The Pichavaram tourist complex: battlegroundEcologists in Tamil Nadu have declared war on the state Government. The battleground is Pichavaram, 200 km out of Madras, one of the best preserved mangrove forests in the country. The state Government is keen on developing this magnificent 5,000-acre forest into a tourist resort with,The Pichavaram tourist complex: battlegroundEcologists in Tamil Nadu have declared war on the state Government. The battleground is Pichavaram, 200 km out of Madras, one of the best preserved mangrove forests in the country. The state Government is keen on developing this magnificent 5,000-acre forest into a tourist resort with boating, surfing and water-skiing facilities along with cottages located in the area.To fight this, the Tamil Nadu Science Forum and the Madras Naturalists Society recently convened a meeting of prominent biologists, zoologists, naturalists and marine biologists who have cried halt to the project and want the setting up of an expert committee on how to best utilise this “natural laboratory”.Mangrove forests are found only in the tropics where they grow by the seaside and along river banks where the water is brackish. The vegetation is distinctive as it is able to take root in the loose and highly saline soil. India has an estimated 20 lakh acres of mangrove forests, the largest ones being in West Bengal and the Andamans.The reason why Pichavaram has so many crusaders is that it is one of the few left where the complete sequence of mangrove zonation is in evidence from dense foliage with stilted roots on the banks to sparse vegetation at the edge.Increased Erosion: Another factor that has contributed to the lushness of Pichavaram is the three rivers that flow through its 10 km long and 3 km wide area. The rivers form a maze of shallow channels which are so numerous and tricky that the local populace jokingly remarks that even the egrets which are familiar with the waterways get lost in Pichavaram. However, studies done by the French Institute indicate that the development work has already increased coastal erosion.Said Professor V. M. Meher Homji, a botanist at the Institute: Pichavaram must be preserved not only because it is a natural laboratory but also because it has been an important factor in stabilising the shifting coastline. The felling of trees has also led to salt encrustment on the soil thus preventing any new vegetation in the denuded sections.advertisementThe location of the cottages within the wooded area will lead to other problems: ecologists feel that with a growing tourist trade the populace would soon start plundering the forests for fuel and fodder.The repercussions are likely to extend beyond the ecological field. Reports from the Centre for Advanced Studies in Marine Biology of the Annamalai University at Perangipettai reveal that Pichavaram is a rich breeding ground and nursery for such lucrative seafood as prawns, lobsters and crabs.With building activities as well as the introduction of water sports once the resort is completed, the shallow channels which criss-cross the forest will no longer be able to harbour the varied marine life. Warns Meher Homji: Any further disturbances to the delicate balance of the eco-system will lead to the rapid deterioration of the mangrove forests.Limited Success: The ecologists have now asked the Government to stop all further construction in Pichavaram. They suggest that the cottages and the resort area be located in Chidambaram, a tourist centre just 11 km away, and groups be brought to the mangrove forests for day trips.After repeated letters to the Tamil Nadu Government, the Department of Environment and the prime minister, Meher Homji was asked last fortnight to meet the Committee on Tourist Excursions, chaired by V. Chandralekha, collector of Cuddalore district under which Pichavaram falls.The meeting was partly successful with the members agreeing to recommend to the Government a proposal to drop water sports and prohibit motor boats in the channels. Only row boats would be allowed. No decision, however, was taken on the shifting of the cottages. Chandralekha told India Today in Cuddalore: We have no intention of clashing with the ecologists.We are equally keen on preserving Pichavaram and will try our best to implement their suggestions. But with construction of the cottages proceeding briskly, the mangrove forests of Pichavaram may soon become a thing of the past.