Vedharajan Balaji is a young conservationist from India, with an incredible amount of energy and determination for protecting nature. He works with communities in Tamil Nadu to restore mangroves and raise awareness amongst students. Thanks to his inspiring work, he won the "Pushing Boundaries" challenge of the WCPA young professionals group in the run-up to the IUCN World Parks Congress. His work has also been promoted as an "Inspiring Protected Area Solution" through the Panorama initiative.
Here, Balaji tells the exciting story about how he found his way into conservation through epic motorcycle and kayak journeys.
1. How and why did you first get into conservation?
I was invited by a fisher friend 16 years ago to dive with traditional fisher divers in my local area, and I saw the beauty of the underwater habitats for the first time. I never realised we had such fantastic underwater life so close to the place where I born, and I wanted to photograph it so that I could share it with others. After some experiments with an old borrowed camera and a fish tank, I went on to take pictures of the sea life including seahorses. I was still studying for a B.Sc. at the time, so all my weekends and holidays were spent making my own flippers and snorkels and I filled my room with pictures of marine life. My family expected me to take a job at a local company, but they began to realise that the hobby I was so passionate about would become my career and soon they came around to the idea, and my father even volunteered in my organisation until he sadly passed away in 2014.
2. Tell us about that inspiring road trip and some of the amazing experiences and reactions you received when you visited the 590 fishing villages?
After my undergraduate degree I began a Master’s degree in Marine Biology. During this time I worked in a local NGO to gain grass-root service experience, as I was aware that an academic qualification alone does not offer the real experience of local marine conservation.
I was inspired by the story of Che Guevara, who travelled across South America on a motorbike, and I wanted to travel like he did, but along the 1200 km coast of my state to better understand the socio-environmental issues of my own area. As a result, I hoped to raise awareness of the local habitats and wildlife, and despite having little money and only an old Yamaha 100 bike which I had borrowed from a friend, I managed to visit 594 villages over a two month period.
During this time, I met village leaders, fishermen and women and visited local schools and community halls, and received information from local NGOs. Sometimes I would have to sleep on the beaches, bathe in rivers and find food where I could. In most villages I received food, accommodation and very good hospitality, and I was able to talk to people and hear about local marine conservation and fishery issues. I gained invaluable experience and a great respect for my own people and coast. Undertaking this trip led me to understand what was required in order to assist the local area with conservation projects, such as the management of coastal areas and marine resources.
3. What inspired you to set up your own NGO?
The volunteering experience I had previously undertaken with NGOs and the information gained from them during my trip led me to develop a list of objectives based on local needs. I wanted to work independently within Palk Bay (my native area) but I needed a platform so I formed the OMCAR (Organisation for Marine Conservation, Awareness and Research) Foundation, which is now a fully fledged grassroot NGO. 3. Is it true that you also did a 600km solo kayak- if so please tell us more information on this incredible achievement and how you think it inspired a new generation? I found that the kayak can be used as a great tool to attract people’s attention in order to convey the conservation message, and also to see my entire coast from the perspective of ocean (which is completely different view from the one I encountered on my motorbike). I proposed my idea to my friend Dominic Wodehouse in the UK, and he organised a charity bike tour to France in order to raise money for a kayak for me so that I could begin my journey.
Although my kayak arrived in India within a couple of months I had no professional kayak experience, and there were no schools nearby to learn the skills required. My only option was to watch YouTube videos and upload my practice videos for feedback and guidance, and I practiced 8 hours a day for 3 months. My journey began in December 2006 in Rameshwaram and came to an end in March 2007 in Chennai city. I paddled approximately 15 km per day and enjoyed talking to small catamaran fishers in the sea, where we shared food, water and they offered me their valuable suggestions to identify local currents, winds and waves. I had no modern luxuries such as navigation equipment or a mobile phone; I simply had a bottle of water and some bananas with me in my kayak.
Every push of the paddle led to new surroundings so I never became bored, I encountered wildlife such as dolphins and beautiful beaches, but the journey was not without its challenges. For example, one day I found myself in a muddy estuary region with clay banks, and a strong wave capsized my kayak. I tried to roll the kayak but failed, so I managed to swim out to deeper waters and eventually got the kayak the right way around and climbed back in. The information provided by the local villagers was invaluable, but some things I found out the hard way by myself!
The expedition was designed to inspire youths along the coast to become involved in marine conservation, and during the journey I organised meetings with villagers and youths to discuss the need for conservation, and delivered presentations in local schools. Thus I engaged with thousands of people including students during the kayak expedition to convey the message of the conservation of coral reefs, endangered species and sustainable fishery practice in our own region. We created volunteer teams in those villages to participate in future programmes of the OMCAR foundation and awareness was raised in local newspapers and on local TV channels, which stressed the importance of the local coastal ecosystems and the need to preserve them.
4. We have also heard you have done work with Seagrass and Mangroves. Please give us more information and explain to us how important they are to our planet.
Seagrass beds and mangroves work together to support fishery productivity in our region and play a key role in supporting small scale fishers for their daily livelihood. They act as a habitat and breeding ground for wildlife such as dugongs (sea cows), which are declared an endangered species by the IUCN. They also protect the coast from erosion and natural disasters.
5. What was the most inspiring day of your life?
Receiving the IUCN CEC young professional award in 2012 at Jeju South Korea in 2012, during the IUCN World Conservation Congress.
6. How does it feel to know you can and have made a difference?
The positive changes through my initiatives in conservation and awareness of coastal environments has been a slow and steady process. It is a team effort and I feel grateful to all the supporters that have helped to make a little but tangible difference.
7. How important is community based conservation?
I believe there are no other conservation methods as powerful as community based conservation. It is not simply about teaching the community how to conserve a local ecosystem, but about binding traditional knowledge and experience from the community into to the conservation plan of an ecosystem to implement suitable activities towards long-term impacts.
8. What do you say to people who say one person can’t save the world?
One person can dedicate his time and energy to a conservation cause, which can then inspire and lead thousands of others towards positive changes. We need to raise and strengthen conservation leaders and their spirit from every part of the world, and they will lead others in turn. The IUCN provides a platform which young people can use to discuss common conservation issues arising around the world.
9. What can be done to help the project further or to replicate or use the results elsewhere?
We need young people to become involved with conservation, and the IUCN offers support to young people wanting to become involved in conservation projects. Core techniques of our grassroot projects can be replicated in other parts of the world and the Young Professional Group of IUCN, who gathered during IUCN WCC 2014, provided a great start in promoting conservation causes, which will hopefully continue.
10. What is your next project and how will you achieve it?
We are GIS mapping dugong habitats in Palk Bay, and I want to complete this task in the next two years so that the dugongs of Palk Bay can be protected, and then move towards a safe no fishing zone to provide protection for seahorses, pipe fishes and sea cucumbers. My vision is to establish participatory seagrass protected sites where those endangered species can enjoy peaceful life with great community participation, education and awareness.
11. How do you envisage marine conservation in 50 years time?
Positive conservation efforts such as community based projects will play a key role in supporting marine habitats across the globe, and provide replicable strategies and activities to ensure the protection of our most vulnerable areas.