By Our Global Ambassador Lily Donnelly
What was our focus area?
Sarah Lobwein and I were chosen for the eco-tourism team as part of PCFML's Global Ambassador Adventure and Marine Conservation Masterplan project in India. Our mission was to research and understand ecotourism activities and opportunities in Kovalam and the surrounding areas. True ecotourism is an environmentally and socially responsible way to travel, where tourism activities aim to protect and preserve the integrity of the environment as well as the culture of an area. A percentage of the money raised from such activities is distributed back into the region, into conservation or sustainable development. While there are a lot of businesses and operators claiming that they are 'eco', greenwashing runs rife and many seem to do more harm than good.
Our plan was to survey tourism operators, staff, tourists and interested local government and non-government organisations to determine attitudes, ideas and issues on ecotourism activities, with an aim to empower locals to start their own marine focused eco-tourism operations, or improve existing ones.
What did we do?
Early on in the project we met with Jackson Peter who owns the local dive shop, Bond Safari. Jackson was very interested in partnering with us and offered Sarah and I to participate in an underwater clean up with his dive team. This opportunity enabled us to experience, first-hand where the enormous amount of rubbish on land is ending up. The main items that we found were fishing nets, plastic food wrapping, plastic bottles and cans. There was a small amount of marine life present, however the dive instructors confirmed our suspicions and told us that there had been a huge decline in recent years, largely due to pollution and over-fishing.
The underwater dive between Bond Safari and ourselves led to a co-hosted beach clean up on Grove Beach in Kovalam, where our local partner Sebastian Indian Social Projects (SISP) brought along their students, who are mainly from the fishing village of Vizhinjam. The students were able to learn more about trash, including the impacts that it is having on local ocean ecosystems and subsequently on locals' livelihoods as well. Uday Samudra Resort also took part in the clean up, which raised a lot of curiosity among onlookers and passers-by. Given the total lack of waste management facilities, many no doubt wondered what we were doing given that it is common practise to throw trash on the street and in the sea. After telling some of the kids from SISP about the impacts that cigarette butts have on the ocean, they came back with literally hundreds of cigarette butts coupled with ear to ear grins. Clearly, they got it straight away, but what do you do when there are no facilities in place to deal with these issues on a daily basis?
When we discussed our masterplan and our conservation goals with Bond Safari they were excited by the prospects that forming an alliance in the region could bring. They were also keen to continue the underwater and beach clean ups and to commence recording data, to give us an idea of the most common items found and how to address them. We spoke about a ‘marine conservation focused’ video, which customers will view upon entering the store and before they dive with Bond. It will aim to explore waste issues across India, what is being done about it in Kovalam and how they can get involved in keeping the ocean marine debris free through changing the way that they consume and how they view waste. We also proposed a marine life survey, which customers can fill out when they return from dives to get a clearer picture of diversity and abundance of species in the region. Jackson was really helpful and introduced our team to a number of potential partners, many of which are now active collaborators on our Masterplan for the region.
Next it was onto Poovar backwaters to explore the operators that work in the "pristine" estuaries inland from Kovalam. With mangroves, bird sanctuaries, natural islands and golden sands, we were keen to discover if the backwaters really lived up to their name and if the issues of waste and pollution were as prevalent there as they were in Kovalam...
More to come in part II of our Ecotourism Team Reportback from India. Stay tuned!