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A bulletin on environment and development of south west coastal region of Bangladesh


    The Citizen’s Forum for conserving the biodiversity of  the Sunderbans was formed two years ago with the purpose of ensuring the participation of citizens in influencing the shaping of policies and their implementation to reverse the present process of over-exploitation and plundering of the invaluable national resource, especially in the light of the donor-funded Sunderban Biodiversity Conservation Project (SBCP)  which  is  in  the  process  of implementation.
This article seeks to analyse the project components as well as the manner in which the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the donors happened to design such a project, so that all the relevant factors can be seen in an integrated perspective with the background  of  continued  over-exploitation  and
plunder  stilll  going  on.

The Royal Bengal tiger  (Panthera tigris tigris)

With a population of 120 million which is ever on the increase, Bangladesh is a developing country in the Third World. Though the country has an area of only 147,502 square km, it can be divided into several distinct regions according to their natural features. One such region is the South-western Coastal Region of Bangladesh, which has developed as the delta of three major river systems, namely, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna,  in the eastern part of the Indian sub-continent. This region consists of the districts of Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat and the southern portion of Jessore district, and is distinguished for its unique natural features and environmental characteristics and its abundance of  bio-diversity.

The Sunderban forest situated at the mouth of the Gangetic Delta is known as the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world. In an area of 401,600 hectares, it contains 330 species of plants, 270 species of birds and 42 species of mammals including the world famous Royal Bengal Tiger. The maze of innumerable rivers, creeks and estuaries that cut through the forest provides an abundant feeding and breeding ground for  numerous fishes and other marine species. The tidal flood plains adjacent to the Sunderbans and the rivers and canals that flow through them provide not only a rich feeding ground for all kinds of aquatic animals but also a safe haven and secure breeding ground for them. A number of valuable marine species spend a significant part of their lives in these brackish waters. This coastal mangrove forest is capable of producing an abundance of organic matter and the tidal flood plains can be considered a region of complex and highly sensitive bio-diversity.

Nypa palm frond  extraction in the Sundarbans

Human economic activities have always interfered with the environment and ecology of his surroundings, and in many regions it has also endangered the environment, and the Sunderban forest is not an exception. The same has happened to the Sunderbans also. As such, the survival of the Sunderban is a matter of concern for environmental activists. Already six species of mammals have become locally extinct, including the Javan Rhino, the Swamp Deer, the Hog Deer and the Gaur, while 46 wildlife species, including the famous Royal Bengal Tiger, are enlisted as endangered. The area as well as the thickness of the Sunderban forest has declined to half of what it used to be a hundred and fifty years ago. The Sundari trees have now been affected by what is known as the “top-dying” disease. On February 4, 1999, the Sunderban forest has been declared a “World Heritage” site, as a result of which, better protection, conservation  and management can be expected.

Practical implications of the World Heritage site.

The World Heritage first came into force in 1975 when it was ratified by 20 member states, “ to take respsonsibility for the protection of outstanding natural and cultural areas which are of such unique value that they form a part of the heritage of all mankind”(The World Heritage Convention). The mission of the convention is to encourage countries to ensure the protection of sites and monuments within their borders, identified as being of exceptional universal value by the World Heritage Committee.. Bangladesh became a party to the convention in 1983, and after about 16 years, the committee has ruled favourably  on the nomination of a part of the Sunderbans as a World Heritage site.
  Bee-hive in the Sundarbans

It was only towards the end of 1997 that the issue was brought on the agenda of the 21st session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO, which finally approved the nomination the same year (Dr.Ansar Ali Khan, UNESCO Country Representative, Star Weekly Magazine,March 19,1999).. Dr.Khan continues,”In practical terms, world heritage status of the Sunderbans means that the government of Bangladesh has pledged to the international community to refrain from any deliberate measures, direct or indirect, which might damage the Sunderbans and to take appropriate legal, scientific and financial measures to ensure its protection”.
“Bangladesh as a developing country would not normally have many resources to divert to the cause of conservation”, says Dr.Khan, adding,”Once a site has been nominated as a world heritage, the international community takes responsibility to provide technical and monetary assistance for the preservation of the site”.Sooner or later, therefore, such assistance appears to be forthcoming.

