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How nine women are helping save India’s mangroves – with foraging and eco-tours | global development

EITHERIn a hot summer afternoon along the Mandavi River, Shweta Hule wraps her sari around her ankles and bends to her foraging, picking wild “weeds” from the creek and dropping them into a bowl. The plants will be made into fritters, to be served at the little restaurant attached to the B&B Hule manages in the Indian coastal town of Vengurla.

Wild edibles are common in kitchens here. Rubber’s weed is sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) – known as Khari or goal bhaji – a succulent that blooms with pink flowers and is found in mangrove forests. Harvesting some of the plant is helping conserve the mangroves, a globally endangered ecosystem of salt-tolerant trees that stop coastal erosion and absorb storm damage.

Sea Purslane and fritters.
Sea purslane and after it has been cooked as fritters. Photographer: Miguel Braganza, Arti Das

Hule is head of Swamini, a self-help group set up by nine women from this fishing community in Maharashtra who started Mandavi Eco Tourism in 2017. They came up with the idea of ​​running mangrove safaris for tourists in Vengurla’s Mandavi creek. And now, as they research their own community’s history, they are rediscovering the edible wild plants around them.

Vengurla, in the Sindhudurg district of the west Indian state, is known for its beautiful beaches and seafood, but the climate crisis has made fishing for a living unsustainable, so people are trying to find other sources of income.

Swamini has won financial support from the “Mangrove Cell”, a section of the Maharashtra state forestry department, and the UN Development Programme. The women have been working to rediscover local knowledge about biodiversity, bird and marine life, as well as conservation of mangroves, so they can act as tourist guides.

The safaris began after Hule’s husband, Satish, taught her to operate the boat and she now offers visitors a unique hour-long tour of the mangroves. Food has also become a key attraction: local spicy coconut curries, with homegrown or wild vegetables.

Hule only discovered recently that the succulent was edible when she met a family from another coastal city. “My mother had guests from Mumbai who were Muslim. They were fasting then, and abstained from salt in their food. To make it palatable, they added a few sea purslane leaves to their meal instead, making fritters with wheat-flour batter. That intrigued me,” says Hule.

A woman paddles a brightly painted pleasure boat along a river
Sai Satardekar, another member of the collective, taking tourists for a mangrove safari at Mandavi creek. Photograph: Arti Das

She researched these spongy leaves and learned that the salty plant is rich in vitamins. She made her own version of the fritters, with chickpea flour, and presented it at the wild vegetable festival, held at Vengurla during the monsoon season.

“It was an instant hit. This instilled the confidence to include these fritters in our restaurant menu,” says Hule, who is now experimenting with picking them.

Swamini’s lodging house has a specialty breakfast: Shirvali (steamed rice noodles) with ross (a sauce of coconut milk, jaggery and cardamom). Or amboli (fermented rice and split black lentil pancakes). Or ghawan (rice pancakes) and use it (black peas) with bread. The restaurant also serves vegetarian meals and platters of fish and crab sourced from the creek.

Tourists are encouraged to go crabbing, and their catch is cooked and served. “It gives the immense satisfaction of eating something they have harvested,” says Hule.

“The satisfaction after the visitors enjoy their meal is the real currency. We had guests from London who were so happy with our food that they took down the recipe and bought our spice mix. Such people help our business grow. What more can we want?

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