Kerala’s mangroves in troubled waters

A panel has recommended the setting up of a mangrove land bank, where small patches of vegetation in private hands in CRZ-II or CRZ-III areas will be relocated. The landowners will then be allowed to develop the land. The plan has drawn severe criticism from experts

Updated - April 16, 2022 07:45 pm IST

Published - April 14, 2022 10:22 pm IST - KOCHI

Mangrove vegetation across the State is dwindling due to human intervention. A view of a mangrove at Chilavannur, Kochi.

Mangrove vegetation across the State is dwindling due to human intervention. A view of a mangrove at Chilavannur, Kochi. | Photo Credit: H. VIBHU

Will Kerala be devoid of its remaining mangroves that have been guarding the coast from the fury of nature?

The question reverberates in the minds of specialists in coastal ecology as well as conservationists even as the State government has approved a set of recommendations from a panel, which if implemented, will have a bearing on the mangrove ecosystem.

Immense benefits

The mangrove vegetation that had once extensively lined the coastal belt of the State had provided the breeding ground for a large number of species of fish and shrimps. They have also been rendering the ecosystem a service by shielding the coastline from surges and waves, binding the coastal soil layers, and preventing soil erosion and withstanding floods. They sequester carbon and thus play an important role in combating climate change.

It’s the proposal of the panel to set up a mangrove land bank (MLB), wherein small and isolated patches of mangrove vegetation could be relocated that has triggered the debate.

The suggestion for MLB came from an expert committee on pre-draft coastal zone management plan 2019 under coastal regulation zone notification, 2019. The committee was constituted to examine the draft Coastal Management Plan for Kerala, which was prepared by the National Centre for Earth Sciences Studies, and rectify the deficiencies in the proposal. Besides the Additional Chief Secretary, Department of Environment, P.Z. Thomas, Managing Director, Environmental Engineers and Consultants Private Ltd., and P.B. Sahasranaman, a High Court lawyer, who had conducted several Coastal Regulation Zone-related cases, were the members of the panel.

Less than 50 sq m

In its report, the panel suggested that small patches of mangroves in CRZ-II or CRZ-III, which are of less than 50-sq m area may be considered to be relocated to a mangrove land bank.

While relocating the plants, the owner of said mangrove land shall pay the Kerala government an amount to undertake “afforestation five times the same in the Mangrove Land Bank to be set up under supervision of the State Forest Department. This step of relocation of mangroves in a land bank will promote an integrated mangrove development area in low-lying areas. The approach will promote mangrove forests and associated flora and fauna, including fish,” the panel suggested.

The panel also said that the extent of mangrove to be relocated can be decided by the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority along with the local body representatives.

According to the panel, on successful relocation of such mangroves, the owner of the land in CRZ-II or CRZ-III can be permitted to undertake development as per the provisions of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification. Defending the recommendation, panel sources said the proposal was aimed at conserving the vegetation.

Going by the provisions of CRZ 2019, mangrove vegetation of 100 sq m and above in CRZ-II or CRZ-III should be conserved. If the mangrove vegetation is less than 100 sq m, CRZ rules will not apply. In such a condition, there is the high possibility of landowners destroying the smaller patches or isolated vegetation. Once the concept of MLB is introduced, the loss of such plants can be prevented and the vegetation can be conserved, reasoned panel sources.

“If not for the MLB, how can one prevent landowners from destroying the isolated vegetation by either cutting them down or setting them on fire. This is one way of protecting them,” said a panel member. Also, the panel has said that 50-metre buffer zones should be mandated only around mangrove vegetation within government-owned land with an area of more than 1,000 sq m, as is mentioned in the CRZ notification, 2019.

The notification states that mangroves in government land shall be protected based on a plan to be prepared by the State governments or union territory administrations. The 50-metre buffer zone around government land may be utilised for developing parks, research facilities related to mangrove biodiversity, and facilities for conservation. Mangroves in private land will not require a buffer zone, specifies the notification.

