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Community forest conservation key to climate-smart Covid-19 recovery in coastal Odisha

Basudev Mahapatra

Agriculture is still the primary occupation of most of the coastal communities of Odisha. All photos by Basudev Mahapatra
Ajay Kalia hopes to find livelihood opportunities locally to avoid migrating.
Ajay Kalia (36) of Tandahar village in Astarang block of Odisha’s Puri district, is now engaged in farming, which he supplements with odd jobs. Kalia used to migrate to Kerala for many years to work as a labourer but was forced to return to his village after the Covid-19 outbreak last year.The pandemic caught Kalia and his friends off guard in Kerala. “With everybody scared about the disease, our lives were under siege,” Kalia recollected. “I don’t want to migrate again. Unfortunately, there is hardly any other option as agriculture is not dependable in my village.” Under constant threat from coastal erosion and tidal surges that have been increasing due to climate change, coastal villages of Astaranga, such as Udaykani and Chhenu, have been hit frequently by severe cyclones and floods. Villagers in Udaykani say they have had to shift their homes thrice in the past two decades. “The sea has advanced over half a kilometer in the village land in the past decade. People who were better-off have migrated to places far from the coast. Now only poor people are left in the village to face the fury of the rising sea,” said Laxmidhar Kandi (54) of Udaykani. Salinity in soil and water has increased in the area due to frequent storms and tidal surges that result in sea water ingress into land. The situation has worsened since the 2019 Cyclone Fani, which devastated the thick strip of kewda groves and casuarina forest that used to act as a barrier between the sea and the village, making agriculture almost impossible. “The water here has become so saline that we don’t invite relatives and guests to our homes because we can’t offer them a glass of water,” said Laxmipriya Pradhan (36), a village woman. “We have to often buy water.”

Multiplied misery

In Rameyapatna, villagers are yet to recover from the Covid-19 shock.
The Covid-19 pandemic multiplied the miseries of people living in coastal villages of Odisha. With the abrupt lockdown in March 2020, people were confined to their homes. Income opportunities ceased. Youth working outside the state to support their families had to come back. “Although the government provided some rice under the public distribution system, and also some money, buying food and other basic requirements without any source of income was very difficult,” said 50-year-old Premanand Kandi. “As prices rose, we couldn’t even buy vegetables for our children.” According to Kaushalya Kandi (65), a Udaykani-based Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), growth of children up to the age of five has been visibly hampered maybe due to inadequate nutritional intake. The situation in Rameyapatna village in Chikiti block of Ganjam district, which stands on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, was even worse during the pandemic. “Fishing is our main livelihood. But we couldn’t go for fishing as there was no buyer during the lockdown days,” said B. Mangeya (65), a local resident.

Forest as savior

Forest Guard Bhabagrahi Sethi with berries collected from Golari forest.
“At a time when the impact of the pandemic was widespread, coastal forests and mangroves served as savior and supported the communities that have been conserving and protecting it,” said Sovakar Behera of Gundalaba village, who is general secretary of Greenlife Rural Association, a local developmental organization promoting environmental protection and conservation. After the 1999 super cyclone, women of Gundalaba formed the Gundalaba Van Surakshya Samiti to conserve and protect the coastal forests, by conducting thengapali (patrolling the forests). “The super cyclone had devastated everything. Our agricultural fields were submerged with saline water by storm surges,” said Charulata Biswal, president of the Samiti. “We then realized the importance of forests and decided to protect it for our own protection.” The forest around Gundalaba village protects it from cyclonic storms and tidal surges. It also acts as a barrier to the saline wind and sand particles that used to disrupt agriculture. “It was earlier difficult to grow a single crop. Now, we grow many crops like rice, vegetables, sunflower, etc, in our fields. The forest has saved our livelihoods,” said Laxmidhar Biswal, a retired schoolteacher now engaged in farming. “We could fulfill our food and nutrition requirements during the pandemic lockdown with leafy vegetables grown in our fields. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult to manage,” Biswal said. Highlighting the critical connection between nature and human health, a recommendation-based report urged policymakers to integrate nature into Covid-19 response and recovery efforts. “The root causes of this pandemic are common to many root causes of the climate change and biodiversity crises. Confronting these intertwined crises requires an integrated approach and unprecedented cooperation to achieve an equitable carbon-neutral, nature-positive economic recovery and a sustainable future,” the report urged.