The management of the site, however, will have to be conducted by the country itself, through its concerned agency, which in this case, is the Forest Department (FD) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests(MOEF).But Dr.Zakir Hosain of the Department of Zoology of DU, is skeptical about the capacity of the  FD to implement the principles laid down in the article 44b (v) of the convention. He
points out,”the site in question should have an existing satisfactory management plan at the time of its nomination or the government must indicate when such a plan will be available”.

According to Dr.Ansar Ali Khan of  UNESCO,” The Ministry of Forests recognises that their existing
management plan has weaknesses; it is not meeting the requirements of  the convention in terms of trained manpower, in terms of infrastructure and even in terms of resources required”. That is why, according to Dr.Khan, the donor agencies are working with the FD to come up with a sound management plan.

According to David E.Lockwood, UN Resident Coordinator, the overall capacity of the Bangladesh government to do most of the things that they like to do is limited. It must be put in the national perspective and we must recognise the enormous choices that policy-makers have to deal with when planning the national budget.  When we have other problems on the national agenda like arsenic poisoning, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS which have to be looked at in the same light as the issue of conservation, perhaps the mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans will not get the kind of resources that they actually deserve. But in the present setting, conservation issues will have an edge over others”.(Quoted by Mahtab Haider in STAR Weekly Magazine,19-3-99).

However, the fact that the prime minister herself has visited the site to inaugurate the declaration may give us some reason to be hopeful because, many more projects are in the pipeline for the Sunderbans, but only if the government continues to prove its commitment to preservation will these projects get the go-ahead.

For any development program to be successful, it is necessary that it be friendly to the environment and ecology of the region and possess sustainable and skilled management. But unfortunately, many projects in the past have caused either over-exploitation of Natural resources, or left them under or un-utilised. Many projects in the past may have yielded short-term gains, but have eventually proved disastrous to the environment as well as to the lives and livelihoods of the people.  The same thing could be said of many projects that are at present under implementation. In order that the projects be implemented in an environment-friendly manner, the active participation of the local people must be ensured at all stages from planning, designing and implementation to monitoring, combined with realistic need assessment and the proper utilization of the skills and experience of the people. In order to bring about a positive transformation in the lives of the people living in this region, it is necessary to evolve environment-friendly methodologies that will utilise the skills of the people and the resources of the region, so that a sustainable management of the region’s resources can be ensured.

Water-logging in the Coastal Embankment areas.

During the decade of the 1960’s, the Coastal Embankment Project was implemented in this region. The embankments were built for the purpose of enhancing agricultural production as well as to protect the lives and crops of the people from tidal surges. These embanknments have brought about a permanent transformation of the entire region. A unique feature of  this tide-washed land  of ours is  that a rich  variety of marine  species spend  a significant portion of their  lives in the rivers and tidal flood-plains of the region. It is therefore essential that the depth and navigability of the rivers and canals be maintained to conserve this rich bio-diversity. But as a result of the construction of the embanknments, not only the depth of the rivers and the area of the tidal prism have decreased, but the salinity of the area has also gradually increased. The increased salinity has reduced the fertility of the land. As  one of the results of the construction of the embanknments, the silt carried by the tides are now being deposited on the river-beds, which has resulted in drainage congestion and subsequent water-logging over a large area, causing a lot of suffering to hundreds of thousands of people. Later on, as a result of the transformation of the environment, people have been compelled to look for alternative livelihoods, which has further damaged the environment. These embankments are responsible for the ever increasing salinity of the south-western coastal region, and this enhanced salinity has also negatively influenced the Sunderbans.

People dependent on the Resources of the Sunderbans :

One of the principal causes of degradation of the Sunderban forest is the over-exploitation and plundering of its resources. As a result of illegal extraction of timber and other non-timber forest products as well as the massive destruction of huge numbers of post-larvae and fry of other varieties of shrimps and fishes while collecting the post-larvae of Bagda shrimps have drastically reduced the resources of the Sunderbans. Generally every year about 300,000
people are engaged in collecting timber, firewood, honey and beeswax, thatching materials, meley reeds and in fishing in the Sunderbans. In addition to the
people employed by the contractors, the people living in the vicinity of the Sunderbans are also dependent on the forest to a great extent. The fuel-wood needs of nearly 50,000 people who enter the Sunderbans to collect post-larvae of shrimps have also contributed to the denuding of the forest. During the fiscal year 1995-96 alone, more than 293 million post-larvae of Bagda shrimps have been collected from the Sunderbans.

