Bangladesh’s forests tell us many stories. Let me share three of them.
The first story is about how, over the years, concepts of forest management have been created and recreated. Let’s take, as an example, people’s participation in forest management and improvement. In the 1980s, an approach called “social forestry” was introduced where local people were engaged in plantation and afforestation programmes initiated by the Forest Department. This system has a benefit-sharing mechanism involving the local people as project beneficiaries, the Forest Department, landowners, the Tree Farming Fund, and respective local governments.
In 2004, the “Nishorgo Support Project” promoted another concept called “co-management” in the protected forests of Bangladesh. Here, forest-dependent people got involved in the conservation and protection efforts. Through a couple of follow-up projects—namely “Integrated Protected Area Conservation” (IPAC, 2009-2012) and “Climate Resilient Ecosystems and Livelihoods” (CREL, 2013-2018), all funded by the USAID—the co-management concept was further strengthened on the ground. The Protected Area Management Rules, 2017 has been a milestone in this 14-year-long co-management journey, which is expected to mainstream co-management mechanism beyond donor-funded projects.
The final example of participatory forest management comes from the “Sustainable Forests And Livelihoods” (SUFAL, 2018-2023), a USD 175 million World Bank-funded programme of the Forest Department. This initiative has introduced another new concept called “collaborative forest management” and is going beyond protected areas to engage people in forest and non-forest area management.
The second story tells us how we have redefined our natural resource management approaches in response to changing situations. Since 1960s, the Forest Department has been undertaking coastal plantation programmes to stabilise Bangladesh’s coastline. In this era of changing climate, coastal afforestation has become an essential climate action to protect our coast and the people. Initiatives like “Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change through Coastal Afforestation Project” (2008-2016) of the UNDP, supported by the LDC Fund, and “Climate Resilient Participatory Afforestation and Reforestation Project” (2013−2016) of the Forest Department, funded by Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund (BCCRF), have redefined coastal afforestation as a climate change adaptation measure. This approach was followed by CREL and is expected to be further promoted by SUFAL.
The ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis is also writing a new story on our forests. The world’s largest refugee camp is now occupying more than 2,500 hectares of forest land of the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula—an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA). In 2018, the UNHCR and its partners planted tree saplings in 40 hectares of camp area. In June 2019, the UN agencies and their partners initiated reforestation in more than 200 hectares of land inside the refugee camps involving the refugees and the host community. This land technically still belongs to the Forest Department. But the department is playing an advisory role, instead of getting directly involved in the reforestation, due to the current arrangement of camp management.
All these stories share some common features. We do realise that we have been changing our ecosystems drastically. We, therefore, have long been trying to protect our existing forests through protected area management, by restoring the degraded forest areas, and by expanding the forests/vegetation in new areas—sometimes involving people in all cases. These actions can be classified as “Nature-based Solutions” (NbS), a relatively new but much-talked-about concept in the global arena.
Nature-based solutions are “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.” The NbS is an umbrella concept that covers a wide range of ecosystem-related approaches. All these actions and approaches address the challenges our society is now facing, like food and water insecurity, unsustainable resource management, unplanned economic and infrastructural development, environmental pollution, vulnerability to disasters, and long-term impacts of climate change.
A recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Oxford University has noted that NbS can play a crucial role in tackling the causes and consequences of climate change. Research shows that NbS could offer cost-effective mitigation measures to keep the global temperature below 2°C. Research also suggests that NbS can protect vulnerable communities from the climate change impacts as well as provide a range of other benefits to the society.
As the stories of Bangladesh’s forests show, we have long been practicing nature-based solutions to conserve and manage our forests, although we have not branded it as NbS. Despite spending modest funding for conservation and completing some successful projects, our on-going development activities often undermine our environmental sustainability. We still have a huge gap between the demand and supply of conservation funding. Overdependency on donor-funded projects and ensuring sustainability of project achievements beyond the project tenure remain major challenges. The current limitations and challenges around forest conservation in Bangladesh, therefore, indicate a long journey ahead of us.
To make Bangladesh’s NbS approaches more effective, we need to consider the historical aspects and challenges of our ecosystem degradation, restoration and conservation and the lessons that we have learnt from the past. We need to understand the current and future challenges that await Bangladesh as the country aims at joining the lower-middle-income country club in 2024. Based on these, we must further explore the opportunities of NbS in the ongoing and future sustainable forest or ecosystem management projects (e.g. USAID’s Protibesh). Before scaling up new NbS initiatives, we need to pilot and test their effectiveness, through appropriate research and evidence generation.
As we go forward with NbS, it is crucial to remember that our NbS ventures should always involve the local people whose lives, livelihoods, and well-being directly depend upon the nature. Bangladesh has time and again shown the effectiveness of people’s involvement in ecosystem-based actions—from the coast to the hills, from the mangroves to the haors. Participatory nature-based solutions can continue to benefit Bangladesh in its journey towards a resilient future.
Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is a biologist-turned-development-practitioner with a keen interest in research and its communication. He is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research system. Haseeb tweets as @hmirfanullah