Vengurla Bandar

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Mangrove safari run by Koli women

Gauree Malkarnekar, This mangrove safari has an all-female crew, March 25, 2018: The Times of India

The women go out in groups of three or four, and take turns at the oars to navigate the dense mangroves
From: Gauree Malkarnekar, This mangrove safari has an all-female crew, March 25, 2018: The Times of India

Fisherwomen have learnt to row boats, identify flora and fauna, and speak English so they can act as guides

Dressed in a brown sari and fiddling with her long mangalsutra, Sneha Sadanand Khobrekar giggles as she says: “When I go to the market, people recognise me as the woman who does the mangrove safari.”

A group of nine women from the Koli or fishing community of Vengurla, on the southernmost tip of Maharashtra’s coast, has suddenly found prominence in the neighbourhood. For one, they row boats and navigate the backwaters on their own — unthinkable for women in the village until recently.

Second, the women earn a living from the unusual business of taking tourists, both Indian and foreign, on an exciting mangrove safari in the backwaters adjoining the Vengurla Bandar.

The safari idea came from Shweta Satish Hule, part of a self-help group, Swamini Swayamsahayata Mahila Bachat Gatt, that made traditional sweets for sale. “It all happened so fast. When I told social worker Nandini Chavan about my idea of bringing tourism to my part of Vengurla, she introduced me to Durga Tigle Sawant of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). My husband and I took them on a ride through the mangroves and Sawant immediately came up with the concept of the all-women mangrove safari,” says Hule, whose husband Satish trained them to sail boats.

The Maharashtra forest department and UNDP gave them Rs 5 lakh as aid to buy equipment, including two boats and some lifejackets. After more than a week of instruction from senior conservator of forests N Vasudevan, the women picked up the names, medicinal properties, and lifecycles of all eight mangrove species found in their backwaters, besides the 17 bird species.

Sai Sachin Satardekar admits that they found it hard to remember the botanical names at first. “But we were also curious because we had lived amidst these mangroves since birth and yet barely knew anything about them. Now, we share what we know with clients who are researchers and serious nature lovers. We learn more every day,” she adds.

Avicennia marina, rhizophora mucroneta… they can rattle off the names. “The sap from excoecaria agallocha can blind you. The same sap can also cure pneumonia,” says one of the women on the hour-long safari.

They want to continue challenging themselves. They have recently undergone a three-month English training programme to communicate more effectively with foreign visitors, mainly from the US and Sweden. They are also working on creating their own brand of pickle from the fruit of a mangrove species.

Ask them when they are acquiring more boats and they say, almost in unison: “We want to run the business responsibly. We want to maintain the ecological balance here.” They made profits of over Rs 70,000 last year and are looking at a larger figure this year, going by the rising number of visitors.

The safari currently costs Rs 100 per person. Each boat is manned by three to four women, who take turns at the oars to navigate the dense mangroves.

Hule says she continues to sell fish at the bandar (port) but is proudest of her new safari job. “Our arms and hands hurt sometimes while rowing if the wind direction is not favourable, but we feel so happy when we are invited to deliver talks to other women’s self-help groups across Maharashtra,” she says.

Sai Sachin Satardekar admits it was hard to remember the botanical names of mangroves at first. But now she and others can rattle them off. “The sap from excoecaria agallocha can blind you but it can also cure pneumonia,” says one guide

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