Food and livelihood security

Mangrove plants emerge naturally along the Kelua river mouth near Tandahar in Odisha.
At a small distance from Gundalaba, Sahana village has a similar story. Women of this village have been conserving and protecting the forest comprising casuarinas and cashew. “We also protect the small patch of mangrove on the intertidal mudflats of Gangadevi river, a tributary of Devi river,” said 72-year-old Tilottama Behera. Started as a casuarina plantation, the Sahana forest now has many other plant species like cashew, neem, dry plum, black jambu fruit (Indian blackberry), acacia, etc. Citing the case of Golari forest under the Konark wildlife division, forest guard Bhabagrahi Sethi said that the forest contains rich biodiversity, producing at least 19 varieties of edible berries and tubers, and several seasonal delicacies for the villagers. Many villagers also collected them to sell in the market. “These berries are a rich source of micronutrients and minerals for the local people. It also serves as a wildlife habitat with hyena, jackal, mongoose, jungle cats and a wide variety of birds inhabiting it. In fact, they play a crucial role in the natural growth of the forest,” Sethi said. Mangrove ecosystem also supplies honey, medicines and fodder, and acts as a breeding ground and nursery habitat for marine life, contributing significantly to the enhancement of fish production in the coastal states of India. Estimates suggest that each hectare of mangroves adds 1.86 tonnes to India’s marine fish output, which translates into a contribution of mangroves to commercial marine fisheries output of 23% in 2011.

Saving lives

Besides providing food and livelihood, the mangrove patches also serve as a barrier against tidal surges thereby saving lives. “Because of the mangrove, there was no human casualty in our village during the super cyclone (in 1999). It also saved us from Cyclone Fani, 20 years later. Besides, we catch fish, crabs and prawns from the mangrove mudflats,” said Manju Behera (55) of Shana village. “It also acted as an important source of food during the pandemic,” added Abaki Behera (52). It is acknowledged that mangroves of Odisha’s Bhitarkanika national park protected the surrounding villages from the super cyclone of 1999, and also from the effects of subsequent cyclones. All these services largely contribute to food and income security of coastal communities. The services of mangrove ecosystems benefit a large number of people living around the estuarine and upstream and downstream river basins, said Swami Biswarupananda Giri, a mangrove conservationist and advisor to the Kendrapada Nature Club. “Besides, function of mangroves as a filter reduces salinity in the water, thus in the soil, to support coastal agriculture and protect livelihoods,” he said. Realizing the importance of mangrove and swampy mudflats, villagers of Tandahar have started conserving mangroves. “We stopped people from converting the swampy landscape into prawn farms. In a few days, we noticed mangrove plants growing naturally and birds nesting on them,” said 55-year-old Chhabi Kalia.

Community engagement

Unfortunately, both mangroves and coastal forests across the coastline are continuously degrading. Green barriers between sea and human habitations have vanished at several places on the coastline. Although the India State of Forest Report 2019 shows an increase in mangroves cover by 20 sq. km from the 2015 estimates, the thinning of mangrove cover is reflected with an increase in open category mangrove by 22 sq. kmbetween the two reported years. Mentioning that natural systems play a vital role in supporting employment, an ILO-WWF report highlighted that some 1.2 billion jobs globally in sectors such as farming, fisheries, forestry and tourism are dependent on the effective management and sustainability of healthy ecosystems. Konark-based radio broadcaster and manager of community radio station Radio Namaskar emphasized educating the youth on local biodiversity, its role and importance in the wake of global warming and climate change. “The traditional knowledge is fading away. Unless they have the knowledge, they can’t use the produce efficiently in times of emergencies like that of the pandemic,” he said. However, Dr. Aurobindo Behera, former managing director of Odisha State Disaster Management Authority, delivered a word of caution: every forest or mangrove ecosystem has its own capacity to bear human pressure and any pressure beyond that will degrade the ecosystems and reduce the capacity, he observed. “They alone cannot take care of food and livelihood securities of all in a growing population. So, for a smooth recovery from pandemic impacts, holistic planning to create alternate livelihood opportunities in a sustainable manner that are friendly to nature and biodiversity is needed,” Behra said, adding that such planning will also make the community resilient against the current pandemic and future pandemics. In Odisha, most of the existing forest and mangroves along the coastline are managed and protected by local communities. Nature-friendly recovery measures can strengthen food and nutrition security at community level and offer livelihood opportunities to locals like Ajay Kalia who do not want to migrate again. Such measures would also reduce migration to cities from coastal regions, which is primarily driven by disasters and lack of employment opportunities. Mangaraj Panda, secretary of Ganjam-based United Artists Association that works for the welfare of coastal communities, particularly fishing communities, said, “The communities need to be supported and incentivized so that they can consider it as an additional source of livelihood.”

Disclaimer: This is an independent article written by Basudev Mahapatra and WRI India does not necessarily subscribe to the views reflected in it. The purpose of this article is to bolster the need for a climate-smart Covid-19 recovery model, and initiate a dialogue around it.

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