Coastal communities in Gujarat build mangrove barriers with benefits for environment and livelihoods

Image shows a clump of saplings in muddy soil
  • A community-based, multi-species approach to mangrove conservation is gaining ground in the Bharuch district of Gujarat.
  • The initiative is developing a coastal bioshield, which is a plantation of mangrove and non-mangrove species, with mangroves on the seaside, salt-resistant trees in the middle and fodder plants on the village side.
  • Touted as a nature-based solution to climate change, bioshields have multiple benefits including carbon sequestration, improvement of aquaculture and agriculture in coastal villages and fodder availability.

The swamp seemed never-ending. Only crabs gave me company as I plodded knee-deep in the marsh. The voice of my field guide, only 10 feet ahead, was muffled by the squelch and the wind. There was no way I could keep pace with him. Shoes were useless here. I had already discarded them way back. What came to my rescue every time I lost balance were the sturdy mangrove stems. I had gone to report about their restoration and conservation and they affirmed their role in the ecosystem, with every step I took.

Mangroves are the protector of the coast. They have many benefits – they prevent erosion, minimise impact from storm surges and cyclones, ecosystem regeneration, carbon sequestration, and nutrition for the marine ecosystem. But once lost, restoring them is hard work.

Every few metres in this swamp, little pieces of cloth were tied on the plants. These mark the walking trail for mangrove plantation workers, said Ramesh Kotechia, my guide. After two kilometres of tall mangroves, the field opened up to bare mudflats. From no humanity in sight, the scene changed to a flurry of human activity.

About 50 people, mostly women, milled about. Black sapling bags, buried in the swamp, were being dug out. Sleighs crafted out of plastic jerry cans were being pulled to transport saplings. People ran around with flags to mark rows and spirited women hopped up and down to dig holes in the swamp to plant mangrove saplings. We reached the plantation site at Devjagan Nada village in Gujarat’s Bharuch district at 11 am. The tide in the Arabian Sea had just receded an hour ago. The workers had only three hours to plant mangroves before the tide returned.

Ramila Rathod from Asarsa village in the district’s Jambusar block has been working in this terrain for a year. She travels 12 km by a goods-carrying vehicle, removes her slippers at a point beyond which no vehicle can go and walks seven km daily to and from the plantation site. She earns Rs. 250 per day during the planting season which amounts to an income of Rs. 7500 per month for about six months a year. She and 30 others rent the vehicle at the rate of Rs. 1000 per day to travel to work. “It’s difficult work. The mud is saline, we have to stand in water for hours, and it causes skin problems also. But we are now used to it,” she said. Her tobacco-studded brilliant smile betrayed her. She has seen worse days. On being prodded, she revealed that she finds plantation work way better than being a ‘paaniharin’, who fetches water for households. Around ten years ago, she worked as a bonded labourer at a landlord’s house. “I had to fetch water from far-off wells to the house. All I got was Rs. 1-2 per pitcher,” she said.

Read more: Unpacking how cyclones impact mangroves’ ability to soak up carbon dioxide

The making of a ‘bioshield’

From 2016 to 2019, a kilometre-long portion of the Jambusar coastline became pilot to an experiment that was a little different from mangrove regeneration projects across India. The idea was to have a 50-metres wall of mangroves on the seaside backed by 50 metres of salt-resistant Salvadora plant (locally known as piludi), 50 metres of fodder crop (unth morad in Gujarati) and then aromatic herbs and fruit trees towards the village side, together forming a 180-metres-wide natural wall between the sea and arable land. The Vikas Centre for Development, an Ahmedabad-based NGO, along with their technical arm, Saline Area Vitalisation Enterprise Limited (SAVE) undertook the project in Tankari village with funding from the Adani Foundation.

Rajesh Shah, Managing Director, SAVE, says bioshields, as this wall is called, besides controlling erosion, support in increasing the fish catch and fodder production, while also improving agricultural production by blocking saline winds. “Earlier, cyclones only affected the eastern coast of India. But lately, the frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea has gone up. There is a critical need to implement adaptation projects to protect the livelihoods and ecological assets of vulnerable communities on the coast. Bioshields serve this purpose,” said Shah.

