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Tradition versus tourism

The unbridled growth of tourism in ‘God’s Own Country’ has wrought an ecological disaster along the Kerala coast and famed backwaters, writes Anosh Malekar. Some 2,000 houseboats spew sewage and kerosene into the backwaters that locals use for cooking and cleaning, the mangroves have shrunk to 1% of their original size, beaches are being privatised and local communities are being displaced and dispossessed of their livelihoods

Valiathura, near Thiruvananthapuram, was declared a ‘dead port’ in the early-’80s after it lost prominence as the only port along the south Kerala coast to Kochi. The only sign of its past glory, a 703-foot pier that is more than 50 years old, lies in a considerably weakened state and is used by the local fisherfolk to launch their traditional kattumarans or catamarans during the monsoons when the rough sea renders the neighbouring beaches inaccessible. The kattumarans -- literally meaning tied wood and well known as the only unsinkable light craft in the world -- are thrown into the sea; the fishermen then jump in and swim to them in a potentially life-threatening but daring act that, strangely, has turned into a modern tourist delight.

“The fishers from Valiathura are mainly Latin Catholics, there are very few Hindus and Muslims,” local journalist-activist Ajith Lawrence says while adding that these indigenous fishers who historically inhabited the adjoining districts of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala are a rare breed among the marine fisher people inhabiting the Arabian Sea coast. “They are manual shark hunters, skilled in all kinds of traditional as well as modern gear and crafts. They dare the sea in all seasons in all regions and their traditional skills in determining the course of the currents and the winds, even in the most adverse situations, is legendary,” he claims.

Fishing communities in Kerala are said to be of tribal origin; they were later incorporated into the Hindu caste hierarchy right at the bottom. Around the 8th-9th centuries, many communities in the northern region converted to Islam, and in the 15th century a large number in the southern region converted to Christianity.

Over the centuries, theirs has been a story of extreme marginalisation in virtually every sense. The dark, muscular men with bare torsos, and the frail women with prematurely wrinkled faces, have lived on the margins of society -- on the sea front -- in tiny huts thatched with the dry plaited leaves of the coconut palm that are so ubiquitous in Kerala but now seem out-of-sync with the modern architecture of homes fuelled by Gulf money and the luxury hotels catering to foreign tourists.

The fishers, despite their extreme poverty, claim to have enjoyed a stable and fulfilling life over generations due to ideal ecological conditions that foster marine diversity and high primary productivity in the region. The shores they inhabit lie within 20 degrees north of the equator and enjoy relatively warm and stable climatic conditions round the year. The two monsoon cycles in a year enrich the sea with oxygen and fresh water. Two of the Arabian Sea estuaries, of the Neyyar and Thamiraparani rivers, provide the right mix of salt and nutrients for all forms of marine life to flourish.

Kerala’s coast stretches 580 km in length and varies between 35 and 120 km in width. The state has 44 rivers, of which 41 flow westward towards the sea. That’s roughly one river every 14 km. This plentiful fresh water from the eastern tropical forests is a substantial contributor to Kerala’s bountiful marine fishery resources. The rivers crisscross the western coastal belt dotted with a network of interconnected brackish canals, lakes, and estuaries known collectively as the ‘Kerala Backwaters’. These plentiful inland water resources amidst the lush green vegetation dominated by tall swaying coconut palms are also the hallmarks of the state. Tourism flyers proclaim Kerala to be ‘God’s Own Country’. The state was selected by National Geographic Traveler as “one of the 50 destinations of a lifetime, and one of the 13 paradises in the world”.

Around three years ago, the World Travel and Tourism Council shortlisted Kerala, along with Greece and Mexico, for its ‘Destination of the Year’ award. The nomination drew widespread criticism from civil society in Kerala, which highlighted the massive degradation tourism had wrought on the state’s highly sensitive ecology. The nomination was subsequently dropped, but ever since the divide between local communities and the state’s tourism industry seems to have grown.

Thiruvananthapuram-based NGO Protsahan’s secretary A J Vijayan alleges that powerful tourism lobbies, in connivance with obliging government officials, have carried out rampant encroachments in coastal areas and backwater regions along with surrounding wildlife sanctuaries and small landholdings owned by adivasis and other economically disadvantaged groups like the fishers. “In the coastal region, illegal constructions have made a mockery of the law. The unbridled growth of tourism is forcing traditional fishermen to quit their land and livelihood by inducing them to sell their usually minuscule properties at throwaway prices.”

