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INDIA: Mangroves Face Severe Threat from Human Activities

Manipadma Jena* - IPS/IFEJ

BHUBANESWAR, Orissa, India, Jun 1 2010 (IPS) - When a super cyclone devastated the coastal districts of Orissa state in 1999, the government pledged to regenerate 3,000 hectares of mangrove. Or so forest official Chandra Sekhar Kar thought.

Tidal inlets that feed mangrove forests in Orissa are blocked to clear land for farming. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Tidal inlets that feed mangrove forests in Orissa are blocked to clear land for farming. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

“Where are the regenerated forests?” he asks as he scans the vast swath of land comprising the 672-square-kilometre Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary run by the state’s forest and environment department.

Mangrove forests – which include trees, shrubs, ferns and palms – have been severely depleted, he notes, having given way to villages and hamlets, 80 of them located right beside what remains of the forests. Some 240,000 people are found living inside the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, says Kar, a senior researcher at the forest department.

The Bhitarkanika sanctuary is the smallest of four major contiguous mangrove forests in India. Yet, it is the richest in terms of biodiversity, according to environmental studies conducted by the forest department and similar institutions in India. Its habitats range from tidal rivers and creek networks to riverine islands, coastal wetlands and inter-tidal zones.

Of the 58 mangrove species – out of 70 found worldwide – that are available in India, 55 are found in Orissa, the bulk of which is in Bhitarkanika, according to the forest department. The eastern state’s floral biodiversity is the second largest in the world after Papua New Guinea.

Experts say the mangroves in Orissa, particularly in the Bhitarkanika area, have been under heavy human pressure as a result of population growth and a vast range of human activities that serve both domestic and livelihood needs.

Mangroves provide shelter and serve as breeding grounds for a wide variety of aquatic species. As a vital component of coastal ecosystems, they are also known to provide protection against erosion and other destructive natural forces. Their loss can adversely affect marine and terrestrial biodiversity, says retired zoology professor S.K. Dutta.

Orissa, located on the east coast of India, accounts for about 5 percent of the total mangrove forests in India, estimated at 4,639 sq km, according to India’s ‘State of Forests’ report of 2009.

At Hatiaganda village near the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, where mangroves are still relatively denser, Sushanta Maiti, 25, a resident, says, “people still collect wood from the mangrove forests,” unmindful of the law restricting this practice.

“Each household uses 14 kilograms of firewood daily for cooking, of which 12 kg come from mangroves,” says Chandra Sekhar Kar.

The forest guards, Maiti alleges, take 5 to 10 rupees (about 10 to 20 U.S. cents) in bribe payments from unscrupulous villagers and let them get away with their illegal acts.

“Communities use 51 species for traditional and medicinal purposes,” says Sudhakar Kar, another senior researcher with the forest department. Moreover, timber and fronds found in mangroves are used for construction purposes while fisher folk make boats, rafters and paddles from suitable mangrove tree species, he explains.

Based on the latest mangrove mapping conducted by India’s National Remote Sensing Agency in 2004, agriculture accounted for 52 percent of the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, leaving only 22 percent of dense mangrove cover while some of the remaining areas have been used for human habitation.

Another major threat to mangroves are grazing cattle, numbering at least a hundred thousand in the 80 villages near the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, says Chandra Sekhar Kar.

In 1971, hordes of illegal immigrants from the then newly formed Bangladesh started coming to Orissa, where they cleared massive areas of mangroves along the entire east coast for farming, environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty recounts to IPS. “They built embankments that choke off the tidal waters, mangroves’ lifeline,” he says.

In 2005, the state government served deportation notices on some 1,500 Bangladesh nationals that had illegally settled in India. The opposition political parties raised a furore, arguing that the immigrants should be treated as refugees instead. Such notices were never served again on Bangladeshis occupying areas planted with mangroves.

“Immigrants or nationals, there is no law restricting people from settling inside the sanctuary. There has to be one,” says forestry expert Chandra Sekhar Kar.

Then by the early 90s, “the global shrimp export turned hugely lucrative,” says Mohanty. “Sheltered creekside mangrove forests, mudflats, even agriculture fields were converted into illegal brackish water prawn culture ponds indirectly funded by non-local shrimp traders.”

“After the crackdown on shrimp ponds built on government land, private lands are now being bought for the purpose and there exists no law restricting this,” says Bibhas Pandav, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India. Selected areas within the sanctuary are still in the name of their original inhabitants.

“Unless we have a law against land use conversion inside the Bhittarkanika sanctuary, it will be impossible to check species extinction,” says Kar. “People simply do not want mangrove regeneration in the land they have cleared for income generation,” he adds.

According to the Red List of Threatened Species – an inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species – released last month by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one in six mangrove species worldwide is facing extinction due to coastal development, aquaculture, logging, agriculture and climate change.

India, alongside South-east Asia, has lost 80 percent of all mangrove areas over the past 60 years, states IUCN.

* This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by IPS, CGIAR/Bioversity International, IFEJ and UNEP/CBD, members of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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