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Intrepid girls seaweed divers of India face dangers but persist : Goats and Soda : NPR


Thangamma, about 80 years previous, gathers seaweed off Pananthoppu seaside, Pamban island, Tamil Nadu, India. Seaweed extracts are utilized in a booming international meals trade. An estimated 5,000 girls collect seaweed within the shallow reefs round Pamban island, which they promote to native factories.

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Thangamma, about 80 years previous, gathers seaweed off Pananthoppu seaside, Pamban island, Tamil Nadu, India. Seaweed extracts are utilized in a booming international meals trade. An estimated 5,000 girls collect seaweed within the shallow reefs round Pamban island, which they promote to native factories.

Anushree Bhatter for NPR

Early on a heat February morning, a bunch of ten girls, ranging in age from 50 to 60, sit on the sandy shores of Akkal Madam seaside on India’s Pamban Island, rigorously bandaging their fingers. Carrying colourful blouses and saris, they wind thick strips of fabric over every digit and safe the ends with string. It takes them over 20 minutes.

The bandages, they’ve discovered, are one of the simplest ways to guard fingers from sharp rocks on the seabed once they go underwater to dive for seaweed, which they promote to an area manufacturing unit.

“That is how we prepare,” says Bhagavathy. “We have tried gloves earlier than, however they all the time slip away within the sturdy currents. And accidents are so frequent when your fingers are uncovered.”

Bhagavathy reveals the seaweed she collected. The divers maintain their breath for two to three minutes whereas extracting seaweed from underwater rocks.

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Bhagavathy reveals the seaweed she collected. The divers maintain their breath for two to three minutes whereas extracting seaweed from underwater rocks.

Anushree Bhatter for NPR

Bhagavathy is aware of what she’s speaking about. Now in her mid-60s, she has been amassing seaweed since she was 7.

(Like the opposite seaweed divers interviewed for this story, she prefers to be referred to by her first identify solely, as is the customized in these elements).

To maintain the rocks from tearing at their ft, the ladies put on rubber slippers. They strap on goggles since they’re going to be underwater with frequent dives every lasting as much as 2-3 minutes over a 5-6 hour day. They’re mastered the artwork of holding their breath throughout these dives.

Thangamma, about 80 years previous, dives in to assemble seaweed.

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Thangamma, about 80 years previous, dives in to assemble seaweed.

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“It isn’t for the faint-hearted. That is why you will not see any males right here,” Bhagavathy jokes. The opposite girls snigger as they wade into the nice and cozy waters.

However trendy occasions and trendy issues have made it more durable to reach this old style occupation. A rising variety of marine warmth waves are inflicting a dropoff within the varieties of seaweed they collect. What’s extra, the federal government now prohibits seaweed extraction in some areas to advertise ocean well being.

These girls additionally face challenges on the homefront. Alcoholism amongst husbands and different male relations is a significant issue.

As Thangamma and Bhagavathy eat the meal they packed earlier than leaving house within the early morning hours, extra girls arrive at Pananthoppu seaside to dive for seaweed.

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Nonetheless, an estimated 5,000 girls from the area persist, decided to proceed diving for seaweed.

“It is our predominant supply of livelihood,” says Munniammal, who’s in her mid-50s. “Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers have accompanied their husbands on fishing expeditions to gather seaweed so far as we are able to keep in mind. It is a custom as a lot as it’s our livelihood.”

Pamban, the place the ladies collected seaweed that February morning, is a teardrop-shaped island identified for its wealthy marine ecosystem. With over 4,000 species of vegetation and animals, it is thought of by UNESCO to be one of many world’s most bio-diverse hotspots.

Boats off the seaside at Chinnapalam village, Pamban island, Tamil Nadu, India.

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The island is positioned between peninsular India and Sri Lanka, linked to the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu by way of a rail and street bridge that stretches over a mile and a half throughout the waters of the huge Indian Ocean. Eucalyptus, coconut and palm timber abound, and picket fishing boats bob on turquoise waters so far as the attention can see.

