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Kerala – despite challenges, still in harmony with nature

Houseboats cruise along the backwaters of Allepy

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Benedict Lopez travels around historical Kochi and its backwaters and savours the experience of being close to nature.

As we exit Cochin (Kochi) Airport in the state of Kerala in southern India, we are met by our tour guide, who informs us that the airport is completely powered by solar energy.

In 2015 Cochin became the first airport in the world to be powered by solar energy. A few hundred metres away, a solar farm generates power for the airport.

Negotiating stretches of narrow roads and alleyways from Cochin to Allepy to reach the backwaters requires an experienced driver. Thankfully, we have Jaiby, the driver of our Tempo Traveller, a light commercial vehicle. With his sharp knowledge about this part of Kerala, he finds it a breeze traversing along these curves and bends.

As we sail through the backwaters of Allepy, the tranquillity on both sides captivates me. Cruising through the backwaters, flanked by a variety of flora, gives us a sense of serenity.

Thick foliage flanks the backwaters of Allepy

The waterways here generally look clean; no floating plastics or any other form of litter. All that I notice bobbing on the river are water hyacinth plants.

Vijayan, the pilot of the houseboat, informs us that the peak season at the backwaters is from September to November when tourists throng the area. Our pilot hoots as we sail through an underpass, informing oncoming houseboats of our presence.

We stop along the way at one of the shops to buy fresh prawns and crabs. Upon our return, we hand them over to both our chefs, who turn them into excellent seafood dishes.

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Most of the residents living along the backwaters are paddy farmers, who do some fishing to supplement their monthly incomes.

The next day we are back in Allepy, this time to go on a boat trip around Lake Vembanad, noted for the annual Nehru Trophy boat race during the Onam (harvest) festival.

Suneet, a software engineer from Thiruvananthapuram, is here for the weekend with his wife Rajani. Patiramanal Island, located in the lake, is famous for its migratory birds, he tells me.

In this lake too lies the Thanneermukkom Bund, a saltwater barrier which controls the water flows between the lake and the sea. The water from this lake is used for paddy farming.

But there is a problem. Local research scientists have found heavy loads of plastic litter in the bottom sediments of Lake Vembanad and the coastal belts of Kochi. Siltation has also shrunk the depth of the lake from 8-9 metres in the 1930s to 1.6-4.5 metres now.

Kerala is noted for its Malabar and mango fish curries and karimeen, which is fried and served on a banana leaf. The Kerala fish curries are different from those available at Indian restaurants in Malaysia. The karimeen fish is only available in the backwaters of Kerala, while most of the other fish caught by fishermen are from the sea.

From Allepy we drive five hours to the hill resort town of Munnar. Just before we reach Munnar, we stop at a waterfall with a breathtaking view.

Munnar at daybreak

A conspicuous sign at the waterfall reads: “Plastic waste disposable free zone. Dumping is punishable.”

Near the waterfall is the spice garden, which has 30 types of spice plants.

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At the spice garden in Munnar

Once the seeds from the plants turn black, they are harvested and sent to the factory for processing, drying and packing. Spices here are used for cooking, beverages and medicinal purposes.

The challenging roads in Munnar and its vicinity are overwhelmed by the panoramic tea plantations cascading from the hill slopes. The surrounding foliage comprises a variety of plants and trees such as the eucalyptus.

Fresh clean air pervades Munnar – a respite from the unhealthy and polluted haze we experienced recently in Malaysia. The low humidity, vegetation and tranquillity make the place an appealing destination for local and foreign visitors. It is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of city life.

The hotel we stayed in was enveloped with foliage everywhere. The hotel manager told me permission is required from the forestry department even to trim the trees.

The final leg of our journey takes us back to Kochi. The city derives its name from two words: kochu (small) and aazhi (lagoon) – or from the word kaci (harbour).

Cochin was the oldest European trade centre in Asia. The city was noted for its spices (especially pepper), teak and ivory. The spices were exported to Alexandria and then shipped to Venice to be distributed all over Europe.

Today, Kochi is noted for its IT services, spices and seafood. Seafood restaurants dot the cityscape. For dosai-lovers, the city is a paradise! We had supper on the night of our arrival in a restaurant serving 36 different kinds of dosai complemented with brew coffee.

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Many of the churches in Kochi are steeped in history dating back to the time of the 16th Century Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. At the Indian Naval Maritime Academy, we are informed that Kerala is known as the “gateway of religion in India” as Christianity, Islam and Judaism arrived in India via Kerala.

Generally, the streets of Kochi are neat and clean. The city, along with its suburbs Allepy and Ernakulam, is a paradise for books and medicines. I bought six books for only Rs1,000 (RM60)! The same books at bookshops in Kuala Lumpur would have cost five times more. Medicine is also cheap in Kochi: I bought a few types for about one fifth the price in KL.

Keralites refer to their state as “God’s Own Country”. Perhaps this is due to the state’s landscape, flush with greenery everywhere. But serious challenges have emerged in recent times: extensive quarrying, the mushrooming of high-rises for tourism and illegal forest land acquisition, especially in the Western Ghats area. Experts say these contributed to the landslides and mudslides during the devastating floods last year.

Remarkably, Kerala bounced back as its people rallied together in recovery efforts. While hopefully learning the lessons from those floods, the state offers invaluable lessons for the major polluters of the world. Despite the recent challenges, large parts of Kerala remain in harmony with nature. The state has managed to preserve much of its ecosystem while keeping greenhouse gas emissions low.

Kerala is an enchanting spectacle for environmentalists and a delight for conservationists.

Photographs: Benedict Lopez

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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