Women as Ambassadors for Mangrove Conservation

When women comprise half of the world’s population, it is very likely that women will be part of every aspect of the systems on this earth, also contributing to its collapses, and confronting the consequences that come along with it. Therefore it is important to understand that, women as part of this earth have their portion of contribution towards the environment and its conservation. But as it is in many other areas, the traditional gender roles of the society leave out of women from this area. Women on the other do not seem to mind it, as they are mostly unaware or ignorant of their role in protecting the environment.

Yet the recently held workshop in Sri Lanka on sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems, opened my eyes. I was participating in this workshop conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] to train a team on a new project ‘Youth Led Eco Disaster Risk Reduction’ with the aim of paving the way to comprehend the sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems to provide services that reduce disaster risk by hazard mitigation and increasing livelihood resilience. It was during this program, and when visiting the mangrove park of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency [NARA], that a thought flashed in my mind about women’s contribution to help conserve the ecosystem so as to mitigate natural disasters, while at the same time find adaptation methods to face future challenges caused by climate change.

Today the people in Sri Lanka have begun to involve in searching for solutions for their problems caused by environment degradation, climate change, and natural disasters, in order to overcome the negative effects of these on their livelihoods and economic development. While the male headed households find it easier to cope with the hard situations, the female headed families suffer in large extents.

The prolonged conflict in the North and East provinces, marginalization, violations and violence has created continuous insecurity for the minority women living here. Being widows, or wives of the disappeared persons, or wives of surrendered former para-military, these women become extra vulnerable to insecurity, exploitation and sexual harassment. For these women to be free from these situations, they have to be able to fight back. Living in poverty does not give them the stamina physically and mentally to fight back, and hence they become subdued to their adversaries. Having decent livelihoods is a tool for these women to be independent and to not fall into the traps of the exploiters.

I walk nearly five kilometers away from my village, and cross the Mavilayaru lagoon to reach to my agricultural land in Thoonadithalavai”, mentions Vijeyalalitha who is an ex-combatant, and the wife of a disappeared person. Vijeyalalitha who was born in the Manipuram village, is a thirty – five years old woman with two daughters, who struggles to meet her ends meet at home. “Most of the time, the water level of the lagoon is up to my hips. I have to visit the place daily to water the plants; and when I am back home I have my usual duties as a mother. What I worry most is the safety of my two daughters; especially the times I am away from home.”

As the threats for women and girls in these villages have increased during the recent past years, every single female holds fear within herself either for her own sake, or for the sake of her female family members. The risks for women and girls are not only from strangers who enter these areas under diverse pretexts, but also from their own family and neighbors.

“During the rainy season in December, I have to take an alternative road to the land, and as this is 15 kilometers away, I am away from home for long. I cannot work in peace in my land, when I fear the threats my daughters might face alone at home. Hence, I have given up harvesting during December. During such times, the vendors themselves go to my vegetable lands and harvest the vegetables without my presence and pay me little money. I am always subjected to exploitation in this manner, but being a single parent and challenging the nature for my survival, I have no other choice than face it. I am like a worm on hot sand” said Vijeyalalitha with tearing eyes.

Vijeyalalitha lives near the coastal region in the East of Sri Lanka. Yet she is not aware of the vast growth of mangroves in this region around her. Batticaloa district in the east has the second largest number of mangroves in the island, which could be used as a prevention mechanism to mitigate some natural disasters which often takes place in this region. But this poor single mother from the region is unaware of it and struggles alone to earn a living amidst huge fears.

The illiteracy and ignorance of these women are those which turn against them, increasing their vulnerability, and gripping them amidst exploitation. If these women learn and understand the natural resources of the environment which could be used to protect them and their environment from natural disasters, the women and their children will not be found in endless deprivation, poverty and threats on their lives.

Data reveals that the mangrove extent of Sri Lanka is between 6000 – 7000 Hectares. While the largest mangrove cover is found in Puttalam 3385 Hectares, the second largest is in Batticaloa 1520 Hectares, with the third largest cover found in Trincomalee 1020 Hectares. The ecological significant  of mangroves is  to protect the shores and lagoons from erosion, reduce siltation of lagoons, protect nearby ecosystems such as coral reefs and sea grass beds, absorb pollutants, protection from tsunamis and tropical storms. Evidences from studies show that these coastal shrubs have played a significant role in saving human lives during the tsunami in 2004. These also serves as the feeding grounds and the habitant for marine fish and the nursery for the prawns. The benefits can be food and beverages, firewood and timber, mats and baskets, medicines, tannin, animal feed, lime, agriculture.

