Kerala is one of the most beautiful Indian states. Its tourism department has adopted the slogan “God’s own country” to trumpet its perfect climate, the lushness of its landscapes, its long history and splendidly varied culture.
We were there over Christmas and were enchanted by our experiences. But, like so many places, Kerala is facing environmental challenges and conflicts between natural resources and local livelihoods. Here are three examples that struck me.
Kerala is famous for its waterways, for the vast beauty of lake Vembanad and over five hundred miles of canal that make up its navigable backwaters. The banks of the canals are lush with coconut palm, the water full of luxuriant floating plants. But soon we noticed that those floating plants were too exuberant, too ubiquitous, too uniform… We recognised them as water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), a plant native to South America and innocuously common in northern European ponds.
Introduced into tropical places such as the Keralan backwaters, water hyacinth is an exotic invasive second to none. Spreading by runners and seed, a population of this plant can double in size every two weeks. It is choking these internationally significant wetlands, preventing navigation and fishing, clogging irrigation systems, and crowding out native species.
Encouragingly, in an effort to eradicate the problem, and to make use of the mass of unwanted plant material, the Keralan government is piloting a project to harvest the abundant water hyacinth and turn it into an alternative energy source. It will be interesting to see whether or not it succeeds.
A very different issue is the amazing popularity of the Keralan kettuvallam or houseboat as a means for tourists to explore the state’s tranquil backwaters. Originally these boats were designed for grain transportation, principally for the rice grown in profusion in the waterside paddy fields. Ecologically designed and propelled only by poles, the boats gradually fell into disfavour as traders came to prefer roads as a faster transport option. Then an Indian businessman had the bright idea of converting some of the boats for tourists’ use. It seemed a good idea: preserving these beautiful heritage crafts through giving them a new purpose. But conversion of course included adding Western staples such as flushing toilets, electricity and petrol engines. Given the staggering popularity of the boats (the number operating out of a single port expanded over four years from fifteen to almost four hundred), the local government has been struggling to tackle the consequent pollution, congestion and eco-system disruption.
One final example: the iconic Chinese fishing nets that are found along Fort Kochi’s shorelines. Like elegant hammocks, the vast bamboo and teak structures are lowered into the water by a team of five or six fishermen, and then raised a few minutes later using a complex system of large stones and ropes as counterbalances. There is something captivating about the unhurried rhythm of the movements.
Probably brought to Kerala by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, sadly today the nets have high maintenance costs and an increasingly poor catch, as modern dredgers collect most of the available fish before it reaches the shoreline. This lack of commercial viability means that only twenty or so of the nets now remain, and their future seems uncertain. Yet they are the most photographed feature of Kerala and are, in many ways, a symbol of the state. The fishermen have long argued that the government should support their continued use, as an important part of Keralan heritage and culture, and in the last few weeks it has looked as if they may get their wish. The local tourism council, working with the heritage body INTACH, has announced plans to provide subsidised teak to the fishermen, to reduce the heavy maintenance costs of the nets. Whether this will be enough – and whether it is a good idea to support economically non-viable practices just because they are traditional and attractive to tourists – is a question for another day.