When it is a question of livelihood versus environment, most of us would blindly go with the livelihood option but not these women of Rameshwaram.
At the farthest end of the Indian peninsula, there is an army of women, who dive into the seas to earn their living. Clad in sarees, their only sophisticated gear they have are the borrowed goggles. They deep-dive into the sea to pluck seaweed that grows on underwater rocks and dead coral reefs adjoining the islands in the Gulf of Mannar.
To protect their bare hands from the injuries of manual collection of weeds, all they do is wrap a cloth around their fingers and fasten them with rubber bands. Their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers have all done the same. They have braved the tides of Tsunami, a government ban on seaweed collection, poverty and more — but these women of over 100 coastal villages in Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu have now emerged as the guardians of the marine biosphere of Gulf of Mannar.
Watch: Seacology.org’s video on the lives of the seaweed collectors of Rameshwaram
Seaweeds are marine algae or plant-like organisms that are vital ingredients in medicines, ice-cream, toothpaste, fertilisers and in many other products that we consume on a daily basis. They are also integral to the ecological balance of marine life.
For the women of Rameshwaram, seaweed harvesting is the only job they know. Over the years, the number of women who collected seaweed increased. This development did not just split their earnings, but also affected the seaweed population in the region.
With a mandate to safeguard the marine biosphere, the Gulf of Mannar was declared as a Marine National Park by the government in 1986. The government also announced a total ban on seaweed collection.
“My family cannot eat if I do not go to the sea”, says Lakshmi Moorthy, a 48-year-old woman of Chinnapalam village, who has been collecting seaweed since the age of seven. A total ban was not something that women like Lakshmi could accept.
Lakshmi never went to school, neither did other women of her village. If not for seaweed collection, they did not know what else they could do to bring food to their families. The women defied the ban. They continued to collect seaweed, which proved to be entirely counter-productive to the intentions of the ban.
“In our hearts, we knew that we couldn’t allow the seaweed resource to deplete. If we destroy it, we destroy our livelihoods,” says Lakshmi. With this realisation, Lakshmi decided to bring all the women together as a collective and protect their source of income.
The women started educating each other on how they could protect the seaweeds as well as earn from it. The women created a union of seaweed harvesters, decided to become its guardians, and soon were soon noticed by the authorities. They worked along with the government and worked out a plan.
“We decided that instead of collecting seaweeds all 30 days of a month, we would restrict collection to just 12 days in Rameshwaram,” says Lakshmi.
Photo courtesy: Seacology.org
That was a massive cut down; less than half of their usual collection days. But these women saw that this restraint made more sense than the mindless destruction of the environment. They would head to the sea for six days during the full moon, give a break for nine days, and then again collect during the new moon.
The plan to regenerate the seaweed worked, and this meant extra yield for the women. “Earlier when we were collecting every day, each of us could get 5 to 10 kilos of seaweed, but now, we are able to collect 25-30 kilos,” says Lakshmi. Though they still manage to earn just about ₹7000 to ₹10000 a month, it is much more than what they made before — an example where conservation has contributed to increased income.
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It has been ten long years since the women of Rameshwaram committed themselves to the twelve-day collection schedule, a sacred commitment that they never breach. They also carefully protect the seaweed by not using sharp metals to collect them, and instead use their hands for plucking them.
They avoid excessive collection also ensure that only women who have government approved ID cards can collect weeds. Thanks to the self-restraint and foresightedness of these women, our coastal biosphere is now well protected.
Lakshmi Moorthy played a pivotal role in bringing about this change. Beyond establishing a sense of eco-responsibility among the poor women and conserving the environment, she helped the voice of a group of impoverished women be heard. These efforts did not go unnoticed.
Lakshmi was conferred the Conservationist of the Year award by Seacology, in the USA, in 2015, as a representative of the 2000 odd women who protect the biosphere in the Gulf of Mannar.
Photo courtesy: Seacology.org
Travelling from her obscure little village to California to receive the award, she spoke to a huge audience about the resilient women of her village. She came back to the village and contributed her prize money of ₹ 2 lakh to the local school.
“We are poor because we did not receive any education. I want things to change for our children”, says Lakshmi, who earns less than ₹ 10,000 a month. Here is a hero — who wears a saree and dives into the seas.