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Mangroves binding cultures

The case of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in Meenakshi Poti's research

Josephine Condemi
a story by
Josephine Condemi
Mangroves binding cultures

«The mangroves? They protected us from the tsunami»: Meenakshi Poti often received this answer during her research in the past four years. For her interdisciplinary doctoral project at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, she interviewed more than one hundred people from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, two archipelagos of 572 islands, 38 of which are inhabited, in the Indian Ocean. 

The Nicobar archipelago is 150 kilometres away from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the epicentre of the December 2004 earthquake: the fracture of the fault between the Burmese and Indian plates caused tremors exceeding the ninth degree on the Mercalli scale, leading to the sinking of some islands and waves as high as 15-metres. Mangrove forests acted as a protective belt along the coast and to the population, mitigating the impact of rogue waves to some extent. This is the latest example of a close relationship between the mangroves and the people that has been going on for a long time. 

Mappa Isole Andamane Nicobare
Map of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) and neighbouring countries. The islands are situated at distances of 1100 km from Chennai (India), 688 km from Yangon (Burma), 770 km from Phuket (Thailand), 1093 km from George Town (Malaysia) and 1122 km from Medan (Sumatra Island of Indonesia)

«The mangrove is a window into the cultures of these islands», argues Poti, who analyses mangroves as social-ecological systems (SESs) in her project. As a social-ecologist, Meenakshi Poti completed an Erasmus Mundus TROPIMUNDO master’s degree, focusing her thesis on the conservation and consumption of sea turtle eggs in Redang Island, Malaysia. During this experience, she emphasised incorporating knowledge from social sciences. «Integrating social, economic and political aspects is critical to working towards effective governance and conservation,» she says. «In my PhD project, I rekindled a childhood interest. My native place is on the South-West coast of India, where I spent time by the sea observing mangroves and coastal communities. This motivated me to understand the relationships between people and mangroves in small islands facing environmental changes, such as global warming and extreme events», explains Poti. Furthermore, «the multicultural nature of the Andaman and Nicobar islands adds complexity but also fascination to my path».

The plurality of languages spoken in the islands (more than ten) testifies to the multifaceted history of these places. Some 8,000 square kilometres owe their beauty and fragility to a common event – the birth resulting from the periodic awakening and collision of two tectonic plates. The wealth of biodiversity has led UNESCO to include the largest island of the Nicobars in the global network of biosphere reserves. The strategic position in the Bay of Bengal made these islands the object of conquest by neighbouring countries and Europeans alike. A history intertwined with mangroves. 

Migrations through mangroves

Meenakshi Poti studies mangroves as socio-ecological systems and uses art to communicate science.

Discover her research

«The first attempts at colonisation in the 1700s by the Danish and the British are said to have failed due to high mortality and illness» explains Poti. «So when the British returned in the mid-1800s to establish a penal settlement, they had the idea of ‘reclamation’ in mind, which involved both killing the natives and cutting down vast expanses of the mangroves. These mangroves were considered to be disease vectors and were deemed useful only for obtaining wood and charcoal». 

But cutting a mangrove is not easy, it requires a lot of work. For this task, prisoners in the penal colony were first employed. After the establishment of the penal colony, the archipelagos took the name “Kalapani,” meaning “black waters.” From the 1920s, the task of cutting mangroves was entrusted to the Karen people, who were specially brought in from Burma and subsequently other communities from central India because they were skilled in hunting, forestry activities and traditional medicine.

«The Karen built a particular type of canoe (known as khlee in the Karen language), useful for moving through the mangrove creeks and shared this knowledge with other communities,» Poti explains. The publication of anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown’s classic The Andaman Islanders dates to this period.

After India’s independence from Britain in 1947, the islands became an Indian Union Territory, governed by the central government in New Delhi. Over the decades, the islands have hosted several migrations: from the ‘Ranchis’ of landlocked central India to the Bengali refugees after the division of the Bengala region between India and Pakistan. «Each of these communities came from different traditions,» explains Poti. «The Ranchi lived in an inland area and had never seen the sea: they still vividly remember the fear of the journey by sea and the wonder and terror they felt at the sight of the mangroves». These amphibious trees stand on both land and water, with large roots on marshy ‘foot-sinking’ ground: «This resulted in hesitation and kept the Ranchi people from approaching the mangroves for years,» says Poti. 

Conversely, Bengali people were accustomed to staying on the coast and fishing with different techniques: some came from the Sundarbans area, the largest mangrove forest in the world. «Over these years» Poti says, «My research participants described how different communities learned from each other and grew into using the mangroves for fishing and other purposes, with mangroves now playing a key role in their livelihoods».

Fishing in the mangroves

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to 34 mangrove species (half the global species), plus four hybrid species. «While internet connectivity improved only in the last three years, previous satellite remote sensing and vegetation sampling studies mapped and measured the extent of tsunami impact on the mangroves» explains Poti. The 2004 earthquake and tsunami caused the degradation of 97% of the mangroves in the Nicobar Islands and 47% in the Andaman Islands. Some coastal areas were submerged in Nicobar and South Andaman, while in North Andaman, coastal uplift led to the surfacing of the coral reef beds and interrupted the tidal flow that fed the mangrove roots. The loss of mangroves and altered tidal influence is said to have negatively impacted fish stocks. 

Poti shares an anecdote: «I met an elderly Karen woman in her 70s who went fishing every week among the mangroves and asked if I could join her. She didn’t speak Hindi, so I was accompanied by a young woman for translation, who persuaded me to bring my mobile phone with me to take pictures». It is not easy to walk through the mangroves bare feet, among the big roots, coral remnants sticking out, and swampy terrain. «I was not well-equipped for this spontaneous plan». In a few seconds while retrieving her phone from her pocket, she was stumbling over a root:  «The phone fell straight into the water. The translator offered to go back to the village to fix it, not before telling me, ‘But you go on fishing with her!’». Over the next three hours, they only caught one fish. Poti recalls, «It was not a good day for fishing, but off my phone screen, I had all my senses going. My visual memory was at its peak, and I couldn’t wait to be able to draw this experience». 

Illustrations by Meenakshi Poti. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author

Art for science communication

Poti uses art, particularly illustrations, as a means of communication: «People become friendly and curious about my research when they see my drawings. My illustrations are vibrant with colours and simplicity, making them useful to describe what is happening in a system and, thus, communicate science». For her master’s thesis, Poti translated her statistical analyses into comics in the form of graphical abstracts. During her research in the Andamans and Nicobar Islands, her illustrations served as conversation starters, engaging people of various age groups, particularly children. They also served as tokens of appreciation for the hospitality she received and as a way to depict her experiences. «Stories become easier to share after I draw them», she explains. «Sometimes it’s a moment of quiet reflection, other times, I draw among other people, like in a tea shop». 

This communication approach of using art has garnered attention from UNESCO. In July 2023, Poti collaborated on the UNESCO mangrove restoration project ‘MangRes’ in Providence Island within the SeaFlower Biosphere Reserve in Colombia. «The island was struck by a violent hurricane in November 2020, severely degrading the mangroves. Through my research and art experience with communities, I aimed to contribute by creating a bridge between the knowledge from island communities and organisations that promote development cooperation». The roots binding the mangroves to the people are deep: one cannot take care of the ones without considering the others.


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