Thanks to the United Nations Development Programme initiative, coral reef cover along the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve has increased from 37 percent to 43 percent between 2005 and 2009.

Coral mining has stopped and joint patrolling initiatives by forest department, fisheries, coast guards and local youth have ensured stronger enforcement. Seaweed collection out of the Gulf of Mannar National Park has been regularized, and a two-and-a-half month ban imposed each year helps ensure the coast is not touched during crucial regeneration and breeding months.

Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve is home to one of the world’s richest concentrations of marine species. Much of its biodiversity depends on the coral reef that is the lifeline not only for the various species that inhabit the reef, but for close to 1,50,000 fisher folk that rely on the coast for their livelihoods. Yet, it is a region increasingly under threat. Commercial exploitation, damage from over fishing, illegal mining of coral reef, changes in the environment and a growing population dependent on the coast for livelihoods is threatening the region’s rich biodiversity. In the decade between 1988 and1998, nearly 25 square kilometers of coral reef has been lost.

Since 2002, supported by the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Development Programme has partnered with the Government of Tamil Nadu to demonstrate the possibilities of conserving the environment and encouraging sustainable development processes in the region through the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust. This has been achieved through three main strategies. One, demonstration of sustainable coastal management and enhanced livelihood opportunities for local communities; two – empowerment of local communities to manage local resources in partnership with government and other stakeholders, and three, strengthened institutional capacity of communities to implement participatory conservation strategies.

Community involvement has been intrinsic to conservation efforts, and 250 grassroots organizations or Village Marine Conservation and Eco Development Committees employ local youth to support protection management and serve as anti-poaching watchers. Significant awareness building efforts mean that fishermen in the area are well versed in fishing techniques that encourage sustainable fishing.

The project has helped expand horizons to look beyond traditional coastal and marine-based livelihoods. Vocational courses for the children of poor fisher-folk in air conditioning, fridge repair, welding, computer applications, and printing technology and so on, seek to provide the opportunity to diversify livelihoods. Over 2,000 self help groups have benefited from development of alternative livelihoods and enterprises. Women have pursued income generating activities such as weaving, jasmine cultivation, and jaggery production.

India is one of the top ten species rich nations in the world. Yet, its environment and biodiversity are at a crucial turning point. Close to 275 million depend on the ecosystem for day-to-day subsistence. For India’s coastline this is particularly acute. The 7,500-kilometre coastline is home to 20 percent of the country’s population including many of the poorest. With the growing impact of climate change, this dependency on the coastal livelihoods is under threat.

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