I always wanted to take two photographs of the same spot of Tanguar Haor—one in the driest month of the year and one in the wettest. I was successful in doing so in 2016. It was just remarkable to see how two-thirds of a 12,655-hectare waterbody gets dried up in Chaitra (April), but again becomes so full, like a sea, in Sraban (August), year in, year out!
To the readers of The Daily Star, Tanguar Haor is quite well-known as a wintering ground of a huge number of migratory water birds coming from the colder north, like China and Mongolia. In January 2019, Bangladesh Bird Club, Bangladesh Forest Department, and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) counted about 150,000 migratory birds belonging to around 40 species—the highest count since 2012—in this wetland.
The migratory birds make our Tanguar Haor a "Wetland of International Importance". Recognising this fact, on July 10,2000, this freshwater ecosystem was designated as Bangladesh's second Ramsar Site (Our first Ramsar Site is, of course, the Sundarbans mangrove forest).
Despite being a significant hub of global biodiversity with mesmerising scenic beauty, Tanguar Haor has a very depressing past. Since the 1930s till the end of the last century, Tanguar Haor was captured by powerful elites through leasing system that caused rampant exploitation of its fisheries resources.
Over those seven decades, Tanguar Haor became a painful example of violating people's rights. With power, money, and muscle, the leaseholders harshly stopped the poor haor-dwellers from accessing the resources of their haor. Tanguar Haor's condition deteriorated so much that in 1999 the government had to declare it an "Ecologically Critical Area" (ECA).
2001 was a significant year for Tanguar Haor—the harmful leasing was stopped and, from the Ministry of Land, the management of the wetland was brought under the then Ministry of Environment and Forests. A couple of years later, the government put its resources, through Sunamganj district administration, to guard and to protect Tanguar Haor, which continued until the end of 2006.
The National Conservation Strategy Implementation Project in the mid-1990s was the first-ever conservation initiative in Tanguar Haor undertaken by the government. But it was the "Community Based Sustainable Management of Tanguar Haor" project (Tanguar Haor Project), which began a new era of conserving Tanguar Haor.
In December 2006, the Ministry of Environment and Forests started this three-phase project with technical support from IUCN and financial support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Other national and international NGOs, namely BELA, CNRS, ERA, GUS, and HELVETAS, also got involved in this initiative. That project came to an end in August 2016.
Over a decade, a number of major changes were seen in Tanguar Haor. A people-centric system was introduced to sustainably manage Tanguar Haor. There was a three-tier community organisation—at village, union and haor levels—and an inclusive supporting authority led by the district administration. The project built leadership capacity, empowered the local community, and facilitated women's participation in natural resource management.
The haor-dwellers' right to fish was re-established with a sustainable participatory fish harvesting system. The income from fish harvests was shared among the fishermen (40 percent), the community organisation (36 percent), and the government (24 percent) according to a benefit-sharing protocol approved by the ministry in 2008.
Livelihoods of the poor families improved through alternative income generating activities as well as with their own savings. The fish and wildlife sanctuaries, restored swamp forests, and patrolling by community guards protected and improved the haor biodiversity. Legal and policy instruments approved by the government also gave Tanguar Haor management a strong legal basis.
At the end of 10 years, some challenges, however, still remained. The opportunity to improve alternative livelihoods of the local households to reduce their dependency on Tanguar Haor was limited. The capacity of the local community to generate and manage funds and savings was not enough.
Local people showed inadequate confidence in the government's initiatives and commitments for participatory management of Tanguar Haor. Negative propaganda from the local elites against the people-oriented approaches and interventions was another concern. There was a need for additional policy formulation. Translating the government's policy level commitment on the ground, particularly at the district and sub-district levels, was also a challenge.
Realising this reality, at the end of donor funding, the government allocated its own resources to maintain the decade-old system in Tanguar Haor. In this unprecedented attempt, IUCN remained the technical lead, supported by CNRS and ERA. The Tanguar Haor Bridging Phase project (2016−2018) continued sustainable fish harvesting, benefit-sharing, and resource protection activities.
The Bridging Phase also converted 41 village level community organisations into cooperative societies spread out in Tahirpur and Darmapasha sub-districts of Sunamganj. Under the "Cooperative Societies Act, 2001", these societies were led by a central cooperative society for the entire Tanguar Haor with representatives from all village cooperative societies.
One of the major purposes of the Bridging Phase was to develop a much larger and longer project so that Tanguar Haor management could continue with the local people. But that did not happen by December 2018, when the Bridging Phase ended. Which means, for the first time since 2006, no conservation project has been operating in Tanguar Haor over the past 20 months.
Nevertheless, the leadership of the central cooperative society remained vibrant. With a supportive district administration and political environment, they managed to engage in sustainable fish harvesting during November 2019 to March 2020, received their share, and continued with community guarding to protect Tanguar Haor as much as possible.
The story so far of Tanguar Haor tells us how a community could be empowered while sustainably managing an ecosystem. If individuals and households can realise the wider importance of their ecosystems; if they have trust in the system and believe that change is possible—despite a gloomy past; and if their capacity, knowledge, and skills are developed in terms of leadership, fund management, and negotiation, they can move towards empowerment.
But soft elements, like awareness raising and capacity building, are not enough to keep poverty-stricken people engaged in ecosystem management. Both households and the community as a whole, need incentives—access to ecosystem's resources, receiving part of the financial benefits from ecosystem management, availability of better livelihood opportunities and market linkage, and access to saving schemes or loans.
Local communities also need to interact with other stakeholders to establish and practice their rights. An inclusive governance structure from the village to the ecosystem levels can give space for collaboration. When awareness, capacity, incentives, and governance all come together we can get an empowered community actively participating in ecosystem management.
Such a community may, however, only work well, if there is a project acting as a facilitator. But as Tanguar Haor has shown, a supportive policy and legal regime can bring all elements of community-based ecosystem management together and bind them beyond the project tenure.
During recent conversations, the local community leadership expressed that they still feel a need for a "new" Tanguar Haor project. The reason for that, however, is not clear. Maybe from past experience, they felt that the currently supportive administrative and political systems may change within a short period of time. A project may always help them as a cushion or a support wing, as they have seen since 2006.
The government also feels the need for a project in Tanguar Haor to harness its 12-year investment in participatory ecosystem management. But how long will we manage our precious ecosystems through short-term projects? Can we design a project with the people of Tanguar Haor that will allow them to manage their amazing wetland confidently, on their own and be free from depending on external funding, thus from external influence?
Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah