A large number of people and some of the world's rarest species are dependent on the Sundarbans for their survival. But with increasing human intrusion and dependence on the forest, the ecological balance of the world's largest mangrove forest is at stake.
Before emptying herself into the Bay of Bengal the mighty Ganges creates a vast fertile delta with hundreds of creeks, rivulets and canals. Thousands of years ago, the floating saplings of salt tolerant mangroves found their way into this fertile plain and colonised it gradually. Thus the great Sundarbans emerged as the largest single block mangrove forest on earth. For centuries this huge life bowl has been providing protection for some of the rarest species on earth and also providing livelihood and shelter for a large number of humans.
Invited by the 'Mangroves For the Future (MFF)' an international initiative of ten countries and eight international organisations to promote sustainable development of coastal ecosystem, we, a group of journalists and nature activists have got the opportunity to explore the mysterious Sundarbans and lifestyle of the people of its neighbouring villages. Following the course of the Ganges and after covering more than 150 km of devastated roads we reach a remote village called Munshiganj under Shyamnagar Upazila of Satkhira district. The village lies deep inside the impact zone of Sundarbans that is, livelihood of all the inhabitants of this village are directly dependant on this great coastal forest. Once frequently haunted by the Bengal tigers the village is separated only by a river from the forest heartland.
Approaching our coastal areas means discovering a different Bangladesh. While travelling to our destination, the village Munshiganj, I start to notice that the eternal green landscape of rural Bengal is being replaced gradually by vast waterscape. The coastal districts like Satkhira and Bagerhat have been submerged under murky, saline water although there is no natural saltwater lake. Polders between these lakes and guard posts on them clearly indicate that these are manmade water bodies. Actually most of the cultivable lands of the villages of these districts have been totally transformed into salt water lakes for shrimp culture.
“A few decades ago the business of shrimp culture started to thrive here. But after the cyclones Sidr and Aila, the embankments around our villages were destroyed and all the villages got inundated by saline water. Due to the existing polders the saline water remains clogged up and many people lost their cultivable land. That's why many of us have been compelled to accept shrimp culture as our means of living,” says Abdul Jalil the owner of three shrimp hatcheries in Munshiganj village. All of his shrimp hatcheries have occupied the lands where he used to cultivate rice some years ago.
But all of them are not lucky enough to own shrimp hatcheries in the village. Many poor farmers have lost all their belongings after the devastating cyclones and due to salt water intrusion. These poor farmers have become day labourers in the shrimp hatcheries. Many of them have taken up the thankless job of collecting shrimp hatchlings from the turbulent rivers of the Sundarbans full of salt water crocodiles and sharks. Shubol Chandra and Dhobol Chandra two brothers were rowing their dinghies along the Kholpetua River in the Sundarbans for collecting shrimp hatchlings. Dhobol says, “In winter this river becomes full of salt water crocodiles and every year many hatchling collectors like us die in the hands of these beasts.”
Thus losing their traditional livelihood, many people like these two brothers have to find their means of livelihood in the jungle. But the Bugdies are the true forest dwellers. From ancient times these people have lived by Sundarbans. They live in the remotest corner of the village just adjacent to the jungle and they literally worship this forest. Most of the adult members of this community have had several encounters with the king of the Sunderbans, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Each family has lost at least one of their members at the hands of this great predator.
These people collect all of their daily necessities from the forest. Bugdi women and children go to the forest to collect fire wood and their men penetrate deep into the jungle to catch fish. But before entering to the jungle they never forget to pay homage to Bonbibi, the goddess who they believe will protect them from the tigers.
Natabar Sana, a Bugdi fisherman who knows the jungle intimately has agreed to take us into the jungle. Actually he would take us up to his fishing spot which is so deep inside the jungle that even an experienced guide can lose his way and fall prey to the tigers or the dacoits. After completing all his rituals Natabar and his friend Haradhon tells us to board on their dinghies. After rowing for around two hours in the maze of creeks and canals in the Sundarbans we finally reach the fishing spot of Natabar. Then it becomes clear why people lost their way here. Deep in the jungle the sun is not visible at all and in the maze of hundreds of waterways the possibility of finding the right direction is almost zero. Natabar says, “In the last two months around 13 people have been killed by tigers as they had lost their way in the jungle. We Bugdies know the jungle by heart but the newcomers lose their way frequently.”
While rowing towards Natabar's fishing spot the beauty of this mysterious land is revealed before our urban eyes. The muddy forest floor is covered with millions of spiny aerial roots of the mangroves. This areal root called pneumatophores enable mangrove trees like Goran, Geoa, Sundari, Keora, Pashur etc to breath air as their entire habitat is clogged by saline water. In fact almost the entire forest floor becomes submerged by saline sea water during the daily high tide. But these aerial roots are also necessary for the survival of many others. These spiny roots are covered with algae and vines which are staple food for some fishes, crabs and the deer. Rhesus Macaques and wild boars also devour the soft inner portion of the roots which is full of protein.
