Once abundant, Kerala’s mangrove cover, which was spread over more than 700 sq kms has now reduced to 9 sq km, mostly concentrated in the northern district of Kannur. The Valapattanam basin in Kannur is one of the most mangrove rich basins in the region but more than 80% of mangrove trees are on private lands, making it very difficult to develop a government/state led conservation plan for them.
Back in the 1980’s, mangrove conservation was not on the radar of any government or non-government policy / program. It was then that Kallen Pokkudan from Ezhom started a revolution that changed the way people looked at mangroves and its conservation. It took him nearly 25 years to plant more than one lakh saplings and conserve significantly large stretches, earning him the name Kandal Pokkudan (Kandal is mangrove in Malayalam) and be recognised as The Mangrove Man of India.
Born in 1937, Kallen Pokkudan realized the importance of mangroves early on and seeing the rapid reduction in their cover during the 1980’s, decided to do something about it. He began taking out his canoe in search for mangrove seeds, choosing Rhizophora mucronate, locally known as Pranthan Kandal (mad mangrove), the bark of which is used to treat diabetes. He collected long stick-like seeds of this plant and planted the mature seedlings along riverbeds and public spaces in his village.
Not only was he alone in this endeavour but had to face the mockery of many. He got tagged as a mad man. Some people went to the extent of destroying the saplings he had planted. He faced threats from the land mafia groups as they encroached these common lands.
Undeterred, Kallen continued to sow and conserve mangroves and overtime, his hard work paid off. The benefits of mangrove cover became evident to the government and the community as well. They supported him to set up a mangrove nursery and organize awareness campaigns on mangroves. With growing voices supporting him, the panchayats took mangrove destruction seriously and filed cases against the culprits. Mangrove conservation schemes became part of the annual plan.
He was conferred with several prestigious awards including:
- The State Forest Department’s first Vanamithra award
- Harithavyakthi award
- P V Thampi Environmentalist award
- Bhoomi Mithra award.
Kannur University also conferred the title of Acharya on him. He continued to educate and inspire young school and college students as well as local representatives on mangroves and on the importance to conserve them. He passed away on 27th September 2015 but has left behind a great legacy of green barrier in the blue ocean.
Blinding Tree – A Mangrove plant’s unique use
In the beginning of 2023, I visited in Kannur district, Kerala, to understand the conservation efforts of mangrove forests and other related issues.
While interacting with community members at the Korom village about mangroves, their conservation and various uses, they shared an interesting aspect, one that I had not come across in any literature.
In this village, currently 5 – 10 families make corks from the branches of the mangrove plant Excoecaria agallocha L. (Euphorbiaceae) locally known as Kannampotti, meaning Blinding Tree, as the milky latex secretion of this plant causes temporary blindness and skin blisters. More families were involved in cork making earlier, when ayurvedic companies would purchase them to cork glass bottles. With time, plastic caps replaced these corks.
The cork making process involves cutting branches, removing the bark, cutting them into smaller cork sized pieces. This is then dried in the sun. During this process, they must be very careful about the milky latex secretion. They shared instances where people’s hands were covered with blisters due to the latex falling on their skin and in some instances into their eyes leading to temporary blindness.
Now the corks are used by devotees going to Sabarimala, to cap the ghee filled coconuts, that is part of their religious offering to the deity. As this is an annual visit, largely during November to January months, these families make corks only during October to January period.
Leaves, root, wood, stem, bark, latex, and seeds of mangrove plant have several medicinal uses. Traditionally, they are used to treat epilepsy, ulcers, leprosy, rheumatism, and paralysis. Generally found on the landward side, this small to medium sized, low branching tree is also used extensively as firewood.
There are likely to be several such local use and stories out in different parts of our country that we are unaware of – stories that are waiting to be discovered, documented and shared.
Author: Vidya Ramesh, Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability
Sreelekshmi, S., Veettil, B. K., Nandan, S. B., & Harikrishnan, M. (2021). Mangrove forests along the coastline of Kerala, southern India: Current status and future prospects. Regional Studies in Marine Science, 41, 101573. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rsma.2020.101573
The Mad Mangrove. (n.d.). D’source Digital Online Learning Environment for Design: Courses, Resources, Case Studies, Galleries, Videos. https://www.dsource.in/sites/default/files/case-study/mad-mangrove/case-study-slide-show/file/the_mad_mangrove.pdf
Pal, S. (2017). Mangrove Man of India: This farm labourer planted and protected coastal forests for over 25 years! The Better India. https://www.thebetterindia.com/88979/kallen-pokkudan-mangroves-conservation-kannur-kerala/
4. Sreelekshmi, S., Preethy, C. M., Varghese, R., Joseph, P., Asha, C. V., Nandan, S. B., & Radhakrishnan, C. K. (2018). Diversity, stand structure, and zonation pattern of mangroves in southwest coast of India. Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity, 11(4), 573 – 582. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.japb.2018.08.001
P, A. V., & Devendran, K. (2022). Studies on distribution of true mangroves in Valapattanam, Kannur, Kerala. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/360156046_Studies_on_Distribution_of_True_Mangroves_in_Valapattanam_Kannur_Kerala
Mondal, S. C., Ghosh, D., & Ramakrishna, K. (2016). A complete profile on blind-your-eye mangrove Excoecaria agallocha L. (Euphorbiaceae): Ethnobotany, phytochemistry, and pharmacological aspects. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 10(20), 123. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973 – 7847.194049