However, as many of the population today are ignorant of the importance of mangroves, they consider it to be waste land and destroy it for aquaculture, agriculture, urban development and coastal development. As a result, it has become a rare and endangered habitant. Major threats for the mangroves are the destructive activities of fishermen, over-harvesting of wood, large scale of coastal development projects, mining projects, damming of rivers, rising coastal population, climate change, agriculture and aquaculture. Shrimp aqua culturing is one of the worst threats that befall mangroves. The loss of mangrove forests has become the highest threatened in the world, the loss of it even beyond the loss rates of rain forests and coral reefs. This is because of the lack of management capacity in the coastal region. If these mangroves are managed in an effective manner, it can provide income, protection form natural hazards, store the carbon emission from the environment, protecting from pollution, and thus mitigating poverty through improved livelihoods, assuring social security, and leading towards economic development.

Mangroves have also been destroyed by many natural catastrophes. Asia has 40% of the global mangrove cover. But the past years have experienced high loss of this cultivation due to not only increase in development and tourism, but also with the natural attacks such as the tsunami. Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia are countries with high loss of mangroves due to tsunami.

Batticaloa being the second largest mangrove coverage in Sri Lanka, brings the natural beauty, and is of great economic values to foreigners and visitors, promoting the tourism industry of the country. Kalyani, a woman in the coastal community states, “I have undergone many challenges and successes in my life as a single parent; and I want my daughter to be well educated and be strong to face the future challenges as I see things getting worse in the globe today in terms of protection for women – especially connected to climate change and scarcity of resources”.

Coastal ecosystem is a blend of women and men in the coastal communities. The pathetic situation of mangroves is that it is rapidly degrading. This is because of the partial knowledge of the sustainable resource management of the communities that is always been a risk to the biodiversity. Here mitigating the risk is an essential component which could be chained with the marginalized and deprived women in the community. The risk of mangroves is a threat to the Eco system and the vulnerability of the women in general is a threat to the socio – economic and cultural condition and the structure of the society. Women should be empowered for decision making, in development, in health care, to raise their voices, acquire skill for leadership development and engage in income generation. Only then can women be more powerful in social, economic and political spheres. The socio – cultural – economic reasons increase inequality and discrimination for women, making them more vulnerable to trafficking, violence, exploitation and injustice in the country. The massive discrimination is very commonly witnessed in the labor market. Women are the victims for fewer opportunity for a career, higher in the unemployment rate and more percentage in the lower wages except in the Government sector.

Until the 19th century, women were considered to have no role in the environmental conservation and promotion and they were avoided in all major parts of social life. But it is evident that there are crucial areas which require women as actors of resource management, environmental conservation and rehabilitation. Women play a major role in addressing the environmental problems as they build up a close connection with the nature and of the local environment, as they are those who suffer often and mostly and both directly and indirectly from these environmental catastrophes.

As a solution to these problems, the women in the coastal area must be given training on   mangrove cultivation, the value addition of mangroves and how the women could use the mangroves to protect the environmental hazard, while also using it as a resource to generate income.

To make this connection more between women and the environment more effective and appropriate to the context a tool is needed. Hence, ‘Eco-Feminism’’ – which sees the                                life-threatening connections between the domination of nature and the exploitation of women can be considered as a tool to achieve a long term goal in the lives of women in the coastal community. Here women will be seen as an active drivers of change towards conservation and sustainable development of their livelihood. This intervention will in return help in the prevention of natural disasters where women and children are most likely to be affected.

The life of a women and mangroves are similar in nature as far as it is not understood by the community. They are to be considered as the protection agents to the nature and the society. The following evidences can be compared to the lives of a mangrove and of a woman:

‘Mangroves protect soil erosion; and Women protect social erosion’

‘Mangroves protect the nature; and Women protect the culture’

‘Mangroves provide fodder to the aquatic species; and Women provide food to the human species’

‘Mangroves are a giver to the society’; and Women are a giver to the family’

‘Mangroves transfer benefits to the next generation; and Women transfer the values and norms to the next generation’

‘Mangroves reproduce; and Women reproduce’

‘Mangroves absorb the pollutants in the environment; and Women absorb the pollutants in the society’

‘Mangroves preserves and protects’

‘Woman is a preserver and protector’

‘Let her preserve the nature and protect its people’

Nilakshy Thavarajah  |  Sri Lanka