Fisherman V Benedict, 52, who used to own about 1 acre near Alappuzha’s famous Mararikulam beach, lost it all a couple of years ago when he sold it for a pittance. “A group of prosperous looking businessmen came to my house one day to convince me to sell my land. How can a poor, unlettered fisherman like me resist their tactics?” Benedict is in tears as he narrates how he was stripped of his land. Hundreds like him in coastal Kerala have had their centuries-old livelihoods taken away, says local fishermen leader Lal Koyilparambil.

Koyilparambil alleges that the privatisation of Mararikulam’s ‘public’ beach is near total, with almost 90% of it now in the hands of private entrepreneurs. While the Kerala government continues to tout Mararikulam as a shining example of its ‘responsible tourism’ initiative, the beach’s erstwhile fishermen have been dispossessed forever of the lands and sea they once called their own, he says.

A major casualty of the damage done to Kerala’s unique backwater region is Vembanad lake, the largest in the Alappuzha-Kottayam area and the setting for Arundhati Roy’s Booker prizewinner The God of Small Things. According to local fishers Rajen Palikkalayil and Josy Gabriel, about 70% of the lake has fallen victim to reclamation projects. Their observation is corroborated by the Kerala Council for Science, Technology and the Environment, which reports that the state has managed to retain only 23% of its backwaters.

Koyilparambil, who has spent all his activist life around Alappuzha (also known as Alleppey) and Kochi, says there was practically no tourism here till about the 1990s, when things started to change quickly: “The thatched-roof wooden kettuvallams (houseboats) were used to transport rice till then, until the boatmen realised they could make much more money by hiring them out to foreign tourists. As the tourists came flocking, boatmen began to build bigger and fancier boats.”

Koyilparambil concedes that the houseboat industry has brought a welcome source of income to Kerala’s backwaters, but stresses that the backwaters are not only for the tourists. There are rural communities including traditional fishers who live along the shores, and they use the polluted water for their cooking, cleaning and washing. The tour operators of the fancy houseboats make good money, but the people in the villages don’t see any of the profits.

There are about 2,000 kettuvallams in the Alleppey backwaters today. All have living/dining rooms, kitchens, bathrooms and verandas, while some are even more spacious, resembling floating mini-palaces. “The tourism authorities are simply ignoring the environmental impact of the increasing number of luxury houseboats that are two-storeyed with air-conditioned bedrooms, conference rooms, flat screens and whirlpools. The kitchens use kerosene stoves for cooking, and there is a generator for electricity and an outboard motor that runs on diesel. This has had a serious impact on the ecology of the backwaters. Sewage from the kitchens and baths ends up as pollutants. The diesel from the outboard motors and kerosene from the stoves leak into the water. As a result, the karimeen (a local fish delicacy) actually tastes like kerosene,” Benedict, who now works for a houseboat-owner, says.

The major tourist destinations across the state suffer a host of serious problems: piling of waste and garbage, water and air pollution, loss of biodiversity, lack of land use and infrastructure planning, encroachments, unauthorised constructions, drinking water shortages. According to the State Pollution Control Board, 1 million cubic metres of sewage is generated in the state’s coastal areas, of which 30,000 cubic metres reaches the surface of waterbodies. The backwaters in Kochi alone receive 60 tonnes of sewage from the city. Streets in major tourist destinations like Alappuzha and Kochi now resemble garbage dumps, leading to the outbreak of epidemic diseases like chikungunya in the post-monsoon months over the last few years.

A worse fate awaits the mangroves, warn environmentalists and activists. “Hotels and holiday resorts have mushroomed on reclaimed wetlands which were once part of the mangrove ecosystem. Nobody in Kerala is bothered about the horrifying shrinkage of the mangroves from 70,000 hectares to just 1% of their former size,” Vijayan says.

