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Project: Save our nature

Two Germans are on a mission to clean up a small island in Alappuzha district, Kerala. Anu Prabhakar talks to the two about the need for dustbins and travelling across the backwaters in a self-made boat

Georg Lesser and 26-year-old Johannes Leeder left for India by the end of October last year, from their hometown Thuringia, in central Germany. It was supposed to be a sojourn of sorts — a break to reconnect with nature, spend some time birdwatching and mingle with the local crowd. But little did they know that they would temporarily stay back in Pathiramanal, an island in Alappuzha district, Kerala, to help dispose its toxic plastic waste responsibly.

Georg Lesser and Johannes Leeder
(Left) Georg Lesser and Johannes Leeder at Alappuzha district, Kerala. The duo was aghast at the swamps of plastic waste at the famous tourist destination, Pathiramanal, and decided to clean it up themselves. PIC courtesy/Georg Lesser

Cleaning up an island
The duo has, so far, toured across nearly 20 cities and states in the country, including Delhi (where they first touched down), Rajasthan, Varanasi, Kodaikanal and Madurai. “In Kerala, we wanted to explore the backwaters, so we made our own boat using bamboo and coir rope,” explains Lesser, over a telephone interview. “During the three weeks we spent in Kerala, we travelled to Kottayam and Kumarakom. We even sleep in the boat and cook our food there,” he says. Ask him why the two refused to opt for a houseboat — a favourite with tourists — and he laughs. “We wanted adventure and stick to our budget,” he explains.

It was this zest for adventure that brought them to Alappuzha’s Pathiramanal, a paradise for birdwatchers which houses various species of migratory birds. But while touring the island, the nature lovers were aghast at one of the first sights that greeted them — swamps of plastic waste. “We asked the panchayat at Muhamma (a town in Alappuzha district district near the island) for permission to clean the place and they were very supportive. They gave us gloves and promised us that they will deposit the waste that we collect at the recycling centre and empty the dustbin regularly,” elaborates Lesser.

The duo wakes up at sunrise every day and after a light breakfast, begins the work of cleaning the island by aggregating plastic bottles in green bags till sunset. “While cleaning, we spoke to a lot of people. Some helped us to clean the island. While in Kottayam, we participated in the event Run Kerala Run and carried a self-made flag with the slogan ‘Save nature’, to spread our message. We have even started a Facebook account so that volunteers can get in touch with us,” adds the 25-year-old. The project, he says, does not have the backing of a big corporate brand. “People got to know about the project through word of mouth. We are just two friends, who are trying to do their bit to save the environment,” he says.

‘We need more dustbins’
Lesser, who works as a paramedic in Germany, is all praises for his host country. “Indians are so close to each other as a community, which is something different from my country,” says Lesser, who spent two weeks in Kodaikanal’s deep forests. He singles that out as his best experience, so far. “We got to see a lot of wild animals, like tigers,” he gushes with childlike enthusiasm.

But people’s tendency to mindlessly throw garbage out of a train or car has left the medical professional displeased. “We need more dustbins, especially in islands. There must also be an effective recycling and garbage collection system,” he points out.

The two have decided to extend their stay by a few months and are on their way to Fort Kochi as we speak. “I like to live in the moment. So I haven’t really planned the future, except that I want to continue this project elsewhere in India,” he says, adding that he wants to head to the north and the Himalayas next.

And what about his friends and family back home? “They were very surprised when I told them about my plans to stay back. They are worried that we won’t return,” says Lesser, with a hearty laugh.

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