floodplain wetlands. Combined with the river’s internal aggregation of interconnected habitats—including deep pools, fast flowing rapids, woody debris and riparian vegetation—the Areng River maintains a level of habitat quality that is becoming increasingly harder to find in the rest of Southeast Asia. Healthy populations of extremely rare Siamese crocodiles, Asian arowana (dragonfish) and “blackfish” attest to the river’s ability to support considerable amounts of biological wealth.

Embedded in the Areng Valley and River’s ecologies are native residents who rely heavily on the area’s environmental resources. While many people living in the valley moved to the area from other parts of Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, a large portion of the 1500 or so residents are Khmer Daeum, a group of Cambodian natives that include the Chong and Sui indigenous groups. Regardless of ethnic origin, all families in the Areng Valley make their livelihoods through subsistence practices. Rice cultivation, in particular, is an integral part of many people’s lives. All the rice, and virtually all other produce grown in the valley, is consumed locally. Cultural interactions also reinforce the locals’ connection to, and conception of, the Areng’s landscape. Communal agricultural practices, along with communal use of forests and the Areng River, emphasise the shared use of the valley’s resources. In addition, animist beliefs in spirit forests and animals such as the Siamese crocodile help sustain a level of conservation by discouraging trespassing and unnecessary encounters.

One place where the intimate knowledge of the environment among valley residents frequently manifests itself is on the surface of the Areng River. Areng Valley fishers, in particular, possess a wealth of place-based knowledge honed by years of experience, and are capable of catching many of the 43 fish species that have been recorded in the river’s watershed. The hidden contours and life under the Areng River are as familiar to them as the dirt paths that connect the houses of their village. With such knowledge comes a detailed understanding of the behaviour of aquatic species, including their migration patterns, preferred habitats, and life cycle characteristics. The connections people have with their surrounding environments make them experts on the Areng Valley’s ecological systems.

Despite the highly knowledgeable way in which the residents of the Areng Valley engage with their environment, some government officials feel that such knowledge and associated lifestyles are inappropriate for a country that is attempting to rapidly modernise. Both the economic poverty of people living in the Areng Valley and the country’s shortage of electricity are noted as being primary reasons necessitating the construction of the Cheay Areng hydropower dam on the Areng River. Since 2006, several foreign companies have offered to lift the valley out of poverty by promising residents generous compensation packages and by sustainably using the valley’s water resources through hydropower.

The Cambodian government has embraced these plans as a part of its overall development goals to increase electricity production and to help bring the benefits of development to rural populations. However, a number of prominent environmental organisations, as well as a Japanese aid agency, have countered such claims of prosperity and sustainability with data suggesting that the project offers minimal economic benefits—and will take a considerable toll on local communities and biodiversity. Increasingly, Areng Valley residents are also voicing their opposition to the project. In an attempt to counter what they see as a one-sided project that will strip them of important environmental resources, residents have resorted to forms of protest that allow them to project their voices past the confines of the valley. Their efforts include motorcade marches to provincial government offices, submission of petitions to the national government, and forms of civil disobedience that are physically preventing the hydropower project from moving forward.

The future management of the Areng Valley’s environment remains uncertain despite continued efforts by valley residents to stop the dam. Past experience has demonstrated that force is often used against groups that have vehemently opposed large-scale development projects in Cambodia. As a result, it is unclear how the situation will develop from here and how the Cambodian government and the company responsible for the project will respond to the demands of valley residents. For now, with no other functioning mechanism to have their voices heard, Areng Valley villagers will continue their protests. The Areng Valley communities are not alone in their fight.

Starting from a single dedicated local NGO, an expanding network of individuals and groups are rallying to support the efforts of valley residents. Among the supporters are a group of politically active monks who have embarked on an awareness raising campaign for the plight of the Areng Valley, which involves symbolic blessing of the oldest trees in the valley as well as praying for the protection of its people and environment. Other supporters include lawyers, film directors and scientists, each of whom contributes to a campaign seeking to empower valley residents in a way that will allow them to continue to maintain and benefit from the valley’s environment.

