‘We live and die by it’: climate crisis threatens Bangladesh’s Sundarbans | Global development

As he steps out of the mosque on the banks of the Kholpetua River, Mohammed Sabud Ali appears to be like out at a view he has seen a number of occasions a day for many of his life. However by no means earlier than has the sprawling Sundarbans mangrove forest felt so vital to him.

The huge Sundarbans has at all times protected Bangladeshi coastal communities from the violent cyclones that commonly crash in from the Bay of Bengal, and they’ve at all times harvested its sources. However now, because the climate crisis encroaches, persons are turning into much more depending on the forest.

Ali lives on the island of Gabura, on the entrance to the Sundarbans. Gabura is so uncovered to the climate that it’s best recognized for the numbers of people that have deserted it. Not often does a yr cross with out cyclones that break the embankments, resulting in salt water flooding in and making the land infertile. Those that keep on Gabura have few choices for making a dwelling; they will work on boats, as day labourers, or flip to the Sundarbans itself.

“We’re depending on the river and the forests. Everybody goes now to the forests. For honey, fish, crabs,” says Ali, who’s in his 50s.


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The island is outlined by the rivers that snake by way of the Sundarbans. Pairs of crab catchers sit on the small canoes that dot that huge Kholpetua, filling their nets as a lot as they will throughout fishing journeys that final days. They return to Gabura’s small docks, the entry level for produce from the Sundarbans to labourers, cows and motorbikes coming back from the mainland.

The entire tattered embankment, nonetheless broken by the final cyclone, is lined with boats, tied up and being repaired earlier than their subsequent journey into the mangroves.

Heavily bearded man with river and mangroves behind him
Mohammed Sabud Ali says that the forest licence system prioritises nature over folks. {Photograph}: Kaamil Ahmed/The Guardian

Gabura is considered one of quite a few settlements alongside the lengthy frontier between Bangladesh’s coast and the Sundarbans that depend on the forest for a dwelling. Most locals say that dependency is rising, elevating fears that the forest might be pushed too far by companies and tourism, threatening the fragile ecosystem.

The federal government imposes a licence system proscribing entry to the forest. For locals, who’ve few different choices, the licences are a nuisance.

“There are perhaps 100 licences at a time and 10,000 folks needing to go to the forest,” says Ali. “Within the title of saving nature, they put our lives in danger.”

Climate change has made the area poorer, with almost 50% living in poverty, based on the World Financial institution. Cyclones have elevated migration, whether or not for seasonal labour or longer-term resettlement.

In keeping with a report final yr by Anti-Slavery Worldwide, this has had a knock-on impact, making folks extra vulnerable to modern slavery. Traffickers goal individuals who wish to migrate, or lure them with guarantees of labor to locations akin to Dublar Char – a distant Sundarbans island the place youngsters could be discovered working in fish processing.


Bishawjit Mallick, a researcher at Dresden College of Expertise, who grew up within the area, says he has seen dependency on the forest improve throughout his lifetime however that enterprise pursuits have additionally pushed exercise.

A canoe on a bend in a big river with mangrove forest in the background
The Sundarbans within the Shyamnagar district. The sources of the mangrove forest are wanted by locals and large enterprise. {Photograph}: Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP

Beforehand, a choose variety of villagers took duty for the forests, catching solely what was throughout the attain of their small boats, however as Bangladesh’s street community has developed, large enterprise has turned hungrily in direction of the area’s sources.

“If I recall,” says Mallick, “30 years in the past, there was not an excessive amount of extraction from the Sundarbans. There have been some particular teams who took for his or her wants – fish, crabs or to chop from the golpata tree – however it was not so many.

“It was a particular group and everybody knew who they have been. My grandfather used to name a particular one that he knew might deliver honey for us.

“There was a harmonious relationship – they realised they shouldn’t extract every part, however over time as others obtained concerned to go there for tourism, for enterprise, then the connection modified. Small fishermen couldn’t survive due to the massive businessmen,” he says.

A survey of greater than 1,000 households revealed by Mallick final yr discovered that almost all villagers nearby relied on the forest to some extent, particularly younger individuals who had acquired little training.

The examine argued that the long run relied on reducing dependency by diversifying livelihoods, making communities extra resilient and regulating entry extra successfully.

“Now we see the Sundarbans remains to be producing numerous bushes and sources however should you go to the inside, deep into the centre, you will note plenty of vacant areas,” he stated.

Aerial photo of a timber market with  hundreds of logs floating on a river
The Barishal wholesale floating timber market, the most important in Bangladesh, which started in 1918 utilizing logs from the Sundarbans. {Photograph}: Mustasinur Rahman Alvi/Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock

“When the brink has been reached, when folks can not take any extra, then will probably be an enormous situation. They may lose its safety from cyclones.”

The forest additionally poses risks, with pirates and bandits kidnapping villagers who enterprise inside and holding them for ransom. There may be additionally the specter of Bengal tigers, which nonetheless roam the forests regardless of being pushed near extinction by human settlement.

Abdul Hakim, 61, a retired trainer, says: “We additionally worry the forest; my elder brother was killed right here by a tiger when he was amassing shrimps and I’ve been frightened of it since.”

Within the 20 years since his brother’s loss of life, he has seen his pupils and his family grow to be more and more reliant on the forest for his or her dwelling.

“Our folks come right here for every part: they catch crabs, they arrive right here to gather honey, to gather firewood,” he says.

“We’re completely depending on the Sunderbans. We live by it and die by it.”

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