Aamakaar - The Turtle People

Posted: 5 December 2003

In Kolavipalayam, a small fishing village in Kerala, southern India, the survival of rare Olive Ridley turtles, and of the people themselves, become intertwined when a sand mining operation starts devouring the estuary and shore they depend upon. Director, Surabhi Sharma, tells their story in this award-winning film.

Some years ago Surendra Babu, a local autorickshaw driver, read in a newspaper about the threats faced by the endangered Olive Ridley turtles. He realised almost immediately that the turtles, which arrived at Kolavipalayam beach every year, were the same species.

Turtle hatchery, Kerala, Photo: Chrysalis Films
Turtle hatchery, Kerala. Photo: Chrysalis Films
Turtle hatchery at Kolavipalayam, Kerala, Southern India.© Chrysalis Films

Surendra babu and a few friends decide to help conserve these 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 two-inch long hatchlings struggled to the surface, they were gently released into the sea.

The 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 2000 hatchlings into the sea. They began to be called "The Turtle People".

Turtle hatchling, Kolavipalayam beach, Kerala, India. Photo: Chrysalis Films
Turtle hatchling, Kolavipalayam beach, Kerala, India. Photo: Chrysalis Films
Turtle hatchling© Chrysalis Films

The turtle people feel a sense of pride that the Olives have chosen their beach as a nesting ground. "It is believed that Olives 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 aribada (mass nesting) ...maybe in another twenty years ... but who knows if this beach, or even this village, will still be here."

Sand mining

There is good reason for this sense of doom. The beach at Kolavipalayam was over a kilometre wide not many years ago. Today it has been reduced to a narrow strip, rapidly shrinking. The people of Kolavi believe their beach, the turtles and their village, are threatened because of illegal sand mining at the estuary sandbank.

Every day tonnes of fine sand from the sandbank are taken away to be used for construction work and land-filling. The sea, in turn, carries away sand from elsewhere and re-deposits it in a desperate attempt to maintain the sandbank. Consequently, every year, the sea eats yet another portion of Kolavi's beach, slowly and inexorably making its way to the village. Ironically, it is banned by the state government because of its adverse environmental impact.

With some degree of difficulty since the cost of legal action is high, the turtle people approached the courts and obtained a restraining order on the mining contractors coming from outside their village. Yet mining continues, albeit not so openly. The turtle people are clear about their demands. "Stop the sand mining, and save our beach," they say. "The turtles need the beach to nest. If it disappears, they will find another. But what happens to the people? If the village is swallowed by the sea, where will the people go?"

The villagers see the preservation of this turtle on the verge of extinction as an extension of their own struggle to gain control of their own 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 us 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."

DVDs of this 75-minute film are available for Indian and overseas buyers at the following rates, inclusive of delivery costs: In India:Rs. 1500 for institutional buyersRs. 1000 for individuals. Overseas:US$ 150 for institutionsUS$ 100 for individualsTo order, contact Jyotl: more details on the film visit: www.turtlepeople.com