The animal resources of the Sunderbans are also being exploited illegally. As a result of high demand and very high prices in the international market for tiger skins, many tigers are being killed. Deer are also being illegally hunted to meet local demands.

The Sunderban Bio-Diversity Conservation Project :

In order to conserve the bio-diversity of the Sunderbans by means of appropriate environment-friendly policies, a US$77 million project has been approved, titled the Sunderban Bio-diversity Conservation Project(SBCP).The funds for the project will be formed with Grants from the Global Environment Fund and Nordic Development Fund and a loan from the Asian Development Bank(ADB). The different components of the project include :-

1) Reorganization and development of a workable framework of the Forest Departnment
centered at Khulna.
2) Conservation of Bio-Diversity and development of forest management;
3) Eradication of poverty of the people living in the “Impact Zone”: or  “Buffer Zone”
adjacent to the forest by means of expanded economic opportunities;
4) Formulation of appropriate policies for fixing realistic values for the resources to be
extracted from the forest.

The proposed Sunderban Bio-Diversity Conservation Project has been divided into five parts :-

A. For effective management of the Reserved Forest :

1) A Sunderban Management Agency;
2) A Sunderban Stewardship Council;
3) A Stakehiolders’ Advisory Council;
4) Development of Infrastructure;
5) Mass Education Programme for creating awareness among the people about the importance of the Sunderbans.

B. For Reform and Capacity Development of the Forest Department :

In order that the Forest Department be capable of initiating projects for conservation of the bio-diversity of the Sunderbans including all the animal and plant resources of the forest, as well as the three wild life sanctuaries within the forest.

A Brief Description of the “Impact Zone” of the Sunderban Forest :

The Impact Zone or area dependent on the Sunderbans consists of 17 upazilas around the
perimeter of the forest. There are about 200 Unions situated in this zone. Out of these, the inhabitants of about 60 Unions are directly involved in the extraction of resources from the Sunderbans. The
majority of these 60 Unions are in three of the 17 upazilas, namely, Shyamnagar in Satkhira district, Koyra in Khulna district and  Sarankhola in Bagerhat district.

A New Curse for the people inhabiting the Impact Zone :

During the 1980’s, Shrimp Aquaculture came as a new curse in the Impact Zone of the Sunderbans. The principal economic activity in the region at present  is shrimp aqua-culture. The agricultural  lands
of the region have now been transformed into shrimp farms known locally as “gher”. A dramatic change has occurred in the traditional occupations of share-croppers, agricultural  labourers, small and  marginal farmers, fishermen and others.

Though this change is said to be beneficial in the macro-economic sense, it is questionable. But in the local sphere, shrimp cultivation  has thrown an evil shadow over the lives of the people of the region, especially the poor.  The shrimp farmers have forcibly occupied the agricultural  lands of the poor and marginal farmers, as a result of which they have now turned to the forest  in search of an alternative source of   livelihood, thus increasing  pressure on the steadily depleting resources of the Sunderbans.  But at the same time, the local people have been, for over a decade, engaged in a movement against shrimp aqua-culture, even at great risk to their lives. They want to get back their lands; they want to produce crops and local  varieties of  fish to  meet  local  requirements.

Enclosure for Brackish water Shrimp Culture
The people in the impact zone believe that if the government prohibits shrimp aquaculture in the region and if the local people resume agricultural activities, the poor and marginal farmers will be benefited and a lot of employment opportunities will be created in agriculture and related activities.