There aren’t any fishing boats on this explicit seaside, nonetheless; Akkal Madam is a abandoned strip of baked sands at 8 a.m. when the ladies arrive after a 3-mile auto taxi trip from their village of Chinnapalam. A wild wind whips by way of their hair, and the daylight is blinding.

Bhagavathy (left) and Thangamma (proper) prepare to assemble seaweed. “It isn’t for the faint-hearted. That is why you will not see any males right here,” Bhagavathy jokes.

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Bhagavathy (left) and Thangamma (proper) prepare to assemble seaweed. “It isn’t for the faint-hearted. That is why you will not see any males right here,” Bhagavathy jokes.

Anushree Bhatter for NPR

The ladies who’ve gathered to gather seaweed within the shallow reefs tie white gunny sacks round their hips and plunge into the waters. They pluck at sprigs of springy seaweed, releasing them from the sharp rocks they develop on. They floor briefly and with one deft flick of the wrist throw the sprigs into the sacks tied to their waists. With hardly a backward look they plunge into the waters once more. From 8 a.m. till 3 p.m. they’re primarily underwater.

Most of them put on shirts or t-shirts over their saris so their moist garments do not cling to them; the extra layer provides heat. The strips of sari cloth thrown over the left shoulder streams behind like brightly coloured flags because the divers slice by way of the waves. The water is cloudy due to frequent bouts of nitrogen and phosphorus, air pollution that causes the expansion of algae. The currents are sturdy, even on this good sunny day.

On the seaside on Pamban island, the seaweed gatherers exit solely 12 days each month, amassing per week after the brand new moon and per week earlier than the complete moon. That is when the tides are weaker, the waters gentler and extra conducive for seaweed gathering. There is a hole of 9 days between cycles to permit the seaweed to regenerate.

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On the seaside on Pamban island, the seaweed gatherers exit solely 12 days each month, amassing per week after the brand new moon and per week earlier than the complete moon. That is when the tides are weaker, the waters gentler and extra conducive for seaweed gathering. There is a hole of 9 days between cycles to permit the seaweed to regenerate.

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In synch with the moon and the ocean

Like anybody who relies on the ocean for a residing, the seaweed divers are exquisitely tuned into their pure environment.

On the seaside on Pamban island, they set their very own rhythm, harvesting seaweed solely 12 days each month, their schedule ruled by the lunar cycle. They acquire per week after the brand new moon (roughly mid-month) and per week earlier than the complete moon (towards the tip of the month). That is when the tides are weaker, the waters gentler and extra conducive for seaweed gathering. There is a hole of 9 days between cycles to permit the seaweed to regenerate.

Thangamma carries her sack full of seaweed. On an excellent day, a seaweed collector can earn about $6 from promoting their items to native factories.

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Thangamma carries her sack full of seaweed. On an excellent day, a seaweed collector can earn about $6 from promoting their items to native factories.

Anushree Bhatter for NPR

Different seaweed gatherers from Chinna Palam who’re youthful and extra in a position, have a special working model.

They do not simply collect seaweed by the coast. As their foremothers did, the ladies acquire seaweed additional out at sea, off the coast of 21 uninhabited islets scattered like gems between Pamban and Sri Lanka. These islands now make up the Gulf of Mannar Marine Nationwide Park. The seaweed haul right here is richer, particularly across the coral reefs. They make double the earnings of those that collect seaweed by the coast. Since they have to pool their cash to rent boats for this expedition, they exit to sea solely six occasions a yr and go away the seaweed that grows round Pamban island for older girls to reap.

Small teams set out round 5 a.m., sharing a motorboat.

Their workday begins a lot earlier than the first light, says Seeniammal, who’s spreading the seaweed she gathered to dry simply outdoors her house. That morning, she awakened at 3 a.m., made herself tea, ready a meal for her husband and her granddaughter who lives along with her and packed some rice for lunch on the boat.

