Chennai-born naturalist Yuvan Aves has been on the road the past two years to document stories along the Indian coastline
Yuvan Aves was a class X student when he walked out of school one day never to return. The Chennai-born naturalist and ecological activist began a journey of self-education, racking up A-levels and degrees through distance learning. Years later, Aves has embarked on another journey — this time to educate society about the well-being of human beings and the earth.
Two years ago, Aves hit the road to launch his massive project to travel along the Indian coast to document stories of coastal communities. So far, he has visited his home state of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, the Andaman Islands and Goa. “I am collecting stories from around the coastline—about biodiversity, conservation efforts, coastal communities and livelihoods, displacement and habitat loss, and changing coastal geographies in India,” says the naturalist.
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Aves appeared for the first time at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival on its opening day to talk about nature with British writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris, who together created the award-winning The Lost Words: A Spellbook about the disappearance of words related to nature from lexicons.
The naturalist and activist traces the origin of his journey along the Indian coastline to his involvement in the campaign against a megaport project near Pulicat lake in Tamil Nadu, which many believe would cause severe environmental damage to the fragile coastal wetlands near Chennai. “The megaport project (with several illegalities) proposed near the Pulicat lagoon would erase this bioregion from our maps and make a large part of Chennai prone to cyclone and flooding, along with threatening its water security,” explains Aves, a member of the Madras Naturalists Society.
“But the commercial interests of Adani Port Ltd seem to be far more important than the interests of lakhs of people who would be affected and are protesting against it. For environmental justice, we need radically ground-up systems of governance and politics,” adds the activist, who has completed documentation of the Tamil Nadu coast with the Madras Naturalists Society.
His interest in nature began when he was a student at the Krishnamurti Foundation of India school in Chennai. His mother, who spotted the child’s early interest, backed her son. “My school was grounded in J Krishnamurti’s philosophy. He said, ‘One has to be a light onto oneself’ and about having a relationship with all of life,” says Aves.
The naturalist in him became an activist (though he fails to see a distinction between the two) when he was watching Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s movement and young people across the world demanding climate justice. “I was also watching environmental misgovernance in India and in Tamil Nadu, and felt strongly that we had to speak up,” he adds. In 2019, Aves and his fellow climate activists created the Chennai Climate Action Group to advocate, research and campaign for environmental and social causes.
Aves is aghast at the inability of society to understand its irrevocable links with nature. “American naturalist EO Wilson speaks about our natural affinity to relate, protect and interact with wilderness and calls it ‘biophilia’,” Aves says. “I think part of the reason for the crises today is the prevalent ecological illiteracy. We don’t understand how the living earth and its various ecologies function as a whole. We let companies decide what happiness and well-being should mean for us, and let these ostensible ideas be monocultured,” he says.
Aves is, however, optimistic about the future. “I believe that if schools and children could have extraordinary education where the well-being—in all its complexity and plurality—of all human-beings and the earth was the centre of the curriculum, we would see such a difference in the world in a single generation,” he says, reeling out the biggest challenges facing ecological conservation in the country. “The biggest challenges are colonial-type top-down systems in place, where the voices of people in power and with wealth matter far more than the people on the ground.”
Aves’s journey along the Indian coast has taken him to Kumbalangi near Kochi in Kerala, Havelock and Port Blair in the Andaman Islands and the northern coast of Goa. While visiting coastal communities, he meets fisherfolk, local activists, scientists and conservationists. “I study about the place beforehand, but go to see what that specific coastal ecology has to speak for itself. I am learning that fisherfolk and coastal communities are very broad terms, which include a multitude of micro-economies and livelihoods dependent on the coast and the sea. And I am learning that they are politically, geographically and climatically most vulnerable.”
Aves is hoping to complete his journey in the next three years and put all the stories from the coast in a book.
(Faizal Khan is a freelancer)