Cattle rearing and keeping of poultry and ducks have also been negatively affected by shrimp farming. As all sources of employment have become closed, large numbers of the affectedd people have been constrained to turn to collection of shrimp fry or post-larvae as an alternative occupation. In a survey conducted by NGOs, it has been found in the occupational map that shrimp fry collection is the only occupation that is carried on in the Sunderban throughout the year. In a chart representing the changes that have occurred in the last 30 years, the depletion of shrimp post-larvae is clearly depicted. Even the shrimp fry collectors say that it is not sustainable, and the crab and shell collectors are also of the same opinion.  In the above mentioned NGO study, it was found that the only cause for the depletion of other species is shrimp aquaculture.  According to that study report, shrimp aquaculture is also responsible for many other impacts. As a result of decrease in the availability of rice straw for thatching, resulting from the decrease in agriculture, wild hay from the Sunderbans is being over-exploited.  The increase in salinity of the region has killed off all vegetation, resulting in acute shortage of fuel wood, for which also pressure has increased on the resources of the Sunderbans. The reduction in the number of cattle has also reduced the availability of cow-dung which is used as an alternative to fire-wood.

Peoples’ Recommendations :

The people dependent on the Sunderbans as well as the inhabitants of the Impact zone are unanimous in their opinion that strict rules must be promulgated in respect of commercial extraction of the resources of the Sunderbans and such rules must be strictly enforced.

The Forest Department must be decentralised and it must be made transparent and accountable to the local people. The present management and security systems of the Forest Departnment will have to be changed into an efficient, responsible and democratic institution. All the stakeholders who follow different occupations and have economuic interests in the resources of the Sunderbans  must be united without any class or gender based discrimination and be granted equal rights to enjoy the benefits from the forest, so that they shall voluntarily engage themselves in protecting and conserving the bio-diversity of the Sunderbans. A responsible credit
system coupled with alternative means of employment will also be necessary. But the importance of one  factor cannot be denied, and that is : In all

    Heritiera fomes (Sundari trees) “top dying”
development initiatives for the Sunderbans (from planning to implementation and monitoring) the active participation of the people must be ensured, and in respect of monitoring, local, nati  onal and international NGOs must be involved.

Review Of The Proposed Project :
Though most of the opinions of the people have been considered in the project proposed by the Asian Development Bank, many of them have also been disregarded. It is true that from the point of view of ADB, the principal financier of the project, the project has been designed on the fundamental issues of Conservation, Production and Participation, but equal importance has also been given to other aspects, such as preparing an inventory of natural resources, zoning of different areas, formulation of appropriate policies for land use and formulation of approprioate policies for realistic utilization of the peoples’ resources, that is , the forest resources.  In spite of the positive viewpoint of the bank in recognising the increasng importance of all aquatic resources including fish in ensuring food security, the project has  not approved the destruction of mangrove forest for the purpose of shrimp cultivation, and criticised the processes that damage the biodiversity while extracting the resources of the Sunderbans. The ever increasing environmental pollution in the areas adjacent to the Sunderbans has also found place in the project document.

Though the project document admits that poverty has increased in the region because the agricultural lands have been made into Shrimp ponds, only micro-credit has been proposed as the means to eliminate poverty, without expressing any need for enquiry as to how it is used. Simply proposing cattle rearing and poultry farming without suggesting any method to stop the spread of shrimp farming is like being an ostrich.  As investment in those enterprises have proved profitable in other areas of the country, it has been taken for granted that those pursuits will be profitable in this region too, though the local inhabitants believe that the salinity spread by shrimp aquaculture had destroyed all grazing and thus made such pursuits extinct. Hence, what is likely to happen is that they may buy boats and nets and go to the Sunderbans to collect shrimp fry, or invest the loan money in shrimp aquaculture itself, as a result of which the environment will be further degraded and the ecological balance in the Sundderbans will be lost Therefore it is necessary to think more seriously about the negative impacts of shrimp aquaculture in the Impact Zone of  the Sunderbans and formulate appropriate policies for the region. It has already been accepted that shrimp aquaculture is not suastainable, whether in the extensive form or in the intensive form. The foreign exchange earned by the export of processed shrimps is nothing compared to the colossal damage to the environment and the socio-economic well-being of the people. Reports of spontaneous movements against shrimp aquaculture have been appearing in the newspapers every now and then. In this perspective, the silence of the project document on this subject is not understandable.

In the absence of strict monitoring and accountability to the people, the “Eco-Tourism” proposed in the project document is likely to further damage the environment.  Unscrupulous tour companies are likely to construct permanent habitations inside the forest in the name of constructing “tourist lodges”.  As such, for the appropriate development of this industry, environmentally conscious tour companies as well as environmentally conscious tourists are necessary.