By 5 a.m., she is accompanied by 4 different girls on a motorboat, operated by a fisherman they know properly. They every chip in about $1 for the trip. It is a half-hour journey to the closest island. Relying on the provision of seaweed, they could enterprise out to the opposite islands which are additional away. As soon as they discover the perfect spot, they moor the boat and dive in. The ladies are in neck deep waters normally till 3 p.m., as a result of the sturdy currents would disrupt the work after that. Seeniammal gathered about 22 kilos of seaweed from that single journey, she says, nearly double what girls acquire close to the coast of Pamban.

A seaweed gatherer removes undesirable particles from the dried seaweed earlier than it’s weighed and offered.

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A seaweed gatherer removes undesirable particles from the dried seaweed earlier than it’s weighed and offered.

Anushree Bhatter for NPR

They normally make about $6 a day – in comparison with $3 to $4 for the ladies who keep on the island’s coast.

Irrespective of the place the seaweed is collected, the method of promoting it’s the identical. As soon as the ladies return to their village, the seaweed is rigorously weighed by representatives of native factories. A lot haggling happens.

Weighing the seaweed in Chinnapalam village, Pamban island, Tamil Nadu.

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Weighing the seaweed in Chinnapalam village, Pamban island, Tamil Nadu.

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Dangers galore: poison fish, dizziness, human attackers, new legal guidelines

Holding on to this conventional approach of incomes a residing poses many dangers.

Toxic fish abound within the coral reefs close by.

“Just a few years in the past, a toxic fish sunk its thorns into me,” says Seeniammal. “It hides within the coral reefs, so we won’t ever spot it underwater. The ache is so excruciating, you may want you had been useless. I used to be rushed to the hospital and handled with an injection, however I used to be weak and disoriented for weeks afterward.”

The stonefish that’s suspected to have stung Seeniammal is a widely known venomous reef fish with 13 venomous spikes. Different girls chime in that they have to continuously be careful for toxic fish and stinging jellyfish.

There are different risks. The ladies dive in small teams to allow them to look out for one another. Three months in the past, a 50-year-old seaweed collector from a close-by village was raped and killed on an remoted seaside.

The ladies additionally report that they generally develop dizzy whereas diving. If there’s any type of accident, the seaweed collectors who journey by boat to their harvest spots should all return so the injured particular person might be handled. Which means a lack of earnings, however, says Bakyam, age 40, it is a part of an unstated pact: “We continuously be careful for one another.”

Then there are the legislative roadblocks. In 1986, the federal government established the Gulf of Mannar Marine Nationwide Park. Seaweed extraction within the protected waters of the reserve was declared unlawful, with a jail time period of three years for violators.

S. Mahendran, a Forest Vary officer within the close by city of Mandapam who’s conversant in the ladies seaweed divers, says there is a purpose these restrictions existed.

“The islands are very fragile, eco-sensitive zones,” he says. “There’s a buffer space of six to seven meters round every island to guard the coral reefs there. And any footfall on the island itself might pose a danger to its vegetation, significantly its medicinal vegetation and wild grass.”

The ladies are allowed to gather seaweed if they do not breach that buffer zone, he says. However for the reason that seaweed grows so near the islands, that is a skinny line and never all the time potential, the ladies say.

In order that restriction does not cease the ladies, says Pandiammal, who’s the pinnacle of the native village council. “We inform authorities that it is our proper to take action. We do not know another strategy to stay.”

Rocky lives above water too

I interviewed almost 50 seaweed-gathering girls. That they had one overriding concern about their lives once they had been out of the water: the boys of their group. They’re primarily fishermen – and, the ladies say, lots of them are hooked on alcohol.

“Each women and men wrestle to make a residing. However the males are inclined to squander away hard-earned cash on liquor,” Pandiammal says. “It is made our lives above water as rocky because the seabed we face on a regular basis.”

