Kallen Pokkudan, guardian of mangroves

KPM BASHEER Kochi | Updated on January 22, 2018

Green warrior A file photo of environmentalist Pokkudan (right) with Kerala Forest Minister ASujanapal, at a photo exhibition on wetlands, at the Lalithakala Akademi in Kozhikode S RAMESHKURUP

Renowned environment activist planted over one lakh mangrove seedlings

Kallen Pokkudan, a Dalit farm worker from Kerala, died on Sunday at the age of 78, after devoting the last 25 years of his life to the conservation, proliferation and exemplification of mangrove forests in the region. He was better known as Kandal Pokkudan ( kandal is the Malayalam word for mangrove).

In a quarter of a century, he made the world sit up and take note of the importance of mangrove forests in environmental protection, particularly its potential as the first line of defence against the rise in sea-water level, caused by global warming.

In that span of time, Pokkudan planted over one lakh mangrove seedlings along Kerala’s coastline, shores of backwater bodies and riverbanks. He was the self-appointed guardian angel of the mangroves (which has around 80 variants). Starting in 1989, he planted, nourished and protected tiny mangrove forests on public land.

He would set out in the morning in his little canoe, stacked with mangrove seedlings and his packed lunch, and carry out his mission until late afternoon. In between, he would take a nap on the canoe and drop a line for his favourite freshwater fish.

Taking notes

He used to cultivate a particular variety of mangrove tree which was locally known as the Praanthan Kandal (literally, the mad mangrove) and the bemused villagers, in turn referred to him by the moniker Praanthan Pokkudan. Unaffected, he carried on with his mission.  In the streets, he would corner passers-by and schoolchildren, and spend hours enlightening them on the need to plant mangrove trees and to protect the vanishing natural mangrove forests.

Gradually, ridicule made way for admiration and respect. Scientists and environmental activists recognised the large-scale environmental value of Pokkudan’s work. Several eco protection awards came his way. He travelled across Kerala preaching the gospel of the mangrove and advocating environmental protection. He delivered close to 500 lectures and workshops, mainly to schoolchildren and elected local bodies. He wrote, with the help of professional writers, three books about his life and work. International scientists sought his advice and viewpoints.

Premonition in action

The devastating tsunami of 2004 showed how mangrove forests could turn out to be a protective shield against such natural disasters. Scientists have also recognised that mangrove forests could resist calamities resulting from sea-level rise caused by global warming.

Born into an economically challenged household, Pokkudan had dropped out of school while in Class 2, to work as a farm-hand along with his parents in a remote village near Pazhayangadi, in Kannur district.

The region, at the time was the cradle of communism in Kerala and at the age of 18, Pokkudan became a communist. He participated in several agrarian agitations and was jailed a few times too. In the 1980s, Pokkudan left active politics, opting for green politics. He was a product of the environmental-protection awareness spawned by the popular agitation against the Silent Valley hydroelectric project in the 1970-80s. Today, Pokkudan, who had no education or socio-political capital, is revered as an icon of environmental protection. The story of the humble farm hand and his life would be remembered by generations to come, alongside tales of unassuming mangroves that grow in waterlogged mud, alongside shores and rivers, nurtured by the tireless soul, who let the trees grow and made it count.

Published on September 29, 2015

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