In India, mangroves make way for the booming city of Kochi

By K PRAVEEN KUMAR, Press Trust of India

April 7, 2023 GMT

KOCHI, India (AP) — Buried between mangroves and a bustling skyline, 70-year-old Rajan, who uses only one name, remembers his former home.

For nearly sixty years, Rajan lived comfortably among the trees of the Mangalavanam forest in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Over the past two decades, the surrounding city of Kochi has boomed as the state’s financial capital and swallowed up once-protected green spaces, including Rajan’s former home.

He was forced to sell his land to a local private estate agent when the area was bought for construction around 15 years ago. He moved into a makeshift home on the edge of a protected bird sanctuary.

“Now there are buildings all around and no wind,” Rajan said, adding that the towering concrete made the city and the forest feel stuffy.

Government buildings, private offices and homes sprang up in time, penetrating deep into the forest known as “Kochi’s Green Lung”. The trees are now pressed on all sides by buildings, construction and smog.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series produced as part of India’s Climate Journalism Program, a collaboration between The Associated Press, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and the Press Trust of India.

Environmentalists worry the loss and deteriorating health of mangrove cover, which is particularly good at sucking up planet-warming carbon dioxide, may fend off scorching heat for nearby residents and supports local wildlife populations.

Officials and developers champion the need to house the state’s dense population and harness economic growth in the nation that will soon be the world’s most populous, but experts say it can’t come at the expense green spaces.

Kerala has lost almost 98% of its mangrove forests from 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) to just 17 square kilometers (6.5 square miles) since 1975, according to figures from the Kerala Forest Research Institute. Mangrove coverage across the country has increased slightly between 2017 and 2019 at a rate of 0.5% per annum thanks to the concerted efforts of the government with restoration and maintenance projects springing up in Kerala and beyond.

“I had literally fought with the government to come up with plans to protect the mangrove forests,” said Kathireshan Kandasamy, who studies India’s mangrove forests and is a former member of the National Mangrove Committee, a body set up by the government to advise on conservation.

In 2022, the Indian government, following Kandasamy and the advice of the committee, identified 44 critical mangrove ecosystems in the country, including two in Kerala. It has launched a management action plan to protect and maintain the areas. State governments have also begun sanctioning funds for conservation projects.

The shrunken Mangalavanam is now listed as a protected area, but there are concerns about the impact of development nearby.

“I found that part of the city’s drainage runs through this mangrove ecosystem,” said Rani Varghese, a researcher at Kerala University of Fisheries and Oceans. Varghese said the runoff “changes his entire ecosystem.”

While the trees themselves are still sucking up planet-warming carbon dioxide, Varghese explained, effluents and pollutants in the soil hamper the quality of the soil’s carbon sink.

With record amounts of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air by human activitymaintaining ecosystems like mangrove forests can counteract some of the harms of global warming.

The forest’s potential to store carbon “is actually in a deteriorating state,” Varghese said.

A. Anil Kumar, who is the mayor of the city’s administrative body, the Kochi Corporation, said that although they cannot do anything about the sewage runoff immediately, the area will continue to be investigated.

In the meantime, real estate companies are using what remains of compressed forests as a selling point for extravagant homes and office buildings in the area.

Signs outside new developments tout their luxury apartments’ unspoilt green views from the properties’ multiple balconies. Long plastic billboards line nearby roads with images of thick forests.

The apartments offer residents spectacular views of the backwaters merging with the Arabian Sea and, for a bonus, Mangalavanam’s last green bastion in the form of the bird sanctuary, which is surrounded by constructions and scaffolding.

Local resident K. Krishnankutty comes for a daily morning walk on the surrounding road, where branches of mangrove trees hang overhead, lining wide sidewalks. He said he loves the shade and the chirping of the birds, but laments how the lush space has thinned out in recent years.

“All around this Mangalavanam used to be open, with no big buildings,” Krishnankutty said. “So many migrating birds used to come here. Now we can’t see any more because the buildings cover this area.

Experts fear that the loss of Kerala’s forests will worsen in the coming years.

Some 75% of the remaining mangroves across Kerala are in private hands and could be cleared for more lucrative intensive shrimp farming, said Mr Ramit, program officer for the Wildlife Trust of India, which is working on a project mangrove restoration in Kannur, a coastal district in northern Kerala.

“The government of Kerala had previously drawn up a plan to acquire the mangrove lands from private individuals for conservation,” Ramit said, but “somehow the plan was later scrapped.”

But Kerala’s state department of environment and climate change disputed the claims and said there was no threat to existing mangrove forests, regardless of ownership, as the forests are protected. by state laws.

Varghese, a researcher at the University of Kerala, said there was still hope that the trend of mangrove loss could be reversed and the forest ecosystem could function normally in the near future.

“If we stop the harmful human interventions in the sanctuary and divert the drainage from Mangalavanam, in 10 years we could regain all the potential benefits of the mangrove ecosystem,” Varghese said.

With the right measures, she said, communities can “turn the situation into a good carbon sink.”

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