The Kole wetland survives with human interference, as paddy cultivation maintains the ecosystem. Kochu Muhammed coordinates over 130 clusters of farmers for an elaborate process of dewatering, storing and recycling water from the wetlands to maintain water in the wetlands. Illustration by Hitesh Sonar for Mongabay.

Farming system essential to conserve Kole wetlands

Among the threats the wetland faces, the most worrisome is land use conversion.  Jeena Srinivasan, an associate professor with the Centre for Economics and Social Studies in Hyderabad had worked closely with the district administration on the Kole wetlands and compiled a monograph entitled, Agriculture-Wetland Interactions: A Case Study of the Kole Land Kerala in 2009.

During her interactions with the local communities, Srinivasan realised that it was important that farming continued for the wetlands to sustain. “The pressure to convert land use is quite high in this region. If the farming stops, the area would cease to exist as wetlands. Farming is essential to conserve the area.”

P. O. Nameer, head of the department of wildlife science at Kerala Agricultural University (Thrissur), was instrumental in bringing about the Ramsar tag to the Kole wetlands. It was his research paper on Kole that brought the wetlands into the spotlight. “In 1993, there was a national conference on ornithology in Bengaluru, where I presented a paper on Kole as a potential Ramsar site in south India. In 2002, it was declared a Ramsar site,” he said.

Nameer went on to formulate a comprehensive 150-page document, ‘Biodiversity Conservation Plan’ on the Kole wetlands commissioned by the Kerala state forest department. In all the years he worked on the plan, he came to see the farmers’ struggle up close.

“We tried to make it a bottom-up plan. So, we convened several meetings with farmers and all these padashekharams. The wetland is an ecosystem landscape habitat, where human interference is needed. For a paddy wetland, cultivation is the sole factor for maintaining the wetland ecosystem. This human intervention, coupled with ensuring natural succession in ownership is important, otherwise the land would get converted into a forest habitat. A wetland has several ecological functions and a proper hydrological cycle is a must in this area. It stores excess rainwater in the monsoon and guarantees freshwater availability in summer as it this recharges the wells and ponds.”

Kole wetlands are a pit stop to migratory birds and it falls in the Central Asian Flyaway. Photo by Krishnakumar Iyer.
Kole wetlands are a pit stop to migratory birds and it falls in the Central Asian Flyaway. Photo by Krishnakumar Iyer.

Nameer attributes Muhammed’s dynamic energy for unifying the different farmers’ clusters in the Kole region. “He knows everything about the area and has ensured that the area remains as a wetland. Most of Kerala’s paddy fields are being converted into other kinds of land use,” Nameer said.

About the economic values of the Kole wetland, Nameer said, “As a highly dynamic system, it performs various functions. Through our socio-economic survey, we found that Kole generates 42 lakh man-days each year. The area earns an income of Rs 12 crore (120 million) through farming annually. This is still a conservative estimate, and the real value may be much more,” Nameer said.

Following the Biodoversity Conservation Plan, Nameer also proposed an incentive or royalty to the generation of farmers who have continued to protect the wetlands for over a century. In 2020, the state government declared in principle that an ecological incentive would be provided to these farmers as royalty for keeping the wetland ecosystem intact.

The wetlands also act as a leisurely pit stop to migratory birds as it falls in the Central Asian Flyaway, a migratory route spanning across a chunk of Eurasia. Nameer, who is also at the forefront of a local community of birders in the area, says Kole is a birdwatcher’s haven. “In 1991, we did the first-ever comprehensive bird survey in Kole. We have continued it till 2020, for close to three decades,” he said.

Manoj Karingamadathil has been an active member of the Kole Birders, a volunteer-driven citizen science initiative 2014. The group regularly conducts bird censuses in January every year, with over 300 on-field volunteers. “It’s been around 30 years since we started the waterbird census. We have around 100 people spread across 15 zones who collect the data. There are around 30 species that frequent this wetland. We do go on bird walks here and share knowledge and enjoy a field experience,” Karingamadathil said.

“We have many species of water birds that are dependent on wetlands for their food. I have observed that the seasons play a major role in governing the birds’ movement. Apart from this, food availability and weather conditions play a major role. So at some stretches in time, the bird count can be low and at times it can get quite high. The time of the survey is really important. At the time when water is drained in Kole, is when a lot of birds arrive,” he said. When water is drained, the marshy zones create conditions for more feed, in turn attracting more birds. “We have a good population coming in. This could be called the number one wetland in Kerala for bird spotting. You can see a lot of threatened species and others migrating from far-off places. These huge flocks number 1,000 birds or higher.”

Meanwhile, Muhammed who recently recovered from Covid-19, has no plans of retiring. “I’m not worried about the future for now. It’s running like a well-oiled machine. Everyone feels responsible for safeguarding Kole as a wetland ecosystem, because all of them have an equal role to play.”

Birds flying over the Kole wetlands. Photo by Krishnakumar Iyer.
Birds flying over the Kole wetlands. Photo by Krishnakumar Iyer.

Illustration by Hitesh Maruti Sonar, an illustrator and graphic artist from Mumbai. He has worked on various projects from book illustrations, magazines, to editorial illustrations and animation backgrounds. He also has deep admiration for birds.

Article published by Aditi Tandon
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