Amid piles of dried chillies, straw baskets and ripe papaya, Jeevanti Chatuvina’s wears — represented by her sister modelling a gold-studded red sari, dramatic eyeliner and a perfectly coiffed chignon — glamorized the weekly market found on the edge of a lagoon lush with mature mangroves about an hour’s drive north of Colombo in Sri Lanka.
Her bridal beauty business, like the others at the pop-up, represents the economic link between protecting the mangroves — as nurseries of the island’s fish stocks, tsunami buffers and CO2 sinks — and sustaining communities dependent on them.
“We can’t do mangrove conservation without the people,” said Anuradha ‘Anu’ Wickramasinghe, co-founder of Sudeesa, a Sri Lanka nonprofit advocating for small-scale fishing and farming operations. It was his idea to provide business training and $100 micro-loans to some of the poorest women in coastal fishing communities in exchange for their protection of the vital ecosystem, applying a social fix to an environmental problem caused by logging, mass prawn farming and, in the northern areas, the war. “They get training from us and seed money from Seacology.”
This spring, I joined Seacology, the California-based environmental nonprofit, on one of its tours that showcase its projects. Mangrove restoration in Sri Lanka is its largest ever, with the organization donating $5 million over five years to protect more than 21,000 acres of coastal mangroves by bringing the micro-loan program to 15,000 rural women.
Meeting the programme’s budding entrepreneurs and exploring solutions to environmental challenges with field experts were the highlights of an itinerary also filled with more tourist-friendly activities, like a walking tour of Colombo, visits to Hindu and Buddhist temples, and meals both traditional and trendy.
From the broken Paris climate pact to the collapsing ice shelf in Antarctica, climate issues have dominated recent headlines. Providing access to those front lines, the travel industry has mirrored eco-concerns with the growth of climate-focused trips.
Many of these trips are concentrated at the poles. In Greenland, for example, the number of tourists rose almost 24 percent in 2015. Last year, tourism grew by nearly 10 percent — more than double the global average. American travellers represented a third of the 34,539 travellers who visited Antarctica this past winter, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, by far the largest contingent (Chinese travellers come in second at 12 percent).
The travel industry contributes to carbon emissions, of course, but tour operators argue that exposure to threatened regions converts the curious to conservation. As oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once said, “People protect what they love.”
Some tour operators encourage citizen scientists to help researchers with their work. The nonprofit EarthWatch Institute runs “Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge” trips, in which travellers take water and tree core samples to measure the health of animals and plants. EarthWatch Institute also offers teen-only departures.
Naturalist Richard Polatty, a veteran of 60 trips to Antarctica and guide for International Nature and Cultural Adventures, views familiarity as a source of support for the region. “Antarctica is the author of global climate in some ways and is a very sensitive indicator of global climate change,” he said.
But it is felt as far away as Sri Lanka, where fishermen in the north say the tides have changed in the past two years, and at least 50 feet of new mangroves planted near Jaffna stand in parched dirt instead of being flooded by water. With the assistance of the navy, Sudeesa continues to plant seedlings with the goal of repopulating the sea with fish and empowering women to be protectors of the coastal forests by ensuring a family income.
“We take care of the mothers, who will pass on their knowledge to their children,” said Sudeesa’s Anu as we drove down a sand road separating woven fishing huts from the sparkling turquoise sea on a community-based tour of the island better known for luxury resorts. “To the children we say, ‘This is your wealth.’”