Before the dawn breaks, Rajan takes his small fishing canoe out and wades his way through the Pazhayangadi River for his daily catch. While at it, he always takes some time out to attend to the beloved mangroves that he had planted and conserved for the past several decades.
Hailing from Thavam near Pazhayangadi in the Kannur district of Kerala, Rajan’s life mission has been to save and restore the mangroves by growing, conserving and propagating them for over the past 40 years. Hence the nickname, Kandal (mangrove) Rajan.
“Being a fisherman I know the importance of these green ecosystems and have witnessed their degradation over the past several years. These mangroves are also the breeding ground for fishes and several other marine and non-marine species. I have seen around 22 species of mangroves in these regions, but now most of them have disappeared mainly due to human intervention. They are being extensively cut down for shrimp or paddy cultivation. So, the least I can do is to plant more of them,” Rajan tells The Better India.
Rajan’s silent activism on conserving the dwindling mangrove cover began when he was a child. “I have been planting mangroves since my childhood and it is saddening to see their destruction right in front of my eyes. So, I keep planting them as much as I can,” says the 58-year-old, adding that he never kept a record on how many mangrove plants he had planted till now.
Besides, he also maintains a mangrove nursery where he nurtures around 5,000 saplings of various varieties and even supplies them to people who want to plant them.
A ‘green’ life mission
Mangroves being an essential ecosystem are considered one of the key weapons in the fight against climate change. In Kerala, these evergreen groves are found on the coastal wetlands of Malabar (North Kerala), especially in Kannur and Kasaragod districts.
“Relatively a smaller area, Kerala had around 700 sq km of mangrove trees which has now narrowed down to just 21 sq km today. Earlier, only half of it was government-owned and the remaining belonged to private investors. But now the mangrove population is dwindling in the state as more than half of it is under private ownership, making it difficult for conservation,” says Vinod Kumar DK, Chief Conservator of Forests (northern circle), Kannur.
Knowing all these facts, Rajan never gave up on his mission. He says, “I know that I can’t put a stop to the destruction, but I make sure that more of them are being planted. So, I go around looking for suitable spots across the region to plant the seeds or saplings.”
While fishing is his profession, searching for mangrove seeds and saplings around the marshy patches have become his favourite hobby. “Whenever I find some seeds or saplings, I sow them or replant them in a safer and better place to ensure their survival,” he says. “Later, I would go around to check on them and make sure they survived.”
Ramachandran Patteri, a resident, says, “He is always on the lookout for the mangroves in this area and puts in a lot of effort for planting and conserving them. This area now has a lot of mangrove patches as a result of his efforts. I mostly find him on his canoe going around the river looking out for the mangroves and finding places to plant them.”
Speaking about the benefits of mangroves, Rajan says they help in preventing coastal erosion and act as a barrier against natural calamities like typhoons, cyclones, hurricanes and tsunamis. “Not just that, they also have some medicinal properties and are used as an ingredient while making certain traditional medicines,” he adds.
However, Rajan says that many fail to see their benefits and destroy them in the name of agriculture, aquaculture, construction and developmental projects. “The private landowners are not interested in conserving the mangroves as they don’t give them any economic benefit. Therefore, they clear them for shrimp or kaipad (paddy) farming,” says Rajan.
Vinod explains, “Though we have laws in place for mangrove regions that come under the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ), it has been difficult to implement them. There is this subsidised government scheme promoting shrimp and Kaipad farming for which the landowners clear the mangroves for farming purposes.”
But when someone violates the law and axes mangroves under Rajan’s watch he says that he doesn’t keep quiet and quickly reports it to the forest authorities. “People often criticise me for doing what I do. Also, several people in this region hate me because I have reported many instances where they attempted to cut down mangroves,” he adds.
Vinod adds, “Rajan is very vocal about it and has been reporting attempts of cutting the mangroves to the Forest department. We immediately interfere and take action against the perpetrators under the Preservation of trees Act and stop them from cutting the trees.”
Besides, Rajan has been nurturing a small nursery for the mangroves at his residential premises since 2007. “There are around 5,000 saplings in five different varieties like Kuttikandal (Bruguiera cylindrica), upputti, ezhuthani kandal, poo kandal (Bruguiera gymnorhiza), pranthan kandal (rhizophora micronesia),” he says adding that he gives people saplings who approach him.
“I don’t put a fixed price on the saplings. I would accept whatever price they give me,” adds Rajan who has been struggling to make ends meet and pay off his debts with the meagre amount he receives daily after selling his catch.
“Several clubs, schools, colleges and organisations approach me for saplings. I give them the saplings along with instructions on how to take care of them. Also, I have worked with the Forest department for their projects dealing with the plantation of mangroves and have provided them with thousands of saplings,” he says, adding that he has been going to several educational institutions to take awareness classes on the importance of conserving the mangroves.
For his efforts, Rajan has received several accolades including the PV Thampy memorial award in 2008, which honours ordinary people in society for their extraordinary work.
“It has never been easy for me. But I have decided to go ahead with my goal of conserving the mangroves as much as I can,” he concludes with a smile.
If you want to contact Rajan, you can call him at 9995122871.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)