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garden tales from a Brit abroad

Problems in Paradise

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.

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13 comments on “Problems in Paradise

  1. sequoiagardens
    January 24, 2012

    Fascinating! I know that water hyacinth used to be a huge problem in SA, but I believe it is quite well under control – I think after a combination of expensive dredging and then biological control. Hartebeespoort Dam used to be particularly bad. Perhaps a google search will provide answers if there is a need to pass on the information… Enjoy! Jack

  2. Donna@Gardens Eye View
    January 24, 2012

    Very interesting that many of the same issues we have here on our waterways are also now a problem so far away…hopefully they will be successful with the water hyacinth.

  3. Elephant's Eye
    January 24, 2012

    I still see frightening sheets of water hyacinth on Cape Town’s waterways. They dredge it out by the huge truckload. And then? I don’t know. Embattled subsistence fishermen? They recently changed our licensing, office people got the fishing permits, and our coastal fisherman are unemployed and hungry. We even have a handful of ugly houseboats on Langebaan lagoon.

  4. Wataru
    January 24, 2012

    Would be nice if they could turn it into fuel. I know the Japanese are working on doing that with kelp and other plants.

  5. Cathy
    January 24, 2012

    it’s such a tragedy that man’s existence can’t be less toxic to the beauty of our planet. I hope they are able to do as they propose – transform the dreaded water hyacinths into biofuel. Talk about renewable, sustainable resources! As for riverway itself, let’s hope they can adopt measures to reduce/eliminate that as well. People need to learn to appreciate the natural wonders of the planet without destroying them. If I were king of the world, de-motorizing the houseboats and properly storing and then disposing of sewerage would be a top priority.

  6. lynne @ gardenmad
    January 24, 2012

    I can see why the tourists are enamoured with those fishing nets. They look so beautiful…..I can imagine them in action!

  7. Life is so complicated today, and you do such a good job of explaining all the ramifications. I can relate to the fishing net situation. On “my” island in Maine, the lobster fisherman struggle to survive. The latest challenge is a move to close the post office. Yet Maine prominently features the fisherman in all its tourist info—people come just to see them–while unwilling to support them.

  8. Annika Tenghall
    January 27, 2012

    Tragic with all these examples of human actions that are so bad for the environment and that it seems such big problem to solve those issues. Interesting with the project to turn the water hyacinthes into fuel though, hope works and becomes successful!

    Best Regards,
    Annika

  9. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    January 28, 2012

    I belive in circle motion in life. From your post we get disastrous behaviour behind beauty, but you also inform of positive actions taken, hopefully they grow in number and effects. I can imagine how beautiful these landscapes must be, there is a lot of work to do in conservationism and tourism awareness of harm is a urgent project, and your posts are very valuable for it.

  10. landscapelover
    January 29, 2012

    Thanks for all the comments. Kerala is trying hard to be a ‘green’ state and there is much encouraging activity going on. I will keep an eye on the water hyacinth recycling project, and report back when I hear more.

  11. Jean
    January 30, 2012

    Jill, You’ve really captured the tension between beauty and environmental crisis in this post.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the Versatile Blogger award going around (or perhaps have already been so honored). Anyway, I’ve named you as one of my “versatile bloggrs.” You can learn more here: http://jeansgarden.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/versatility/

    No Pressure on this; I am not offended at all if people choose to ignore these awards. -Jean

    • landscapelover
      February 9, 2012

      Jean, many thanks for thinking of me. I value your judgments very much.

  12. Gardening Services
    July 14, 2012

    Making fuel from green waste is always a great idea.

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2012 by in India and tagged , , , , , .

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