AMohammed Sabud Ali gazes out at the view that he has been seeing for many years as he leaves the mosque on the banks the Kholpetua River. He has never felt the Sundarbans’ mangrove forest so important.
The vast Sundarbans has protected Bangladeshi coastal areas from the devastating cyclones that often crash in from Bay of Bengal. It has also been a source of its natural resources. As the climate crisis worsens, people are more dependent on the forest.
Ali lives on Gabura Island, near the Sundarbans. Gabura is so exposed it is well-known for the number of people who have abandoned the island. Rarely does a year pass before cyclones cause damage to the embankments. The result is salt water flooding in, making the land unfertile. Gabura residents are limited in their options for earning a living. They have two choices: work on boats, as day laborers, or to the Sundarbans.
“We are dependent on the river and the forests. Everyone now goes to the forests. For honey, fish, crabs,” says Ali, who is in his 50s.
Rivers that run through the Sundarbans define the island. Pairs of crab-catchers sit on the canoes that line the vast Kholpetua, filling up their nets with as much as possible during fishing trips that last days. They return to Gabura’s small docks, the entry point for produce from the Sundarbans to labourers, cows and motorbikes returning from the mainland.
The embankment’s ruin is still being damaged by the last storm. The embankment is lined with boats.
Gabura is one of numerous settlements along the long frontier between Bangladesh’s coast and the Sundarbans that rely on the forest for a living. Locals fear that tourism and businesses could push the forest too far, increasing dependency, which could threaten the fragile ecosystem.
The government has imposed a licensing system that restricts entry to the forest. The licences can be a nuisance for locals with few other options.
“There are maybe 100 licences at a time and 10,000 people needing to go to the forest,” says Ali. “In the name of saving nature, they put our lives at risk.”
The region has been made poorer by climate change. Nearly 50% of the population lives in povertyAccording to the World Bank. Cyclones have facilitated migration, whether it is for seasonal labour or long-term resettlement.
Anti-Slavery International’s report last year found that this has had a knock-on effect on people, making them more tolerant. vulnerable to modern slavery. Traffickers target people who want to migrate, or lure them with promises of work to places such as Dublar Char – a remote Sundarbans island where children can be found working in fish processing.
Bishawjit Mallick is a researcher at Dresden University of Technology. He grew up in the area and says that he has witnessed the forest’s dependence increase over his life. However, business interests have also driven the activity.
Previously, a select number of villagers took responsibility for the forests, catching only what was within the reach of their small boats, but as Bangladesh’s road network has developed, big business has turned hungrily towards the region’s resources.
“If I recall,” says Mallick, “30 years ago, there was not too much extraction from the Sundarbans. There were some specific groups who took for their needs – fish, crabs or to cut from the golpata tree – but it was not so many.
“It was a specific group and everyone knew who they were. My grandfather used call a certain person who he knew could bring honey.
“There was a harmonious relationship – they realised they shouldn’t extract everything, but over time as others got involved to go there for tourism, for business, then the relationship changed. Small fishermen couldn’t survive because of the big businessmen,” he says.
Mallick published a survey of over 1,000 households last year and found that Nearly all the villages nearby depended on the forestTo some extent, particularly young people who received very little education.
According to the study, the future depends on decreasing dependency through diversification of livelihoods, strengthening communities and regulating access more effectively.
“Now we see the Sundarbans is still producing lots of trees and resources but if you go to the interior, deep into the centre, you will see a lot of vacant spaces,” he said.
“When the threshold has been reached, when people cannot take any more, then it will be a big issue. They will lose its protection from cyclones.”
The forest is also a danger zone. Bandits and pirates are known to kidnap villagers who venture into the forest and hold them for ransom. The threat of Bengal tigers is also there, which roam the forests despite having been nearly exterminated by human settlements.
Abdul Hakim, 61, a retired teacher, says: “We also fear the forest; my elder brother was killed here by a tiger when he was collecting shrimps and I’ve been scared of it since.”
In the 20 years since his brother’s death, he has seen his pupils and his own family become increasingly reliant on the forest for their living.
“Our people come here for everything: they catch crabs, they come here to collect honey, to collect firewood,” he says.
“We’re entirely dependent on the Sunderbans. We live by it and die by it.”
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