When faulty administration and lack of monitoring have been pointed out as the main weakness throughout the country including the Sunderbans, merely formulating a project for conservation without  thoroughly reforming the entire system, will be simply like giving a facelift. It will not be advisable also to neglect the projects that are on-going or in the offing in areas adjacent to the Sunderbans, especially in the water resource sector. Under the Khulna Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project (KJDRP) aided by the Asian Development Bank, controversial regulators are being built only a few km  upstream from the Sunderbans.It will also not be advisable to neglect other proposed or on-going projects like the Gorai River Rehabilitation Project or the Ganges Barrage project. Though the closure of the environmentally polluting Khulna Newsprint mill has been proposed, nothing has been said about the other polluting industries or the port of Mongla. Therefore it is necessary to revise the project under an integrated, all-encompassing, point of view. The antecedents of the Advisory organizations to be appointed in connection with the project will also have to be closely examined, especially as regards their roles in respect of environment and participatory development.

The present process of issuing licences to prospect for petroleum and gas will also need to be carefully considered.  If any accident of the nature of Magurchara ever happens in the vicinity of the Sunderbans, it will result in colossal damage to the environment and bio-diversity of the Sunderbans.

According to the understanding between the Advisors of the project and ADAB, the latter was to be involved at every stage of the project from its planning and designing till selection of NGOs, which has, however, not been implemented. ADAB is willing to play the role of a coordinator. Moreover it is pledge-bound  to ensure the participation of the people at all stages of the project, from planning to implementation.

As such it is absolutely clear that the protection and development of the Sunderban Reserve Forest will be possible only when the people are actively involved with the project from the very start.  Wherever there may arise a conflict of interest, the environment and the interests of the marginal group will get priority.

This project is in respect of a peoples’ property. As such the people have the right to all information in connection with this project. Full participation of the people is essential for the success of any project of this nature. The Sunderbans is not only our own heritage, it is now a World Heritage. As such, the responsibility for its security and conservation is ours too.


On June 2, 1998, at a meeting attended by environmental and development activists, journalists, peoples’ representatives, local professional people, businessmen, etc., a Citizens’ Forum for Monitoring Sunderban Bio-Diversity Conservation was formed for the purpose of monitoring the implementation of the project as well as to enhance the awareness of the people regarding the subject. An Advisory Committee has been formed with Internationally well-known Environmental and Social activist Ms.Khushi Kabir as Chief Adviser, together with Executive Director of Uttaran and noted environmental activist of the regiomn Md. Shahidul  Islam and othert prominent academicians and environmentasl activists  as members of  the  Advisoruy  Committee. The  51-
member Committee includes the  Secretary of Khulna District Bar Association  Advocate Firoz Ahmed, Secretary of Khulna Press Club Manik Chandra Saha, Bangladesh Medical Association central Vice-President Dr. Baharul Alam,Advocacy and Democracy Activist Gazi Haider Salahuddin Runu, Development activist Mustafa Nurruzzaman and other prominent professiopnals, journalists and other eminent citizens. Environmental activist Ashraf-ul-Alam Tutu was chosen as Member-Secretary.  Later several discussion meetings in the Impact zone in the districts of Bagerhat and Satkhira, a workshop in Khulna, publications etc. were organised by the Committee.  The committee also formulated a set of recommendations in accordance with the opinions of the people.

Functions of the Citizens’ Forum :

The functions of the Citizens’ Forum have been spelt out as conducting Advocacy and lobbying with various government and donor agencies and with the general public as well as the people deriving  their livelihoods from the Sunderbans directly, to achieve the following objectives :-
a)  To ensure an efficient and transparent management asystem for the Sunderban Reserve Forest accountable to the people of the region.
b)  To lobby the government to enunciate a clear-cut policy for environment-friendly shrimp cultivation in the Impact Zone of the Sunderbans, and to strictly enforce the policy, in order to arrest the deterioration of the regional environment
c)  To ensure sustainable extraction of the resources of the Sunderbans for ther maximum benefit of the people directly depending on the forest for their livelihoods.
d)  To ensure alternative means of livelihood for the forest resource extractors by using appropriate   models of micro-financing and other necessary imputs to reduce  their  dependence  on  the  Sunderbans.
e)  To ensure that necessary infrastructure development activities are carried out  in the Impact Zone of the SRF as outlined in the project document of the SBCP.
Towards achieving the above mentioned objectives, the Citizens’ Forum has conducted the undermentioned   activities.