So this special adaptation technique of these mangrove trees controls the entire ecosystem of the Sundarbans. But the credit to keep this forest alive goes to a tiny creature; tiny but much feared for its ferociousness and admired for its resources. This is the giant Asian Honey Bee. Without these bees pollination and reproduction of the mangrove trees would be impossible. Giant Asian honeybees are the most ferocious of all the bee species. Natabar tells us that they maintain at least 1 kilometre distance from any beehive otherwise anyone can be killed by the swarm of these bees.
But their strong defence against intruders has been defeated by a simple technique. During honey collecting seasons the honey collectors called Mouals create smoke beneath the beehives. Instinctively the bees think that the forest is on fire and leave their hive in rush. But like Bugdies the Mouals also have respect for the forest. They never cut the entire beehive and keep a chunk of the hive so that the fleeing bees don't have to start from zero.
When we reach the fishing spot Natabar surprises us with another story. He tells us that he doesn't catch fish in the forest anymore. It has been years that he and his fellow men only catch mud crabs. Not only these poor Bugdies but thousands of people in villages like Munshiganj rush to the forest everyday to forage for mud crabs in huge quantities. Haradhon shows us that a huge net has been placed on the forest floor under the water where mud crabs will be washed inside with the high tide.
Due to high export value their catch is sold within a few hours in the village crab market. When we visit the market we see around thirty crab-depots in the Munshiganj bazaar who buy only crabs from the locals. Rahim Molla, an owner of such depot says, “We don't sell crabs to the locals. We directly send it to Dhaka from where these crabs will be exported to foreign countries like India, Thailand, Singapore etc. Everyday 10 to 15 tons of crabs are being sold in this market. During the tides of full moon we get as much as 30 tons of crabs.”
This mass hunting of mud crabs can make a serious impact on the Sundarban's ecosystem. Even our Natabar Sana admits, “The mother mud crab lays millions of eggs in the rivers which is a staple food for many fishes. Due to mass hunting of these crabs amount of fish in these rivers have decreased many folds.” Due to high culinary demand, the government can take initiatives to promote mud crab culture which will prevent people from disturbing the wildlife and destroying the forest ecosystem.
While returning from the Natabar's fishing spot Natabar says, “Now a days we are more afraid of bandits than the tigers or snakes. For every catch we are bound to pay huge amount of money to these bandits. If we don't pay they will not permit us to enter or they even kill us ruthlessly. In fact they are keeping close watch on our boats even at this moment from their nearby hideouts.” These bandits are literally destroying the forests. They are involved in poaching. Their ruthless extermination of deer and tigers has made this region of the Sundarbans almost a human habitat. Thanks to their ruthless poaching less than 10 percent of Sundarban's wildlife now exists in this region.
When we come back from the forest we visit an outstanding effort to revive the forest. An island village called Shora under Gabura Union was completely washed away with its embankments during a recent cyclone. After that massacre the villagers decided that they would plant mangrove trees along the village embankments to protect it from erosion and being washed away. With help of MFF and local forest department the villagers volunteered to plant 300,000 mangrove saplings along the village embankments. They guard the saplings round the clock so that the forestation cannot be harmed by anyone. G M Masudul Alam the chairman of the Gabura Union says, “My father, the ex chairman of this union also made this sort of plantation before. But after the devastating cyclones I with the officials of MFF and CNRS decided to implement this massive plantation project last year. Encouraged by us some other villages have also started to establish artificial mangrove forest.”
After 10 or 15 years this belt of artificial mangrove forest will protect this village from any calamity just like the Sundarbans protected the rest of Bangladesh from the devastating cyclone Sidr.
A section of conscious people is trying to revive the forest and they are trying to co-exist with the Sundarbans without harming its beauty. Where we stay in Munshiganj village is another example of these efforts. It is a guesthouse but unlike other posh guesthouses it is an eco-friendly one. Everything used in the guesthouse even the construction materials are bio degradable. The house built of Golpata, mud brick and mud plaster with the roofs of Golpata is naturally air conditioned and no less comfortable than concrete rooms. With cane furniture and earthen utensils (plastic is not allowed) they try to maintain the establishment 100 percent eco friendly.
Abdur Rahman Akash a local entrepreneur and the owner of the establishment says, “I have established Joar Eco Cottage as the part of my eco tourism projects. Lots of guest houses are being established here as the Sundarbans is a great tourist attraction. But if they don't promote eco tourism the great forest will be killed by the incoming tourists. To survive the Sundarbans eco tourism is essential.”
It is very optimistic that some conscious people like Abid and the villagers of Gabura Union are realising that without the Sundarbans the existence of our coastal people and even the entire Bangladesh will be under threat. The world will also lose some of its great natural resources. But unlike these people the influential part of our population seems to have no knowledge of the significance of the Sundarbans. Power plants are being built around this forest, destitute people are clearing forest to establish new villages, bandits and poachers are freely destroying the forest and animal. The NGOs and environmental activists must pressurise the government to take proper steps to protect the Sundarbans. Otherwise we will soon lose this belt of natural protection and the last sanctuary of our wildlife.