Kerala Minister for Tourism Affairs Kodiyeri Balakarishnan says: “The state’s acceptance of ‘responsible tourism’ as a motto a couple of years ago is part of efforts to save the deteriorating situation. Nature will be protected and haphazard growth of tourism will not be encouraged.” The minister further claims that the tourism department and local bodies have been advised to evolve a permanent mechanism to minimise pollution, and efforts are already on to initiate legal measures against large-scale violators.

But representatives of people’s movements of fishers, adivasis and dalits, among others, deliberating the issue at a Convention against Irresponsible Tourism in March 2008, voiced strong opposition to the intentions of the Kerala Tourism Department and tourism lobbies to project Kerala as a global destination of ‘responsible tourism’, pointing to their repeated failure to address and resolve the enormous problems caused by indiscriminate tourism development in the state.

“We feel that the widely propagandised International Conference on Responsible Tourism that took place (earlier) in Ernakulam, not surprisingly failed to coherently address the real social, environmental and ethical impacts of tourism and did not seriously consider the concerns and anxieties of the local communities such as traditional fishers and indigenous people in the destinations,” they say in a press statement.

The representatives further pointed out that “many of the recent legislative interventions in the tourism sector in Kerala, such as the Kerala Tourism (Protection and Conservation of Areas) Act, 2005 appropriate important constitutional powers (bestowed through amendments 73 and 74 of the Indian Constitution) of local self-governments (LSG), jeopardise the decentralisation process and hugely reduce the scope for local participation at the decision-making and implementation levels of tourism projects”.

“We would like to make it clear that local communities will not play their expected roles of suppliers and dependents (the idea latent in the euphemism ‘economic responsibility’) of the tourism industry. We wonder why the tourism lobby pretends to ignore the fact that Kerala has now become a net importer of its staple food, rice, and depends heavily on neighbouring states for everyday supplies of vegetables, meat, eggs and milk. We strongly feel that the immediate responsibility of Kerala Tourism, hence, is to address and resolve the burning problems of the local communities that are displaced, disempowered and dispossessed from their livelihoods as a result of the unregulated and uncontrolled tourism activities in the state,” the press statement says.

Kerala is a typical case of overexploitation and mismanagement of its resources, whether it is marine fish reserves or coasts and backwaters, Vijayan says: “The origin of this can be attributed to the state playing host to the Indo-Norwegian Project (INP) in the ’50s. The project was intended to upgrade the existing fisheries sector and improve the standard of living of the fishing community, but it became an unintended catalyst for launching the whole of Kerala’s fisheries into a new western-oriented export drive.”

Vijayan also observes that in the past few decades, harbour-based mechanised trawlers with a single-species orientation (shrimp) were actively promoted at the cost of beach-based artisanal fishery, falsely dubbing the latter as too traditional, unscientific and resistant to change. Shoaling pelagic species like oil sardine and mackerel, and demersal species like prawn have made Kerala a major fish consuming and fish exporting state.

The total fisher population in Kerala is over 1 million, which is 3.2% of the state’s population. Marine fishermen, who constitute more than 80% of the state’s fishers, live along the coast in 222 fishing villages; the rest inhabit the 113 inland fishing villages. Alappuzha district has the largest number of fisherfolk (1.86 lakh) followed by Thiruvananthapuram (1.83 lakh). The state roughly accounts for 10% of India’s coastline, nearly 27% of the country’s active fishermen, and a quarter of its sea fish production. With an estimated 5,000 mechanised boats, 10,000 motorised and 20,000 non-motorised country craft, Kerala also shares around 37% of the all-India marine product export earnings.

Despite the vast resources offered by the bountiful sea and an apparently thriving export market, why are the local fishers poor? “The only real wealth we possess is our knowledge of the sea and a modest collection of fishing equipment. There is nothing else we have in this world,” Xavier Culas, a local fisherman and an activist from Marianad, a little fishing village near Thiruvananthapuram, says. “The kattumaran is a raft made from logs of lightwood. Traditionally, it is propelled by a triangular cotton sail and paddles made from bamboo. The fishing gear is designed with an emphasis on specific mesh size, so that it catches the desired species alone and the adult fish only. Both are developed and utilised in such a way as to cause minimum damage to the environment and help in preserving fish stocks for the future.”

