‘Our lives depend on what happens in our oceans’

Naveen Namboothri grew up on a diet of development issues, conservation and stories of the sea. This by itself did not lead to a career in marine ecosystems and marine biology — “That just happened,” he says — but it shaped his worldview and his concerns.

Mr Namboothri serves as the director of Dakshin Foundation, a nonprofit that works towards fishermen's wellbeing and developing solutions for sustainable coastal and marine development in India. He speaks here with Christabelle Noronha about the multiple challenges facing coastal communities in the time of climate change, the importance to coral reefs and the criticality of saving our oceans from the excesses of humankind. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What sparked your interest in conservation and marine biology and how did these become your life’s calling?

A lot of it started when I was young. My father was working in the development sector and my sister got involved in conservation. Most serious conversations at home were centred around the conflict between development and conservation interests. But my moving into this space in marine ecosystems was not by design; it just happened.

As many others in the field, it started with a fascination for oceans and marine life. Once you dip your face into the waters of the sea without fear of drowning and enjoy what you see there, any person would get hooked. I remember watching Jacques-Yves Cousteau in a series called Secrets of the Sea on Doordarshan and being enthralled. Later on, fate made marine biology the focus. It all came together quite well.

The recently-released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a grim picture of what’s in store for the world. Are we on the brink of catastrophe?

I think it’s difficult to generalise across the globe or even across coastal and marine spaces in India. The impact of this is going to affect different communities and geographies differently. You don’t really need to read the IPCC report to know what’s happening; if you are living on the coast, you will feel it firsthand.

The economic and ecological consequences of all these changes are being felt on an everyday basis. Take the Lakshadweep group of islands, one of the most susceptible regions in terms of climate change. These islands are pretty much at level with the ocean, in some places even below it. Research by colleagues studying the marine ecosystem there indicate that the main reason Lakshadweep remains habitable is the ring of corals that protects it. Climate change is severely affecting the health of these coral reefs and, in turn, placing its inhabitants at high risk.

I have strong hopes for marine ecosystems, though. I have always believed — and there is sporadic evidence for this — that marine ecosystems are much more resilient than their terrestrial counterparts. They have the ability to bounce back if we show the intent and are ready to work collectively to remove the major stressors on oceans.

Unlike with terrestrial spaces, we still don’t know a lot about oceans and coasts (quite often fish are not even perceived as wildlife). We can’t see things in the oceans visually or perceive them like we can on land. Pollution in the sea, for example, does not have the same immediacy as that on land. That disconnect exists but what’s churning in the seas has huge consequence for human survival at multiple levels.

What happens on land has some consequences for the oceans, but the influence is much stronger the other way around. Oceans play a critical role in controlling local and global climate. Our agriculture, fisheries, development and the lives of millions of coastal people depend on what happens in our oceans.

Climate change is severely affecting the health of coral reefs

How badly are coastal communities being affected?

Coastal communities are especially vulnerable, particularly in countries like India (where nearly 250 million people live within 50 km of the coastline). A lot of fisherfolk are directly in the line of fire. India’s east coast is one of the most vulnerable globally, in terms of the storms and surges it faces.

Importantly, in many parts of India, fishing communities still do not have rights over the land where they have been living for generations, making them prone to displacement and other vulnerabilities. There are also the ever-growing pressures of development along the coastline and climate change-induced storms and cyclones.

We can perhaps adjust and prepare for a gradual sea-level rise and figure out how to live with it. Development of our oceans and coasts is important and that must translate into better stewardship of our blue resources. Similar to the green economy, the blue economy model talks about improvement of human wellbeing and social equity while reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

How can India do right by its marine ecosystem in terms of policymaking and drawing on traditional practices?

India has some of the most productive seas and coastlines in the world and can support the livelihoods and nutritional security of millions. However, over the past few decades, fishing has become increasingly unregulated and inequitable for our fisherfolk. Mechanisation and efficient fishing technologies — particularly the introduction of trawlers — have created huge inequities in how the marine commons are shared and accessed by coastal communities.