Ultimately, what the valley residents seek is a way to participate in discussions about how their environmental resources are used for either conservation or development. Much of the dialogue to date has been directed at them rather than with them. Thus, the Chaey Areng hydropower issue offers an opportunity to break new ground in Cambodia, to redefine how stakeholder participation actually influences the planning and implementation of resource use projects. If all sides involved in the resource dispute can listen to the people who will be most affected by a final decision—dam or no dam—then perhaps a path towards a more sustainable and equitable future can be made for the people and environment of the Areng Valley.

Daniel Hoshizaki is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, currently conducting research in Cambodia. His research focuses on the social and ecological impacts of hydropower development in the country. He is also working with a locally based environmental NGO, Mother Nature, to advocate for the rights of communities that will be affected by the proposed Chaey Areng hydropower project, daniel.hoshizaki@yale.edu.

 

Shark in peril!

Photo-essay | Tasneem Khan and Umeed Mistry | 7.2

 

Sharks in the ocean are akin to tigers in the forest. They are apex predators at the top of a complicated food pyramid. Removing the apex predator from any ecosystem creates a top-down trickle effect of imbalances in species populations, which can eventually lead to the collapse of the entire system. The problems with shark conservation are complex, spanning ecological, political, economic and social arenas.

These are not charismatic poster-child animals. Instead, the media has successfully, albeit inaccurately, painted them as sharp-toothed, large-mouthed, stealthy killing machines on the lookout for the next human that comes surfing, diving or swimming by. Furthermore, sharks inhabit a world that is further removed from our own than other creatures that have captured the spotlight of conservation. If the well-known and well-loved tiger cannot garner much by way of conservation efforts and results, what hope does the shark have—living in vast bodies of water that most of us have little connection to? These iconic predators, keystone species of marine systems, are now facing severe threats to their very existence. A glimpse into the precarious state of sharks in the wild reveals two serious flaws – one, in the public perception and awareness of sharks and their alarmingly dwindling populations, and two, in the international management and policy of shark fisheries.

One hundred million sharks are killed every year, decimating their populations by up to 90% globally, and India is currently believed to be one of the largest exporter of shark fins in the world. Most of these sharks cater to the seafood and cosmetic industries. The niche consumer market for shark-fin soup has resulted in a massive increase in global sharkfinning practice, and is driven by users that seem willing to pay increasing amounts of money for this relatively bland, “status-symbol” meal. Consequently, fishermen that have the opportunity to harvest sharks fins have hit a jackpot that they will take full advantage of, sometimes even illegally. This scenario, in many ways, illustrates Berk’s Law – “The threat of damage to or depletion of an uncontrolled common resource increases its value and stimulates competition among free individuals to harvest it all the faster, regardless of the future” – Habitat of Grace.

In the cosmetic industry, shark oil is used in creams and moisturisers as an antiwrinkle ingredient. In a world increasingly obsessed with appearance and eternal youthfulness, the demand for products that promise to reduce ageing is skyrocketing. In both instances, petty indulgences are driving a wilful destruction of the earth’s vital marine ecosystems. Even today, biological information available on sharks is scarce. While human demand continues to push this group of animals closer to the tipping point of survival, scientists are continuously describing new species. Ironically, these species are often ‘discovered’ by the very fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the consumer market. Trawlers are continuously hauling up deep-water species and there is no way of knowing whether our discovery of them coincides with their extinction. In some cases, we have probably lost the opportunity to better understand these enigmatic creatures.