The famed ‘shore-seine’ operation is the best example of the superior and environment-friendly skills of the artisan fishers from Kerala, says Robert P, who hails from the local fishing community but now runs a successful business venture in Valiathura: “From the beach, expert fishermen examine a shoal of fish migrating at a distance of say 2-3 km from the shore. They judge the type of fish in the shoal, the depth at which the fish are travelling, and at what speed. The seine net is then set from a boat and operated from the shore. This accumulated knowledge system of traditional fishing has stood the test of time for hundreds and thousands of years.”

The educated among Valiathura’s and Marianad’s traditional fishers say that since the 1980s, fisheries in Kerala have been in sharp decline, and with it a way of life. Sitting inside his comfortable businessman’s residence, Robert narrates the tragedy of Kerala’s fisherfolk, who for centuries were the poor people, the pariahs, not allowed into schools, churches or temples until the arrival of the Portuguese. “The Portuguese, unlike the Syrian Orthodox Christians who had already been in Kerala for about 1,000 years, saw the fisherfolk as souls fit for conversion. And for the first time the fisherfolk got some status. They had a church and with it an organised social life. At a price though. The Church came to own the land on which their huts stood and extracted 10% of their catch as well -- hence the large churches and the small houses,” Robert says.

Tired after a long night’s fishing, the men would come back with their catch at dawn hoping to hand it over to their womenfolk for sale or for a meal. But, waiting for them on the shore were the merchants and the loan sharks. “They would buy the fish at rock-bottom prices,” says Robert. “The same merchants would often lend the money the fishers needed to replace craft or nets at an interest rate of 10% a day. If the fisher could not pay back the loan he would have to hand over part or all of his catch to the merchant or moneylender. That’s how so many fishers got trapped in poverty.”

Held in the grip of an unholy trinity of merchants, moneylenders and priests, the fisherfolk had little hope of improving their lives. It was only in the 1960s, with the arrival of radical nuns and priests influenced by Marxism and liberation theology, that life really began to change. These radicals in robes set up a cooperative fishing village and called it Marianad, providing a model that has now been adopted by fishing communities all along Kerala’s coast. “The emphasis was on cooperative marketing of fish,” Xavier says while explaining the success of Marianad. “Instead of handing over the catch to the merchant, the fishermen gave it to the cooperative to sell at the highest price possible. And instead of borrowing from moneylenders and merchants, they started borrowing from the cooperative which could get low-interest loans from banks.”

Marianad was hailed as a triumph of the Kerala fishermen’s cooperative and conservation spirit in the ’70s and ’80s. But by the mid-1980s, the Government of India began to support the motorisation of traditional fishing craft. As a result, a large number of fishermen became dependent on multinational companies whose high prices for their machines and spare parts soon led them into a debt trap. Moreover, kerosene and diesel were in short supply and thus expensive. In recent decades, the state government’s beach tourism and port development policies have further added to the fishers’ woes. The latest case of Vizhinjam, near the famous Kovalam beach, is a case that begs attention, Vijayan says.

Vizhinjam is 16 km from Thiruvananthapuram and a natural port located close to the international shipping route. The government has plans to reclaim around 2.5 sq km (600-700 acres) of the sea and build two breakwaters of 1.5 km and 6 km, with a harbour basin and wharfs, in the hope that at least 50% of the nearly 20,000 ships that annually pass through the Suez Canal will anchor here. A few years from now, Vizhinjam port would compete with other important ports like Colombo, Singapore and Dubai to boost trade and commercial activity in Kerala. At the same time, arrangements are in place for start of work on a multi-purpose 150-metre reef off the coast of Kovalam in an attempt to attract surfers to the area and turn Kovalam into a year-round tourism destination.

The local fishers of Vizhinjam are urging the authorities to halt these projects and are demanding a careful assessment of potential sea erosion. Fishermen’s access to local beaches has already been curtailed by tourism activity. They fear that the new projects will further restrict their fishing space, threatening the livelihoods of up to 2,000 fishermen and their families and forcing some to relocate. Interestingly, the proposed Kovalam reef is funded by central government tsunami rehabilitation funds. “This is a clear case of tsunami funds being used for the benefit of the tourism lobby,” Kerala Swathanthra Malsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF) president T Peter says. “We are raising fundamental questions here: who wants the reef, and why? And are there any benefits for the fishing community?”

