Aamakaar tells the story of the people of a village in North Kerala fighting to preserve their village and their livelihoods, threatened by sand mining on their estuary. For the last 10 years, they have been conserving Olive Ridley Turtles that come to their beach to nest. They see the preservation of a species on the verge of extinction as an extension of their fight against the destruction of their estuary, their village, and their lives.
The film follows the rhythm of work in the village to unfold this struggle for existence of a species, of a people. A thick cover of coconut groves hides the Kolavipalayam fishing village, spread along a narrow strip of land between the Araphuza river on one side, and the Arabian Sea on the other. The northern extreme of the strip ends at an estuary where a beautiful sandbank keeps the sea tides from flooding the river. This sandbank is at the centre of a conflict that threatens the existence of the village, and of the Olive Ridley turtles that nest here every year.
Some years ago, Surendra Babu, a local autorickshaw driver, read in a newspaper about Olive Ridley turtles being an endangered species. He realised almost immediately that the turtles, which arrived at the Kolavipalayam beach every year, were the same species. Olive Ridleys have been coming to the Kolavipalaym for as long as Surendra could remember. His first encounter with a turtle took place when one morning, before dawn, he and his father landed their fishing boat after a disappointing fishing trip. As they walked towards the village, they saw a Olive Ridley female ponderously returning to the sea, leaving a tell-tale trail of flipper marks that pointed to where, under the cover of darkness, she had buried her eggs.
That morning the disappointment of a poor catch was forgotten. Turtle eggs are considered a rare delicacy, and the nest yielded 180 eggs, to be shared between family and friends.
The chance reading of the newspaper article changed all that. Surendra Babu and a few friends decided to help conserve turtles. During the nesting season – spread over four winter months – they patrolled the beach at night looking for turtle nests. The idea was simple. The eggs had to be protected from predators, human and animal. So, freshly laid eggs were carefully dug out from their original nests and re-buried immediately in a make-shift hatchery.
Fifty days later when the hatchlings struggled to the surface, they were gently released into the sea. News of the conservation programme spread rapidly. An informal network of sympathisers brought news, and sometimes even the eggs of a nesting event miles down the coast. Every year the group released as many as 2,000 hatchlings into the sea. They began to be called 'The Turtle People'. The Turtle People feel a sense of pride that the Olive Ridleys have chosen their beach as a nesting ground. "It is believed that Olive Ridleys inevitably return to the beach where they were born, to lay eggs," say the Turtle People.
"The number of hatchlings we have released into the sea has been increasing every year. We dream that one day our beach will see an arribada (mass nesting)... maybe in another twenty years... but who knows if this beach, or even this village, will still be here." The Kolavipalayam beach which was over a kilometre wide not many years ago, is rapidly shrinking. A wide, sandy beach is a must for turtles to nest, but, perhaps more importantly, it is integral to the economy of a fishing village – part of the vital commons. Every day, tonnes of fine sand is illegally mined for construction work, land-filling, etc.
The sea, in turn, carries away sand from elsewhere and re-eposits it in a desperate attempt to maintain the sandbank. Consequently, every year, the sea eats away yet another portion of Kolavi's beach, slowly and inexorably making its way to the village. Sand mining is a large-scale activity spread across the coast of Kerala, as well as its river beds. Ironically, it is banned by the state government because of its adverse environmental impact. In a scenario where the returns on cash crops like rubber, coffee, and areca nut have been consistently declining, sand is one of the few commodities that has an assured market and price.
Sand mining unions are often supported by powerful politicians. None of the sand mining contractors, or their workers, are from Kolavi – they largely come from the town on the eastern bank of the river – and neither is the district authority, which monitors the mining activities. With some degree of difficulty – the cost of legal action is high – the Turtle People approached the courts and obtained a restraining order on the mining, and yet mining continues, albeit not so openly. The struggle to protect Olive Ridleys has grown into a struggle to preserve the existence of the village, and its resources. Turtles still occupy centre-stage – the night vigils, collection of eggs, release of hatchlings, education programmes – but the Turtle People know that they cannot isolate conservation from larger issues like globalisation, and their right to a livelihood.
The idea of struggle is not new to the turtle people. It was a series of little agitations that brought them together in the first place. And at the core of every struggle the issue was the same – an external authority imposing decisions on the village, and a subsequent loss of control over local resources. The Turtle People are only too aware that in Indian mythology, the turtle is an incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu, the Preserver. "Everybody calls us the Turtle People," they say, "but it is not we who are preserving the turtles, it is the turtles who have provided us a platform to voice our protest, the turtles who will preserve us."
DV/75 minutes/English sub-titles/2003
Produced by: Sunil Shanbag/Chrysalis Films
Directed by: Surabhi Sharma
For more information, please visit The Turtle People