So fishing earnings earned by the boys is squandered — placing strain on the ladies to dive for extra seaweed to make up for a husband’s misplaced earnings.

“Alcohol habit is a big downside in these elements and one which authorities are continuously battling,” says the forest officer Mahendran. “I really admire the braveness of those girls. They have to bear the burden of all of the bills after their husbands, who earn an excellent residing, have frittered away their cash on drinks.”

Many ladies say that the habit grows worse from April 15 to June 15, throughout the state’s 45-day ban on mechanized boats, utilized by fishermen, so breeding season shouldn’t be interrupted. Even the seaweed gatherers keep house in order to not disturb the marine life. The state authorities provides every household about $60 to compensate for the lack of the boys who fish. However a lady’s earnings shouldn’t be taken under consideration as a result of a feminine labor pressure is essentially invisible in a patriarchal nation like India and a money strapped state authorities battling a deficit cannot doubtless afford extra, says Mahendran.

Youngsters in Chinnapalam village, house to girls seaweed divers.

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Youngsters in Chinnapalam village, house to girls seaweed divers.

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Adjustments for the more severe — and the higher

About 30 years in the past, a plan was hatched to assist the ladies.

Within the Nineties, the Central Salt and Marine Chemical compounds Analysis Institute, part of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Analysis, had the concept educating the ladies to farm seaweed could be not solely much less harmful than amassing however extra profitable.

An settlement was solid with for-profit corporations to domesticate a non-native species referred to as Kappaphycus alvarezii, present in comparable water within the Philippines.

Tons of of rafts had been arrange near the coast of Pamban island, laden with seaweed.

Nevertheless, data from underwater images taken since 2000 and printed within the journal Present Science in 2008, revealed that the cultivated species has turn out to be invasive, smothering coral reefs within the protected reserve.

An effort to present girls a brand new strategy to earn earnings concerned cultivating an imported sort of seaweed on rafts. However the species has reportedly turn out to be invasive, smothering reefs.

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An effort to present girls a brand new strategy to earn earnings concerned cultivating an imported sort of seaweed on rafts. However the species has reportedly turn out to be invasive, smothering reefs.

Anushree Bhatter for NPR

An in depth open survey is required to determine whether or not the species is certainly invasive, says Vaibhav A. Mantri, senior principal scientist at CSIR-Central Salt and Marine Chemical compounds Analysis Institute. “There are opposite views on this topic,” he says.

So whereas the jury is out on seaweed cultivation, the military of seaweed collectors have seen adjustments for the higher. India’s Recognition of Forest Rights Act of 2006, acknowledges the rights of indigenous communities to utilize pure sources, and seaweed divers at the moment are being issued ID playing cards by the state’s Fisheries Division. One of many targets of this act is to “undo the historic injustice that occurred” to indigenous communities and to “empower them to make use of sources within the method that they had been historically accustomed.”

A seaweed farmer reseeds Kappaphycus alvarezii, a species of seaweed that’s cultivated on rafts.

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A seaweed farmer reseeds Kappaphycus alvarezii, a species of seaweed that’s cultivated on rafts.

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A hundred girls seaweed divers from Chinna Palam ought to obtain ID playing cards later this month – Indian forms is blamed for the delays. That may allow them to gather seaweed wherever with out concern for the repercussions. All they would want to do to qualify is to show that they are members of the group that is been amassing seaweed for generations. It is a truce of kinds between the indigenous individuals who have liked and lived on these islands for 4 generations — and a authorities’s efforts to safe the marine reserve, says Mahendran.

“For us, it is validation that we do not destroy the islands,” says Pandiammal. “We defend them. If it weren’t for these islands, how might we stay?”

Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Heart on Disaster Reporting.

Kamala Thiagarajan is a contract journalist primarily based in Madurai, Southern India. She stories on international well being, science and improvement, and her work has been printed within the New York Instances, The British Medical Journal, BBC, The Guardian and different retailers. You’ll find her on twitter @kamal_t

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