Voices of dissent

At the same time, the proposal to transplant mangroves to other locations has not gone down well with experts. A CRZ expert tore into the recommendations of the panel on small patches of mangroves in CRZ-II or CRZ-III areas.

The recommendation is an erroneous interpretation of CRZ notification, said B. Madhusoodana Kurup, who had served as a member of the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority for six years.

‘No development activity’

Areas where mangroves are found are classified as CRZ 1 A irrespective of its distance from the high-tide line or the number of mangroves or the extent to which mangroves are seen growing on it. Even in CRZ 2019 notification, the presence of a mangrove patch or even a tree will qualify the land to be classified as CRZ 1 A, where no development activity would be permitted considering the fact that it’s an environmentally critical and ecologically sensitive ecosystem, he said.

The recommendations of the committee are grossly inconsistent with the CRZ regulation 2019 notification. The observations of the panel do not concur with the classification adopted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for the purpose of conserving coastal areas, pointed out Dr. Kurup.

Dr. Kurup noted that the CRZ notification 2019 had drastically deviated from the recommendations of the 1991 and 2011 notifications, and permitted the clearing of mangrove vegetation for a host of activities, including construction of roads and public utilities, with a condition that three times the extent of mangroves removed shall be replanted. The Kerala committee, which went one step further, has prescribed the translocation of smaller patches of mangroves, which are the real fragments of a previous healthy mangrove ecosystem in private lands. The proposal will have a catastrophic effect on the critical coastal ecosystems and hence is highly objectionable, he said.

Any amount of compensatory planting of mangroves will not make good for the functional efficiency of the natural mangrove ecosystem, said Dr. Kurup, the founder Vice Chancellor of the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, Panangad.

Poor regeneration potential

Grinson George, Senior Program Specialist (Fisheries) of the SAARC Agriculture Centre, Bangladesh, said the studies carried out on the Kerala coast between 2014 and 2016 revealed that the regeneration potential of many existing patches seemed to be poor. The study was carried out in all major mangrove habitats in Kerala and 46 sites were selected based on receptiveness, importance, and accessibility. The selected sites were studied from June 2014 to March 2015, he said.

Dr. George, a Principal Scientist with the Fishery Resources Assessment Division of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi, felt that a scientific implementation of the proposed provisions for the mangrove land bank was required in the Kerala coastal region as a pragmatic solution for protecting the small patches of mangroves. Location-specific conservation and management measures, guided by the knowledge of spatial distribution and ecological requirements specific to mangroves, shall be adopted for the bank and to preserve the mangrove diversity of Kerala, said Mr. George, who is on a deputation to the SAARC Agriculture Centre.

The extent of mangrove vegetation across the State is fast shrinking, according to researchers.

Mr. Kurup noted that the total extent of mangrove in Kerala had been reduced to around 50 sq km from the earlier 700 sq km in the past century in spite of having a strict coastal regulation notification. The conditions will turn more precarious if the current recommendations are adopted. The report has been drafted to favour development by ignoring environmental issues such as climate change, global warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification, he said.

Another expert in CRZ questioned the very constitution of the panel, which had only a lawyer and a civil engineering graduate as its members. The absence of experts in coastal dynamics, coastal ecosystem, oceanography, aquaculture, socio-economic, fisheries or forestry is a matter of concern. The recommendations of the panel, once approved, will lead to the destruction of mangroves in private holdings and will clear the vegetation from the State in no time, he feared.

A research paper, ‘Structure and regeneration status of mangrove patches along the estuarine and coastal stretches of Kerala, India,’ authored by Dr. George and others, published by the Journal of Forestry Research in, 2018, had noted that the mangroves were vanishing at a fast rate. The annual loss came to 1% to 2% a year, which is five times greater than the global forest loss. India, and especially Kerala, is not an exception to this trend, the paper noted.

More than 80% of the mangrove plots in Kerala are in private hands and hence, they are under serious threat of destruction caused by anthropogenic activities, noted the paper.

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