Ironically, Kovalam has been selected by Kerala Tourism as a site for its ‘responsible tourism’ initiative, though it has failed to ensure the participatory planning processes that are meant to ensure accountability and transparency in such projects. In a joint statement, KSMTF along with Kerala Tourism Watch, Kerala United Fisheries Forum and Kabani have demanded a public hearing. “Any public hearing should be an open consultation in which community leaders and their representatives have the opportunity to make submissions, ask questions or register objections to the proposed funds diversion,” it said while referring to past public hearings where “manipulative official reporting” led to further litigation and protests by local communities.

The coalition has also called for the establishment of a tribunal to discuss the wider issue of diversion of central government tsunami rehabilitation funds to tourism in Kerala. The Kerala government has reportedly allocated Rs 850 million (almost £10 million) of central government Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme money to Kerala Tourism, to fund 20 tourism projects. In direct contravention of central government guidelines, the projects cover areas that were not damaged by the tsunami; they were actually devised before the tsunami but were not implemented because of lack of funding, Peter alleges.

In a further irony, Kerala Tourism has re-labelled the projects ‘coastal protection’ in an attempt to quell public outrage. But they consist almost entirely of beach beautification measures to attract tourists. Toilet blocks, walkways, kiosks, lamp posts, plumbing, electrical works, an amphitheatre, and flower pots are among the items to be funded.

In a press statement, Tricia Barnett of Tourism Concern says: “Kerala’s tourism industry must not be developed at the expense of the rights and entitlements of tsunami-affected (fishing) communities. To use funds meant for their rehabilitation for tourism projects that will bring them no benefits and undermine coastal protection measures will make a mockery of the huge donor support provided by individuals and governments across the world in the aftermath of this unprecedented disaster.”

Meanwhile, other areas remain in urgent need of coastal protection and infrastructural repair. This includes the peninsulas of Allapad and Arattupuzha, which witnessed the greatest loss of life in Kerala during the tsunami as there was no bridge linking them to the mainland. “Following the tsunami, and after pressure from local residents, the government did begin building a bridge but work has since stopped. The bridge remains unfinished and the planned coastal protection measures are yet to be implemented. Local people feel vulnerable, stranded and angry,” Tourism Concern points out in a press statement.

Closer home, Forum Kerala, a collective of civil society movements, people’s groups and individuals has been for the past few years consistently opposing the state government’s Special Tourism Zone (STZ) projects at major tourist destinations, cities, and along the coast, fearing “it will increase the pressure over natural and other resources such as land, water, forests… lead to environmental destruction, revenue losses and lack of real economic development of the state… cause a breakdown of governance systems, especially of panchayats, with the creation of enclaves, and lack of equal and non-exploitative employment opportunities for local communities in STZs”.

Government and tourism industry sources dub the Forum “anti-tourism” and argue that Kerala currently has an upper hand in tourism and remains a much-sought-after tourist destination. “With ‘responsible tourism’, the environment and social concerns will be taken care of even while keeping the economy going,” Kodiyeri Balakarishnan says.

Forum Kerala strongly opposes use of the ‘responsible tourism’ tag to market Kerala: “The Forum views it with concern that… issues such as the constitutional rights of panchayati raj institutions, Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) violations by hotels and resorts, backwater pollution by the houseboats and tourism industry, child abuse and child labour in service industries in the state and various other social issues have been completely ignored. Who is responsible for this damage? And for effectively addressing these problems?”

Vijayan says the main issue in Kerala today is managing resources properly, followed by improving the basic living conditions of people and protecting their livelihood options. “The current policies in the tourism sector are set to promote the interests of capital and an elite minority that benefits from the global neo-liberal economic order. There are numerous examples before us to corroborate this position. The central government seems to have realised its folly, but we have reason to believe the state government is yet to learn to stand up to the sheer economic might and political clout of the tourism lobby in Kerala,” he concludes.

Koyilparambil says the fishers are not asking for any favours from the tourism department or the tourism industry. “The demands we raise are the legitimate rights of every citizen in the state. Like the demand elsewhere of ‘farms for farmers’, we demand the ‘sea (and backwaters) for our fishers’. Fishing is a traditional right and you cannot have tourism and trawlers and ports encroaching on it.”

Infochange News & Features, April 2010