By Liberty Lawson
From surfing and swimming lessons with the local kids, to sitting down face to face with government officials and other environmental NGO's, our time in India with our 6 Ambassador's feels like it has flown by. It's been a surreal experience to witness the devastating poverty in the slums of Vizhinjam, contrasted with the wealth of the tourist beaches of Kovalam, which are literally right around the corner with only a headland separating the two. The incredible energy, passion and support of the local community has been overwhelming, and as we plan our long-term strategy, the toughest challenge that we face is figuring out where to direct our efforts first.
We began our first week with a visit to our partner organisation Sebastian Indian Social Projects (SISP). Their sky blue painted school is nestled down a quiet alleyway behind the hustle and bustle of Kovalam Junction, a few kilometres from both Vizhinjam slum and Kovalam beach. SISP was founded over 20 years ago by Paul Van Gelder and Werner Fynaerts to take in children who had nowhere else to go (learn more here). Instead of being divided by age, the students at SISP make up four classes depending on their individual level. They are all from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and most live below the poverty line in the fishing community of Vizhinjam where clean drinking water is a luxury, let alone a decent education. Some of the children at SISP had attended government schools, however the state-based education system doesn't allow for the challenges that poorer Indians face on a daily basis. Many of them were pulled out of school to work to support their families, and others dropped out after failing exams due to lack of support and resources both within school and at home.
SISP provides students with breakfast and lunch every day, and employs social workers to check up on their families and support them where needed with small loans and other assistance. Students take classes in Hindi, Malayalam and English as well. Learning basic computer skills, sports, mathematics, art and science, each student has an individual goal to work towards - some may prepare to take the standardised tests for re-entering government schools, whereas older students have the opportunity to work part time in SISP's handicrafts building, where they can earn a wage while learning new skills making products from recycled materials.
One of the most successful programs for school attendance at SISP was implemented by Yelle Rigole, a Belgian volunteer at the school who found some students so curious about his surfboard, that eventually he made them a deal. If they attended school 5 days a week, they would be able to take surfing lessons with him on the weekend. This initiative started over 10 years ago and, since that time, many of the graduated students are now working as surf instructors themselves at the Kovalam Surf Club that Jelle co-founded. SISP has also recently built a skate park with ramps and bowls to occupy the kids when the monsoon stops them from surfing. The tagline 'No School, No Surf' and 'No School, No Skate' is graffitied throughout the playground and since the surfing initiative started, attendance rates have increased dramatically!
Within a few days of arriving, Cassidy and Elizabeth (our fisheries team) began racing the sun each morning to make it down to the fish markets in Vizhinjam at dawn. After watching the boats come in early and the seemingly incomprehensible and chaotic fish auctioning process take place, they had the opportunity to speak to local fishermen, auctioneers and the fisherwomen, who sell the fish, about the issues they've been facing in recent years. The fishermen take their small wooden boats into the open ocean, sometimes for months at a time. Year upon year they have had to travel further and further out to sea for longer periods of time in search of a profitable catch. They estimate that over the past few decades, over twenty species have disappeared. Their concerns over species lost is coupled with the fact that they often catch more plastic in their nets than fish. The raw sewage that feeds into the harbour and the overwhelming lack of infrastructure in the area compounds the problems that the community faces on a daily basis
Meanwhile, our Eco-tourism team Lily and Sarah donned their BCD's and went out for an underwater clean up with Bond Safari, a local dive school, to collect rubbish and examine the health of the ocean from beneath the waves. Jackson Peter, the manager of Bond, has high hopes of becoming India's premier dive school, however this will require some serious efforts to improve the health of the local marine environment. Currents usually direct the majority of trash out to sea, however the impact that pollution is having on shore is overwhelming to say the least and results in the enormous impacts on marine health often going unnoticed. Implementing regular clean ups and dealing with the waste on land is the first step forward, while running education programs for fishermen, tourists and divers is key to shifting perspectives on waste and the impact that it's having on the sea...
After only a few days of interacting with the local community in the region, it quickly became clear that before progress could be made in fisheries or the tourism industry, waste management was in desperate need of being addressed...
Kovalam is in a unique predicament because it's economy is primarily driven by tourism. International and domestic tourists flock to the beaches in their thousands during the dry season, as well as a huge number of shop owners and vendors who travel from further north in India to work over the busy months before the monsoon hits. This floating population results in little respect for the local environment and even for local protocols on waste collection and management, not to mention significant cultural and linguistic barriers as well. Our waste management team, Liberty and Kasey, explored the issues surrounding waste, and examined local perspectives, as well as government and NGO efforts to address this enormous and complex issue.
The biggest problem toward ensuring adequate waste management in the region is two-fold. The first is a lack of any proper disposal facilities for waste, and the second is engaging the public to cooperate. Both of these go hand in hand and without one, the other is near impossible. There is only one local organisation who collects waste, Eco Preserve, however this collection costs money and most homes and small businesses aren't in the financial situation to pay for their waste to be collected. With no alternative, public spaces become a dumping ground for trash and subsequent burning and smoke literally chokes the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Providing bins has also so far only compounded the problem, as lack of education on waste and waste collection has meant that the bins serve as a vessels to dump everything and anything into with the hope that it will disappear. Many areas in the region are literally waste disaster zones.
Eco-Preserve is an NGO based in Kovalam, which is employed by the state government to collect waste off of hotels and restaurants in the area. For over twenty years they have been fighting an increasingly uphill battle. As soon as they get the government on board to provide funding for their systems, they lose the cooperation of the local businesses, and when the businesses step up and start participating, the government runs out of funding or pulls out their support. These issues, coupled with a severe lack of resources, have made a long-term, sustainable and efficient waste management model a logistical nightmare. Our waste management team sat down with Vijay, the energetic and innovative CEO of Eco Preserve. He has tried and tested countless ideas, from implementing Biogas plants in homes to provide energy to the poor from their own compost, to dehydrating food waste for compost to make transportation more efficient. He has even tried a number of plastic collection strategies, however these too have come with numerous challenges that seem difficult if not impossible to overcome.
We did some serious brainstorming with him over the past few weeks in regards to prevention, collection and recycling, and we also spent a few mornings picking through the colossal piles of waste in the carpark behind Hawah Beach with some of the local women paid to collect and sort the waste, hearing their stories and identifying potential solutions to this ecological nightmare.
Stay tuned over the coming months for a full, in-depth outline of what our fisheries, ecotourism and waste teams found and the actions that they took during our Global Ambassador Adventure. We'll also be outlining the solutions that the local community has identified moving forward and our plans for a Marine Conservation Masterplan for the region, which will be released this June.
We are in the process of starting our partnership and supporter program. There are enormous opportunities for positive change in this region. If you would like to support our vital work in India, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org