Image shows a woman pulling a bag of mangrove saplings on muddy ground
Saplings being transported to the planting site. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

In March this year, Ganpat Makwana from Tankari harvested 2800 kg of wheat from his two-acre plot that is three km from the sea. Makwana, who earned Rs. 40,000 from the wheat and fodder sale, last harvested wheat ten years ago as the saline winds would not let anything grow. “If the seawater comes in, nothing grows for a long period. We did grow cotton after the monsoon, but even that gave little yield as the plants stunted from salt-laden winds. This has reduced after the plantation came up. This year, I took a cotton crop and then wheat by just irrigating the field twice,” said Makwana.

Encouraged by the pilot, SAVE expanded the initiative to 18 km out of 66 km of the Jambusar coastline in 2018. The two plantation sites at Dewla and Nada Devjagan, apart from Tankari, did not have a piludi plantation but had a 1000 to 2000-metre-wide mangrove belt. “One of the learnings from the Tankari project was that aromatic and fruit trees can’t grow at all sites. Even piludi, which needs grass soil and not mudflats, can’t grow everywhere. Soil quality is important to plan plantations,” said Kanti Makwana, technical area coordinator with SAVE. This phase of the plantation is now complete and the team has moved on to planting in the other areas of the planned 66 km.

Meanwhile, at Nada Devjagan, where the last plantation of the season was in April this year, Kotechia, also a technical area coordinator with SAVE, pointed to a creek in the middle of the six-feet tall mangroves that we traversed. “This plantation is five years old. The sea used to be till here back then.” We were still 1.5 km away from the present seashore. In five years, accretion had pushed the sea more than 3 km away, forming new mudflats on which Ramila and friends now planted saplings.

Image shows a woman digging out a sapling from muddy ground
Sapling nursery prepared in October 2022 being dug out. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

As we walked, Krishna, a fisher appeared out of the quiet mangroves. He proudly showed us his catch of rotund crabs. “This is four kg. Each kilogram gets me Rs.140. By noon, I should be able to catch about seven kg,” he said.

Mudskipper, a fish found in mudflats, is another delicacy. “We sell it for Rs. 100 a kilo,” said Budha Rathod, a fisherman at Dewla, another plantation site. He had come from Malpur village, 12 km away. “This place had little fish before the mangroves came. We went as far as 18 km away to get a good stash. But after the mangroves grew, we get about six kg here only,” he said.

However, Ramesh Nana Bhai, his fellow fisher from Malpur, is disgruntled. “The distance to the sea has increased, and walking through the mangroves takes a long time,” he said. People who fish on foot and not on boats are known as Pagadia fishers in Gujarat. In Jambusar, there are two kinds of Pagadias – those who fish in the mudflats and those who go to the sea and cast nets vertically on poles. The incoming tide brings in fish that get caught in the net.

“Clearings should be left between plantations for people to walk to the sea. This way, mangroves will be saved from human interference too,” said Jaising Thakor, trustee of Janvikas, another NGO in Jambusar that works on mangrove restoration.

Image shows two women planting saplings in muddy mangrove soil
Once the saplings are taken from the nursery, they are planted at the site in a spaced-out manner. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

The Rathods, another community in Jambusar, to which Ramila and Budha Rathod belong, mainly consists of landless labourers. Their main occupations are salt pan work, agricultural labour, and fishing. “Jambusar has rainfed agriculture, high erosion, and salinity ingress. In the last 30 years, 22 droughts happened here, forcing people to take up low-return agriculture,” explained Shah.

The Rathods never got regular paid work and were forced into loans that they could never repay and ended up being bonded to the landlords. The men worked as agricultural labour (chakar) and the women as water collectors (paaniharin). “In 1978, when I started work here, they were paid Rs 1.5 per day. A loan at the rate of 10% interest never let them get out of the poverty trap. That is when I realised the connection between poverty and natural resource management,” he said.