Activities :

1)  Workshop at Khulna with NGO activists,    professionals, journalists and interested citizens   in November, 1998.
2)  Two similar workshops at Satkhira and Bagerhat   during February and April, 1999 respectively.
3)  Several discussion   meetings  with  the   Stake-
 holders, that is, people directly dependent on the   Sunderbans, at :-
 a) Shyamnagar in Satkhira district in December,   1999.
 b) Koyra in Khulna district in January, 2000.
 c) Rampal in Bagerhat district in Febrtuary, 2000
 d) Mongla in Bagerhat district in March, 2000.
 e) Sarankhola in Bagerhat district in April, 2000.
 f) Another workshop at Khulna in November, 1999.
 g) Another workshop in Khulna in October, 2000.
Publications :
The Citizens’ Forum brought out several publications as part of its Advocacy programme :
*  Two issues of Coastal Newsletter in English.
*  One booklet containing the Bengali Translation
     of a speech rendered by Ms.Khushi Kabir at an
    international seminar on mangrove eco-systems
     held at San Jose in Costa Rica and subsequently
    published in the Daily Star of Dhaka.
*   Several reports and articles in  local and national
The Citizens’ Forum for the Conservation of Biodiversity of the Sunderbans Reserve Forest(SRF) has also spelt out a body of recommendations, which has been submitted to the Sunderban Biodiversity Conservation Project(SBCP) authorities jointly with ADAB.

Proposed Recommendations :

1) The active participation of the local people, especially those who derive their livelihoods from
the resources of the Sunderbans must be ensured, without any discrimination as to class, occupation or gender, in the planning, implementation and monitoring of the project. Assessment of peoples’ opinions in respect of all similar projects for bio-diversity conservation, especially in respect of such wetland areas that come under the definitions of the Ramsar convention, is also essential.
2) All such projects must be strictly reviewed and all necessary information must be provided to all concerned. In other words, all projects to be implemented in Khulna and Barisal divisions will have to be evaluated and be kept open for review.
3) All information in respect of the proposed Sunderban Bio-Diversity Conservation Project shall be made easily available to all national and international NGOs and other individuals and organizations.
4) The gradual expansion of shrimp aquaculture as the principal economic activity in the areas adjacent to the Sunderbans must be taken into cognizance and corrective steps need to be taken.

5) Before the construction of any works on any river or other water-course that may directly or indirectly have any impact on the Sunderbans, they must be closely reviewed in an impartial manner and the possible impacts must be correctly assessed.

6) Collection of naturally occurring shrimp fry and post-larvae must be totally prohibited, after ensuring alternative livelihoods for the people engaged in that occupation.
Policy must be formulated in respect of Shrimp Aquaculture and while deciding on the area where it will be permitted, necessary importance must be given to public interest and environmental
7) Environment-friendly land-use policies must be formulated.

We have repeatedly emphasised the fact that the Sunderban Bio-diversity Conservation Project, in the light of the existing realities, needs to be reviewed extensively. The river management activities in the Ganges flood plain usually have a great impact on the south-western coastal region including the Sunderbans. As such, the on-going and proposed projects for this region, such as the Khulna Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project and the Ganges Barrage Project will have to be thoroughly reviewed. Industrial pollution, the pollution generated by the Mongla port, pollution caused by oil spills, need to be taken into serious consideration.

The proposed petroleum and gas prospecting programmes will need to be reviewed in the light of the need for conservation of the bio-diversity of the Sunderbans.
“Eco-Tourism” has been mentioned as a component of the project. Already there exist “Eco-Tourism” programmes worldwide in environmentally and ecologically important areas. Though they earn much foreign exchange, they are creating a negative impact on the environment and ecology of their respective areas.  We need, therefore, to be careful in this respect.

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