What India needs is to move the needle on the social development side for fishing communities; have a more decentralised, participatory and transparent approach to fisheries management. We have to start focusing on the sustainability of fish stocks rather than maximising production. India’s latest marine policy acknowledges some of these issues plaguing our coastal communities and ecosystems, but converting policy into practice requires a lot more commitment, capacity and hard work.

Marine ecosystems are much more resilient than their terrestrial counterparts. They have the ability to bounce back...”

How much of a danger is the plastisphere, the synthetic ecosystem evolving in our oceans? And does this danger manifest itself more in the Indian Ocean?

It has become very pervasive. Some of our studies in the Andamans have shown the presence of microplastics even in planktonic communities that form the base of the marine food chain. If this is the case in remote areas, one can only imagine what it would be in places where human activity is much higher. There is definitely a huge problem of plastics in our oceans and there should be plenty more incentives to not use it. There have to be alternatives that are economically and ecologically viable.

Countries such as India seem to be caught in a climate change bind as they try to balance the need for development with the threat this poses to the planet and their own people. How do we walk this tightrope, or is it a bogus choice to begin with?

The popular articulation that development and environmental concerns cannot go hand in hand has been extremely unproductive and problematic. This is an articulation that nudges governments to push for inequitable and unsustainable development models. India needs to articulate clearly what kind of development it is envisages. What is it that the people really need and aspire for? How can institutions that operate at the grassroots be provided more agency and capacity to address local issues?

Basic human development indices such as income, education and health remain the fundamental issues to be tackled at the grassroots and we need to focus on improving these. Development is not necessarily achieved through high-investment and infrastructure-based projects that have huge ecological and economic consequences for the marginalised.

India’s fishing communities have a heavy load to carry and this is getting heavier as the impact of climate change deepens

Development has to be context-specific; you cannot have one development policy or framework that is applied across all geographies and cultures. There is so much imbedded inequity in our midst that it’s vital to first try and define these at the ground level to bring about equitable, sustainable and long-lasting change.

Though the devastation climate change is causing in India is evident, there isn’t much concern about it in the politics of our country. How can civil society and the voting population contribute in changing this reality?

Topics like sustainability, conservation and climate change still remain conversations that are pretty much limited to the urban elite and the middle class; they do not trickle down to the poor of India, for whom such issues have real-life consequences. This is not to say they are not aware of these issues or have no opinion on them, but that they are never part of these conversations.

Environmental issues need to be mainstreamed into politics and should drive political agendas. That this is not being done in India, where a large part of the population depends on nature-based livelihoods, is a huge missed opportunity. There are a few young leaders talking about environmental issues and making it mainstream. We need to give them more power and support.

Environmental issues don’t seem to be an integral part of development planning. The cost here — the damage caused by a flood, for instance — is shared by people. That may explain why environmental issues are central to politics in many countries, particularly in Europe. That’s the sort of political shift India needs. It’s time to stop assuming that solutions are vested only in people who have power or are from a certain strata of society. Every citizen should have a say in climate change-related matters.

Importantly, in many parts of India fishing communities still do not have rights over the land where they have been living for generations, making them prone to displacement and other vulnerabilities.”

What’s your vision — and hope — for our world, its environment and its ecology in, say, 2050?

First, we have to rethink and reimagine what we as humans, as a collective, are aspiring for. Our youth are our real hope going forward and this is particularly true for a country such as India with its youth-heavy demography. We have to build a generation of environmentally conscious and empowered youth, and we need mobilisation at the grassroots. All of this starts with our youth.

As older people, we are already fixed in our thinking and our ways, and hard set with our philosophies and our outlook. But with youth there is hope that they can bring about change. If this becomes a global movement, it is not hard to imagine an equitable and sustainable world where the needs and aspirations of all are met.