 

 

Traditional knowledge—Nicobar

Photo-essay | Manish Chandi | 7.1

 

One of the most poignant moments I’ve experienced regarding perceptive reasoning in the Nicobar Islands was when I was asked to help prevent agricultural officers bring coconut seedlings onto Little Nicobar Island in an attempt to rejuvenate coconut plantations destroyed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The rationale my friend, Mr Moses, gave me was that Achatina fulica (giant African snail) eggs could possibly arrive along with soil attached to saplings brought in from other islands, especially South Andaman island where Port Blair is located. Achatina is an invasive species here and has snailed its way through many a kitchen garden and other vegetation.

This request was from a person who had not studied beyond primary school, who used perceptive reasoning along with acute observation to perceive a potential ecological invasion and threat to his native island and future kitchen gardens that were to be re-created after the devastating tsunami.

Traditional knowledge is, I believe, not static but organic. Knowledge passed down from generations past can evolve with our present to provide information useful not just about past practices, but help cope with future problems. In the few photographs that follow, I try to depict various livelihood situations and activities from across the Nicobar Islands that combine knowledge passed on from ancestors along with customary regulations that are still practiced, though some are on the threshold of change as well.

Fishing: Fishing for subsistence continues among the Nicobar islanders. Nearshore regions of many islands are marked out with both temporal and spatial bans of various kinds of fishing, either through gear restrictions or through seasonal regulations. Some festivities of the past ensured that fish and marine life were celebrated through pictographs as well as closures of certain seascapes for short periods for rejuvenation of fish populations. As a phenomenon, this is practiced less, with modernity and other concerns taking precedence over the former animistic way of life, while festivities and rituals that are associated with regulations on extraction are rarely practiced.

Ritual: A large ‘Hantón’ on Chowra Island. Before the advent of the South west monsoon, rafts such as these are constructed at five villages on the island to send away evil spirits beyond the island and out to sea, and to usher in prosperity for healthy crops. This is a time when the cycle of planting new crops also takes place after ensuring the growth of leaf litter within kitchen gardens to fertilise the soil. Renewing crops and plantations also often take into consideration synodic cycles, which as a technique, is increasingly being recognised for its value in many corners of the world.

 

Healing: Traditional healers or shamans are a nearly extinct ‘tribe’ among the Nicobar islanders. Till about a century ago, shamans more or less ruled the Nicobar Islands. They mediated between the supernatural and the villagers; they decided the fate of many activities and developments. Two types—good and bad shamans—are known. The good shamans bring about healing and facilitate an understanding of the unknown. Natural events, natural products of the forest and sea and the ancestral world are used and revered as a means to decipher enigmatic illnesses and events; their ability to communicate with the spirit world supports their powers of prophesy and also to decide the calendric nature of festivals, feasts and rituals for peace, prosperity, fury, disease and death. Knowledge of plants and the alchemy of their extracts was a key attribute of such healers. As few as three or four true shamans exist in the Central and Southern Nicobar islands today.

Hunting: While customary practices of the use of species on Tillanchong island, Central Nicobar is restricted to hunting wild pigs, sea turtles and fish, on other islands, a variety of species including crocodiles are hunted for the pot. On Tillanchong, only traditional gear (such as spears and harpoons) and techniques (ambush and pursuit with dogs) may be used. All protein is to be processed before leaving the island. Birds,monitor lizards and crocodiles are other sources of protein that are left alone as per customary law.

 

Fire: Grasslands are found largely in the Central Nicobars. At least 4 species of grasses provide thatch for the traditional beehive shaped huts of Chowra, Terassa and Car Nicobar. To ensure a fresh supply of good quality thatch, traditional burning is carried out every year in many locations. This is accompanied by hunting pigs and rats (on Chowra) and feasting among clans and friends. The burning season not only provides an opportunity to renew social bonds, it also serves as a harbinger of the south west monsoon, and remains one of a series of practices welcoming change in the yearly cycle of weather and renewal of livelihood resources. This is set to change with many villages being settled in the grasslands away from the coast after the tsunami.

Manish Chandi is a research scholar at Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and Andaman & Nicobar Environmental Team, manishchandi@yahoo.com.