‘Matsyathavalam’ or ‘Home of fishes’: A democratic approach towards conserving fishes and livelihoods

As people drift down coconut palm tree laden banks, watching water hyacinth move toward other heaps of the aquatic plant, it is hard to believe Vembanad Lake is undergoing drastic socio-environmental change. The Lake, located in southwest India in the state of Kerala, is the longest lake in India. A coastal lagoon that spreads across three districts, Ernakulam, Kottayam, and Alappuzha, it expands into several types of waterways, including wetland systems and rivers. Its cultural, economic and ecosystem value has led to increased resource extraction and tourism, adding pressure to the already vulnerable lake. The lake has undergone adverse effects from this growth, reflected in heavy resource extraction, anthropogenic waste, agricultural runoff and reclamation of land. At a length of 96 km and area of 1512 km2, the longest lake in India has been reduced to one- third its original size due to reclamation of land.

Fishermen, farmers and tourism businesses rely on the health of the lake. But there are warning signs. Fishermen have especially noticed the environmental changes through decreasing fish stocks. Apart from the threat of compromised ecosystem health, fish in this area are a common-pool resource (CPR) and open access, with no restrictions on fishing, further intensifying concerns of depleting this resource. A recent bill proposed by the government, the Kerala Fisheries Bill 2010, is meant to change the current patterns by regulating fishery operations, but like other top-down managed activities here, there are some oversights. Several experts recently evaluated this bill, ATREE among them, to address this issue. Their recommendation is a bottom-up democratic conservation effort with the community in order to drive toward better decision-making for the health of the lake and environmental sustainability.

A need for sustainable decisions

In many studied cases, top down frameworks tend to overlook details or are ill prepared to make well-versed decisions to maintain the health of fisheries. Bottom up community-based democratic decision-making may be the more au courant approach in some cases, as for Vembanad Lake. It is a growing consensus by scientists and other concerned communities that water quality, fish stocks and livelihoods that depend on the health of these are considerably important. Systems that manage these resources are increasingly being scrutinized, and examining the governance and mechanisms of sustaining these valuable socio-ecological systems is a challenge.

“The traditional fishermen adopted an old ritual of worshipping fish and shellfish on “Ayliam-makom” days On these two days fishermen and women worship in temples for the benefit of fishes and shell fishes in the lake and bring back offerings, like seeds, to spread in the lake with prayers that the fish population may prosper and provide them for another year. The ecological significance of this ritual is that it coincides with two days most important for spawning… which was in fact a more scientific reason than blind belief.”

Dr. Latha Bhaskar (Vembanad-CERC) “Fishing in Vembanad backwaters”

Traditionally, conservation and management of resources in Vembanad, especially fishery resources, were vested in the hands of the local fishing communities. Once management shifted over to government hands, several adverse outcomes, based on poor decisions developed. A controversial bund was commissioned in 1974 to prevent saltwater intrusion into rice paddies, but consequently has encouraged negative feedback from the environment. The lake’s health has taken a turn for the worse resulting in a decline in primary productivity and fishery resources, growth of macrophytes and degradation in water quality, all well documented and reemphasized in Azis and Nair’s Certain aspects of pollution in the aquatic ecosystems of the southwest coast of India. The want for economic growth in the state triggered a chain reaction of development. However, environmental needs of the area require a suitable management plan to harmonize both. However the quandary of top-down management may be that management of resources follows neither the principles of sustainability nor those of transparency and accountability. The state has been moving toward tourism development, largely ignoring environmental problems and community dialogue. The Kerala Inland Fishery Bill reflected the government’s weak acknowledgement of the lake’s need for a stronger regulatory framework that is comprehensive. Even the title reflects the lack of precision in constructing the bill; ‘Kerala Inland Fishery Bill’ needs adjustment from ‘Fishery’ to ‘Fisheries’. The Act does not take into account pollution, the bund, local stakeholder knowledge and concerns. Instead, it reflects bureaucratic supremacy. In order for patterns to change, it becomes necessary to involve community in decision making and planning. People in the area have traditional knowledge handed-down from past generations of observation and experience that is relevant to the understanding of how the environment works and what is needed to sustain it.

Elinor Ostrom et al state in Revisiting the commons: local lessons, global challenges that, “Whether people are able to self-organize and manage a CPR depends on the broader social setting within which they work. National governments can help or hinder local self-organization.” The fishermen in this community rely on the government for some forms of support in order to manage their resource. In one case, the government failed to implement the agreed removal of a rapidly growing plant, the water hyacinth, making it troublesome for them to fish. The irony is that the community could have solved this problem before it became a nuisance. When communities acquire the opportunity to control their resources, a bottom up management approach can work, if done in a way harmonious with environmental needs. Stakeholders, in this case are burdened by this management obstacle, and unable to use their regime to determine appropriate mechanisms towards a solution. Therefore, it is essential for stakeholders to have the power to execute decisions based on socio-environmental needs of the community.

Sustainable management by stakeholders

A designated Ramsar site since 2002, the lake is now under conservation surveillance by multiple organizations. ATREE recognizes the role of community stakeholders, organizations and panchayats in achieving a socially just environmental conservation model. We are trying an approach that distinctly employs bottom-up decision-making through a deliberative democratic method. With ATREE’s intervention and community participation in bottom up management of fishing, the area has already seen a rise in fish stocks through artificially created fish sanctuary known as Matsyatavalam (Home of Fishes) using branches of cashew and bamboo poles.

ATREE’s community-based organization, called Community Environmental Resource Center (CERC), drives these activities in collaboration with local institutions. CERC addresses the declining fish stock by encouraging stakeholder involvement in decisions directly connected to livelihoods, in this case leading to fisherfolk management of designated fish sanctuaries. Communication between fishermen, other stakeholders and ATREE researchers helped rouse the opportunity to create this solution for maintaining the fish habitats for spawning. ATREE’s eagerness to learn from stakeholders enables them to understand the root of the issue.

A two-way conversation has enabled both parties to gain knowledge, and in the community’s case, revive a resource. ATREE continues to work with the community in order to determine appropriate agreements and communicate with stakeholders to increase cooperation.

ATREE-CERC operates in Allappuzha in their satellite office assisting the community in environmental governance, capacity building and research. The success of fish sanctuaries and the increase in fish stock has encouraged the community to plan more sanctuaries in the future.

Works Cited

Aziz, Abdul P.K and Nair, N.B., 1981. Certain aspects of pollution in the aquatic ecosystems of the southwest coast of India. Proceedings of Seminar on Status of Environmental Studies in India: pp 345 – 356

Bhaskar, L. (2009). Fishing in Vembanad backwaters.

Ostrom, E, Burger, J, Field, C, Norgaard, R, & Policansky, D. (1999). Revisiting the commons: local lessons, global challenges. Science, 284(278), 278-282.

Korakandy, R, Economic and Political Weekly State of the Environment in Kerala: What Price the Development Model?
Vol. 35, No. 21/22 (May 27 - Jun. 2, 2000), pp. 1801-1804
Published by: Economic and Political Weekly

Photo credit:
Dheeksha Rabindra

Profile: Cody Patterson was an intern at ATREE from University of Washington-Tacoma. She is a senior in Environmental Studies and Global Honors, which is an interdisciplinary upper-division programme that prepares students for the challenges of a global society.