The mangrove restoration projects in Jambusar have employed 600 Rathods in 15 coastal villages, reaching 3000 families. “Mangrove plantation has given them short-term livelihood as well as long-term benefits such as increased fish catch and fodder availability. Many people harvest mangrove leaves in summer when no other fodder is available. Piludi is an oilseed from which oil for medicinal purposes is extracted. In the local market itself, the rate for these seeds is Rs 50 per kg,” informed Thakor.

Image shows a small row of saplings in muddy soil
Year-old mangrove saplings. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

In May this year, SAVE partnered with the Gujarat Ecology Commission (GEC), Gandhinagar, and Good Carbon, a German carbon trading fund, to plant mangroves in all potential areas along the Gujarat coast. “We conducted a feasibility study and found 40 potential sites and an area of 20,000 hectares where bioshields can be planted. The project is called the Great Green Wall of Gujarat,” informed Shah.

Good Carbon deals in carbon credits from nature-based solution projects. “The Great Green Wall of Gujarat” has the potential to be the largest blue carbon project coming out of India that would play a vital role in climate change resilience building. Along with climate and biodiversity benefits, the involvement of the marginalised coastal communities in this project is really its USP. These communities will benefit from future ecosystem services, and the carbon revenues will fund further community development in the region,” wrote Chinmaya Thonse, Good Carbon’s Regional Director, Asia, in an email response to Mongabay India.

Image shows a man holding two freshly caught mud crabs
Crab catch from the plantation. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

Read more: The reality of saving young mangroves in the Sundarbans

Are bioshields effective?

The idea of bioshields gained prominence after the 2004 tsunami on the southern coast of India, says Sugata Hazra, a professor at the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. “A bioshield with a variety of species certainly helps to bring in biodiversity and generate livelihood opportunities for coastal communities. But to protect against cyclones, the mangroves need to be tall and in a thick belt, which is not the case in Gujarat. A thick belt can reduce wave velocity by 40-45%,” he said.

At 1600 km, Gujarat has the longest coastline among Indian states and second-largest mangrove cover after West Bengal’s Sundarbans. However, inter-tidal zones – the main habitat of mangroves – are as wide as 3-4 km in the state, which means mangroves here are an open forest as compared to the dense Sunderbans. Also, unlike the deltaic mangroves of the Sundarbans, those in Gujarat are not as tall. “This is because we do not have freshwater ingress like the eastern coast of India. Mangroves need a balance of saline and freshwater,” said R.D. Kamboj, former director of Gujarat Ecological and Educational Research (GEER) Foundation, Gandhinagar.

Keeping the short height of mangroves in mind, tall mangrove associates (trees that can survive in saline soil but need less tidal inundation as compared to mangroves) like Casuarina and Salvadora have been planted in many parts of Gujarat as a second row, said Mahesh Singh, member-secretary of GEC. “But such layers are only possible in places that have vast mudflats. It is not feasible in Kutch, for instance, which has 71% of the state’s mangrove cover,” said Singh.

Bioshields should be implemented in areas where large-scale mangrove degradation has happened, like in the 5000 square km area of Sunderbans that was destroyed by the British, said Hazra. “The mangroves there are only protecting the tigers. People living in Sunderbans are in the degraded mangrove area,” he claimed.

On World Environment Day on June 5, a plantation drive at 75 mangrove sites across nine states in India was organised under the Mangrove Initiative for Shoreline Habitats and Tangible Income (MISHTI) programme that was announced in the 2023 union budget to encourage mangrove plantation. Hazra says the idea for MISHTI came from a women’s self-help group in West Bengal that utilised NREGA funds for mangrove restoration. “MISHTI should, in fact, support programs like bioshields so that people earn out of ecological restoration,” he said.

Restoring mangroves is indeed hard work. But the people of Jambusar are quietly making it possible, one sapling at a time.

Read more: Successful model of development in tandem with mangrove restoration


Banner image: Saplings growing in the plantation nursery at Jambusar. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

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