An example of how locals are asked to make enormous sacrifices in the name of nature conservation, while tourists enjoy sacred and fragile locations.
The Gulf of Mannar, the first Marine Biosphere Reserve in the South and South East Asia, stretchs from Rameshwaram to Kanyakumari (South Tamil Nadu). Covering an area of 10,500 Km², it encompasses a chain of 21 islands and adjoining coral reefs. Its core zone is known as the Marine National Park.
The importance of the Gulf of Mannar dates back to the 2nd Century AD, with traces of highly productive pearl banks and religious sites. The Gulf of Mannar has drawn attention of conservationists even before the initiation of the Man and Biosphere (MAB) program by the UNESCO in 1971. Thanks to a biodiversity rich of 3600 species, part of the Gulf of Mannar was declared a Marine National Park by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1986, acquiring its current status as the first Marine Biosphere Reserve of India in 1989.
In the Thoothukudi district, there are 7 precious Islands, maintained over the years by traditional fisher folks. Until recently, a festival was held annually on one of the Islands. Fishermen used the islands as safe landing points in case of severe cyclones, storms, etc. Some also used them to dry their nets. In short, the islands were essential to their livelihood and security.
After the United Nations declared the islands a Biosphere, all human activity, including that of the fisher folks, was banned. In order to preserve the site, the festival was cancelled for the first time, and the fishermen could no longer rely on pearl hunt during the fishing off-season.
However, soon after the Government did allow ecotourism to the area and marked the boundary of the Park with floating buoys around the islands. If a fisherman enters the area, he is fined up to Rs. 40,000 (EUR 600, GBP 500, USD 770), or imprisoned. Tourists meanwhile have access to the area on cruise boats.
Local people fear the fines and the coast guards. The death of 4 fishermen (including a 16 year-old boy) in July 2011 can be seen as a direct result of this ban. Their fishing boat capsized in rough seas. But for their fear of financial repercussion, they would have landed on an island and their lives would have been spared.
The community understands the need to make sacrfices in order to preserve the islands. But when crowds of tourists are allowed access to the same eco-sensitive area, it is highly unfair and illogical. It seems that generating tourism taxes takes precedence over preserving the ecosystem.
- Map of the Gulf of Mannar, published by the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, 2007.
- Fishermen village on the beach at Rameswaram
- IBNlive article about the death of the fishermen
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