World Rainforest Movement

Bangladesh: “Save Sundarban, Save People Through Empowered Community Participation”

The Sundarban is the largest contiguous mangrove forest presently remaining in the world, and has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997. However, it is now on the verge of destruction (see WRM Bulletins 44, 66, 72) despite local peoples’ determined and bold resistance –even to death– against the destructive action of profit-led business, mainly the shrimp farming industry (see WRM Bulletin 51), as well as exploration activities of oil and gas companies (see WRM Bulletins 15 and 72).

A Biodiversity Conservation Project is under way in the Sundarban Reserve Forest, with funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Governments of the Netherlands and of Bangladesh. Is this another case of conservation approach through bulky funds from international agencies which eventually tend to promote “development” projects? How are people taken into account? Or else, how do they benefit? How to see through the alleged intentions which always mean good?

Criticism to the Sundarban Bio-diversity Conservation Project (SBCP) has been put forward by the SBCP Watch Group, an initiative of the people and peoples’ organizations inhabiting the Impact Zone of the Sundarbans, which ask for an effective re-design of SBCP in line with local peoples’ concerns.

First and foremost, the project has been designed and carried out as a top-down scheme. Though it allegedly aims at developing “a sound wild life management system” or “undertaking activities adhering to increased awareness of the environment”, it has not acknowledged the long lasting traditional and cultural wisdom of native peoples who have sustainable lived on the ecosystem for generations.

Furthermore, the project allows, enables and promotes large-scale commercial activities which have already proven to be deleterious for poor people and the environment.

The shrimp industry, a highly depredatory and contaminating activity –carried out for the benefit of big companies– which threatens biodiversity and increases unemployment through displacement of fisherfolk, is allowed to continue, and a viable shrimp policy is absent in the project. So, they let things go on as is, with detrimental commercial shrimp aquaculture pervading the economy. Such “development” is very far from a “sound wild life management”, indeed. And it has been not the result of lack of “awareness of the environment” on the part of the communities. It was precisely a great commitment towards sustainable livelihood and peoples’ rights to their own resources which led Korunamoyee Sardar to resist with her life the invasion of the shrimp farming industry.

Suspiciously enough, the SBCP promotes silvicultural trials, a “strong” forestry database for “international users” (!), and a proposed privately owned social afforestation programme to be located outside the Sundarbans. The SBCP Watch Group thinks that all this is likely to lead to monoculture tree plantations, and not to community-based forest management relying on biodiversity and ecologically sound principles.

The main solution promoted by the SBCP for poverty mitigation is eco-tourism, and the great emphasis put in it does not give due consideration to the possible destructive effects of eco-tourism on such a highly sensitive ecosystem as the Sundarbans. There are scores of literature and cases of previous and present projects –even in other parts of Asia Pacific– which show that most of these schemes are monopolized by large transnational tourism companies, yielding marginal benefits for the communities and widespread environmental destruction.

Typically, the conservation project for the Sundarban places emphasis –and money– on training professionals and paying technical consultancies, feasibility studies, monitoring, and so on, while the lack of a historical review of the negative environmental and social impacts of construction of roads, bridges, culverts, embankments, sluices and polders in the Impact Zone and beyond has caused massive environmental and ecological damage to the entire region including the Sundarbans.

In account of those and more other flaws, the watch group is in the process of launching an Advocacy Campaign for re-designing the SBCP in favor of Sundarbans Impact Zone dwellers, especially poor people, based on people’s perceptions, study findings and analysis of secondary documents. It also aims at developing a strong Prediction Group to study the implications of any kind of future interventions by International Financial Institutions in the Southwest Coastal Region of Bangladesh.

Now, the Sundarban people have spoken, and loud enough to make the Asian Development Bank take the decision of re-designing the project. The goal of SBCP Watch Groups is “Save Sundarban, Save People through empowered Community Participation”. This is a demonstration that any genuine conservation project has to be done for and with the people, especially those who have the experience of conservation through generations of living in this region.

Article based on information from: “ADB in South-West Coastal Region of Bangladesh. Two Case Studies”, July 2003, sent by Marcus Colchester, FPP, e-mail: marcus@fppwrm.gn.apc.org

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