Thursday, May 26

‘We live and die for it’: Climate crisis threatens Bangladesh’s Sundarbans | overall development

TOAs he leaves the mosque on the banks of the Kholpetua River, Mohammed Sabud Ali sees a sight he has seen several times a day for most of his life. But never before had the sprawling mangrove forest of the Sundarbans felt so important to him.

The vast Sundarbans have always sheltered the coastal communities of Bangladesh from the violent cyclones that hit regularly from the Bay of Bengal, and have always harvested their resources. But now, as the climate crisis progresses, people are becoming even more dependent on the forest.

Ali lives on the island of Gabura, at the entrance to the Sundarbans. Gabura is so exposed to the weather that it is best known for the number of people who have abandoned it. Rarely a year goes by without cyclones breaching the embankments, causing saltwater floods and rendering the land infertile. Those who remain in Gabura have few options to make a living; they can work on ships, as day laborers, or go to the Sundarbans themselves.

“We depend on the river and the forests. Everybody goes to the woods now. For honey, fish, crabs,” says Ali, who is 50 years old.

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The island is defined by the rivers that wind through the Sundarbans. Couples of crab fishermen sit in the small canoes that dot that vast Kholpetua, filling their nets as much as they can during the last few days’ fishing trips. They return to the small docks of Gabura, the entry point for Sundarbans produce to workers, cows and motorcycles returning from the mainland.

The entire tattered embankment, still damaged from the last cyclone, is lined with boats, moored and repaired before their next trip to the mangroves.

Very bearded man with river and mangroves behind him
Mohammed Sabud Ali says that the forest license system prioritizes nature over people. Photograph: Kaamil Ahmed/The Guardian

Gabura is one of the many settlements along the long border between the Bangladesh coast and the Sundarbans that depend on the forest for their livelihood. Most locals say dependency is increasing, raising fears that businesses and tourism could push the forest too far, threatening the delicate ecosystem.

The government imposes a licensing system that restricts entry to the forest. For locals, who have little choice, licensing is a hassle.

“There are maybe 100 licenses at a time and 10,000 people who need to go into the forest,” says Ali. “In the name of saving nature, they put our lives at risk.”

Climate change has impoverished the region, with nearly 50% live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Cyclones have increased migration, whether for seasonal labor or longer-term resettlement.

According to a report last year by Anti-Slavery International, this has had a ripple effect, making people more vulnerable to modern slavery. Traffickers target people who want to migrate or lure them with promises of work to places like Dublar Char, a remote island in the Sundarbans where children can be found working in fish processing.

Dresden University of Technology researcher Bishawjit Mallick, who grew up in the region, says he has seen reliance on the forest increase in his lifetime, but commercial interests have also driven the activity.

A canoe at a bend in a large river with mangrove forest in the background
The Sundarbans in the Shyamnagar district. The mangrove forest resources are sought after by locals and large companies. Photograph: Mahmoud Hossain Opu/AP

Previously, a select number of villagers took responsibility for the forests, capturing only what was within reach of their small boats, but as Bangladesh’s road network developed, large companies became hungry for the resources of the forest. region.

“If I remember correctly,” Mallick says, “30 years ago, there wasn’t much extraction from the Sundarbans. There were some specific groups that they took for their needs – fish, crabs or to cut from the golpata tree – but there were not that many.

“It was a specific group and everyone knew who they were. My grandfather used to call a specific person who he knew could bring us honey.

“There was a harmonious relationship: they realized that they shouldn’t extract everything, but over time, as others got involved to go there for tourism, for business, the relationship changed. The small fishermen could not survive because of the big businessmen”, he says.

A survey of more than 1,000 households published by Mallick last year found that almost all the nearby villagers depended on the forest to some extent, especially young people who had received little education.

The study argued that the future depended on lessening dependency by diversifying livelihoods, making communities more resilient, and regulating access more effectively.

“Now we see that the Sundarbans still produce a lot of trees and resources, but if you go inland, to the center, you will see a lot of empty space,” he said.

Aerial photo of a wood market with hundreds of logs floating in a river
The Barishal wholesale driftwood market, the largest in Bangladesh, started in 1918 using logs from the Sundarbans. Photograph: Mustasinur Rahman Alvi/Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock

“When the threshold has been reached, when people can’t take it anymore, it will be a big problem. They will lose their protection against cyclones.”

The forest also presents dangers, with pirates and bandits kidnapping villagers who venture inside and holding them for ransom. There is also the threat of Bengal tigers, which still roam the forests despite being on the brink of extinction from human settlement.

Abdul Hakim, 61, a retired teacher, says: “We are also afraid of the forest; My older brother was killed here by a tiger when he was collecting shrimp and I have been afraid of him ever since.”

In the 20 years since her brother’s death, she has seen her students and her own family rely more and more on the forest for a living.

“Our people come here for everything: they fish for crabs, they come here to collect honey, they come here to collect firewood,” he says.

We are completely dependent on the Sunderban. We live for it and we die for it.”

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