BERKELEY, Calif. — San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit Seacology has been honoring indigenous leaders in island conservation with the Seacology Prize, including $10,000 and the “Island Conservationist of the Year” award, annually since 1992. This year, the organization chose to honor seaweed harvester Lakshmi Moorthy of Tamil Nadu, India, at its Seacology Prize Ceremony at the David Brower Center here Oct. 8.

“The only way conservation is going to work in the long term is to make sure the local people have a sustainable livelihood while protecting the environment,” Duane Silverstein, executive director of Seacology, told India-West. “And I can’t think of a better example than Lakshmi’s work. It almost defines that sort of thing.”

Using ingenuity and experimentation, Moorthy, 47, and the federation of seaweed harvesters of which she is president, and with whom she will share the prize money, found a way to protect their livelihood after their traditional harvesting grounds were turned into a marine reserve in 2002.

The Seacology Prize winner’s federation comprises 2,000 women from 25 villages along the Gulf of Mannar.

Moorthy did not have the opportunity to attend school in her village of Rameswaram on Pamban Island, which did not have a school at that time, and thus began her career as a seaweed harvester when she was still a young child.

“When she grew up, she saw more and more women going and collecting seaweed every day, and the seaweed population was going down,” Vineeta Hoon, Seacology field representative and Moorthy’s translator, told India-West. “So they got worried how do they bring food to the table if the seaweed is finished.”

They found the optimal harvesting method to ensure the seaweed — which is turned into ice cream, toothpaste, agars and more — would regrow was to collect the seaweed for six days during the full moon and new moon, when the tides are at their lowest, with nine days of no harvesting.

They also agreed not to collect seaweed during the 45-day fishing holiday imposed on fishermen.

“They were not regulated, because they are not fishing,” Hoon said, “but … at the same time, the fish are laying their eggs in the seaweed, and so if they collect seaweed at that time, it disturbs the fish. They have observed that, so they have voluntarily taken a seaweed holiday as well.”

Now, the women are asking for subsidies for not harvesting during those 45 days, since the fisherman receive subsidies for not fishing during that time.

Moorthy explained how the women face special challenges, because they are not taken as seriously as the men, but winning the Seacology Prize has forced them to take notice and listen.

The women still face challenges that Moorthy is fighting hard to address. She explained how the women are also fighting for biometric identification cards, which the fishermen possess and that will prevent harassment from the Forest Department, navy, coast guard and police by validating their presence in the area.

Moorthy has also done much more for her community in addition to helping form the federation and developing a sustainable seaweed harvesting program.

She explained how the late former president of India, Abdul Kalam, came from a fisherman’s family in her village and, rising to president from humble beginnings, showed her what was possible and the value of education.

“If there’s more education, then the children will have other options,” Moorthy told India-West. “They are not forced to go back to the sea and to collect seaweed, and, by doing that, naturally the pressure on the sea will come off.”

Moorthy said her village was considered uneducated by the surrounding villages, because no one there had studied past 10th grade, so she helped bring a school into the village about 10 years ago, which now goes up to the eighth grade.

“Her struggle right now is to get a school building,” Hoon said.

More recently, she helped get a road built leading into the village.

Moorthy said she was overwhelmed and appreciative of receiving the award, but never imagined getting recognition for her work.

“I never did anything with the idea of getting an award,” Moorthy told India-West. “I’m just doing what I feel is right and what I have to do.”

The 25 Seacology field representatives in different countries nominate candidates of whom four are selected as finalists.

Silverstein said every year it is difficult choosing among the four, because all of them are highly qualified; this year was special, because all the nominees were women.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re born in a very rich family or a fisherman’s family,” Moorthy added. “If you are dedicated, you can achieve it.”

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