Orissa’s women lead the way to safeguard turtles and spur new income

05 Jun 2011

image Women in Orissa's fishing community benefit from the conservation of the rare Olive Ridley turtle. (Photo: UNDP India)

The efforts of a group of Indian women to simultaneously protect endangered sea turtles and boost their local economy were recognized at the 2010 Equator Prize award ceremony, organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government of the Indian state of Orissa.

These efforts were supported by the women's organization Samudram, which was one of 25 recipients of the prestigious Equator Prize in 2010 and received US$5,000 for its achievement.

Samudram is a federation of 160 women's self-help groups that span 50 villages in six districts in Orissa. It aims to empower traditional Orissa fisherwomen in all facets of life.

In recent years, Samudram has undertaken an initiative to economically empower 1,500 people from poor communities in Orissa by working to  boost Orissa's fishing industry through the protection of Olive Ridley Turtle populations.

The endangered Olive Ridley Turtles are key predators of jellyfish, which eat fish larvae and deplete fish populations off the coast of Orissa. Protecting the turtles helps to keep jellyfish populations in check and, thus, preserves the supply of fish, which are a primary source of livelihood for Orissa residents.

In seeking to protect the Olive Ridley turtles, Samudram has worked to conserve their nesting sites, which are endangered by large-scale trawling, beach erosion and industrial pollution. Efforts to protect the sites include planting mangroves, clearing beaches and setting up new sites in safe locations.

As a result, field studies have shown a 50 percent decrease in turtle mortality between 2005 and 2009.

At the same time, Samudram reported that income levels for the approximately 400,000 women working in Orissa's fishing industry have nearly doubled, rising from about US$460 in 2004 to US$970 in 2010.

Aside from conserving turtle populations, Samudram also provides capacity-building training for its disenfranchised members, supports micro-financing initiatives and promotes climate change awareness, particularly with regard to disaster risk management.

At the Equator Prize award ceremony held in Orissa in May, 2011, the state's Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, praised Samudram, noting that, "what started as a small movement led by 15 women in 1993 has now become a state-wide campaign that holds important lessons for conservation initiatives across the country."

Backed by UNDP, the Equator Initiative is a global partnership aimed at supporting local communities in reducing poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

"Conservation of Olive Ridely turtles is critical to the livelihood security of Orissa's coastal communities," said Patnaik at the award ceremony in May.

The Chief Minister also acknowledged the contribution of UNDP in drawing global attention to community-led conservation efforts in Orissa. Since the Indian government declared Olive Ridely turtles endangered in 1972, UNDP has supported government efforts to monitor the migration and conservation of the turtles, especially in Orissa, home of the world's largest Olive Ridley nesting site. 

Patnaik added, furthermore, that, "the success of [Samudram's self-help] groups reveals the significant potential of women's groups to take the lead in environmental conservation efforts."

According to Shri Debi Prasad Mishra, Forest and Environment Minister of Orissa, "the efforts of the Samudram Federation demonstrate that women can work as effective environmental managers."

Organizations such as Samudram and the United Artists Association have also helped by teaching women in Orissa to create products from daily catches, such as dried or pickeled snack foods that sell at higher cost than unprocessed fish.

"Initiatives such as these that empower women and communities that are reliant on natural wealth to think globally and act locally must lie at the cornerstone of our poverty reduction efforts," said Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP Country Director in India.