Fri, 19 Apr, 2019

Incentivising wetland conservation

Our wetlands continue to be victims of ignorance and neglect and their ruinous shrinkage continues at an alarming pace

12th April 2019, 02:14 Hrs

Dr Manoj Sumati R.Borkar

During this academic year I was invited  to speak at two events concerning wetlands. The first was a national workshop on ‘Mangrove Conservation’, at Gandhinagar organised by Gujarat Ecology Commission, GEER Foundation and Gujarat Government. The second being a national conference on wetland conservation organized by Parvatibai Chowgule College in association with Mangrove Society of India and Goa State Wetland Authority. In both the cases there were thematic presentations, panel discussions, and conservation advisories by domain experts. But after all this academic brain-teasing the stakeholders inertia for effective follow-up continues to be chronic. 

Our wetlands continue to be victims of ignorance, neglect, and undervaluation; and their ruinous shrinkage continues at an alarming pace across the country.

Wetlands are seasonal or perennial land-water interface, multi-utility ecosystems. Besides providing ecosystems goods and services, wetlands support a rich biodiversity. An important aspect of wetlands that bring these ecosystems into focus and public gaze is that they provide the habitat, foraging and breeding grounds to several species of resident and migratory birds every winter season. 

Across the state of Goa, the wetlands showcase a seasonal display of waterfowl that include many migratory winter visitors. In Salcete where I reside, the Benaulim, Duncolim, and Curtorim lakes are replete with migrants like Painted Storks, Wooly-necked storks, White Storks, Openbill Storks, Lesser Adjutants; besides diversity of ducks and waterfowl. These arrivals are phenological events that occur with predictable regularity and fill our wetlands with a splash of colours and medley of bird calls ! Their stay in our wetlands is of reciprocal benefit, in that they feed here and also fertilize the sediments with their guano. In the ensuing wet season most of these wetlands change into lush green paddy fields.

Wetlands have fascinated me for their biodiversity endowments. In India I have spent considerable time studying some of the finest wetlands of international importance such as the Sambhar, Udaisagar and Bharatpur in Rajasthan, Nal Sarovar in Gujarat, Deepor bil in Assam, and Chilika in Odisha; all categorized under the Ramsar Convention of 1971. 

Of course, about a decade ago, in my state I did play my part in sensitising the villagers of Chicalim, Dabolim, Sancoale; and guiding the People’s Pressure group under the banner of Chicalim Villagers Action Committee (CVAC) for conserving the Chicalim Bay, an exceptional tidal wetland that serves as a habitat and breeding ground for the Window Pane Oyster (Placuna placenta) a Scheduled species under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.   

If there is one lesson that I have learnt over the years, it is that the conservation initiatives just cannot succeed without people’s support and participation. The challenge before the governments and conservationists therefore is to enthuse people and further sustain their enthusiasm for participatory conservation. Unfortunately in this country, when it comes to natural resources management; predictably the ‘regulatory enforcement’ outweighs ‘invitation to participate’. Somehow people feel alienated from the authorities and state actors who habitually underestimate people’s knowledge of their naturescapes.  

Presently our wetlands are reeling under the pressures of changing agro-irrigational practices, extensive land filling for urban capital, land based pollutant transfer including that of agro-chemicals, invasive hydrophytes like Water Hyacinth, Salvinia and fishes like Mozambique Tilapia, feral cattle and dogs that have occupied the wetlands, intensive fish farming and human fecal contamination. Also account for the fact that the traditional ecological knowledge systems of the local communities and their indigenous management practices have been windswept due to acculturation, changing priorities, market forces and breakdown of community ethos of collective stewardship.   

In Goa, where the impact of mass tourism is obvious, these wetlands can provide benign and sustainable tourism alternatives. The bird arrivals here coincide with the tourist season, offering a novel but underexplored tourism option. In the last few years private and state sponsored Birding trips, Bird Walks and Bird festivals have found favour with the domestic and foreign visitors, who are saturated with conventional ‘sun, sand and sea’ offer. Quite a few young people have now graduated into eco-entrepreneurs with major investment in eco-tourism and have been reaping handsome profits. Vast expanses of the land and waterscapes of Goan villages are awaiting to be explored and sustainably marketed for ‘cottage tourism’. Once incentivized, the onus of conserving these natural areas will be unhesitatingly accepted by local communities. 

Considering this potential for gainfully engaging our youth and building their capacity to conserve natural wealth in their villages, I have designed a Skill Enhancement Course titled ‘Wildlife and Ecotourism’ under the choice based credit system of Goa University, being currently offered by five colleges as part of BSc program. Those enrolled for the course are given exposure to contemporary conservation issues of Indian wildlife, census techniques and use of maps and GIS resources. This course lays emphasis on ‘Natural Areas Tourism’ and creates opportunities for ‘hands on’ experience in various aspects of ecotourism such as Visitor Planning, Management & Monitoring; besides identifying and mitigating visitor’s impact, etc. Simply put, this module imparts competence for conservation as also hones the bio-entrepreneurial skills of those who aspire to tread on this relatively unfamiliar path, with assured incentives. 

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