Collaborative management for sustainable livelihoods in the Sundarbans
The impacts as perceived by the community
Catching fish from rivers, lakes and rivulets have good economic value in surroundings markets (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Sundarbans delta is the largest mangrove forest reserve in the world with distinct species of wild flora and fauna. It is a source of livelihood for several communities residing in the vicinity. The indigenous plants, extraction of honey and catching fish from rivers, lakes and rivulets have good economic value in surroundings markets.

The local community are highly attached to their natural resources which have became part of their culture and tradition over the years. A research paper ‘Livelihood, conflict and tourism: An assessment of livelihood impact in Sundarbans, West Bengal’ by Shahid Jamal et al aims to identify and analyse the community's perception about Sundarbans and impacts on their livelihood along with the threat faced by Sundarbans.

It is home to millions of impoverished masses who are struggling for their survival. In the late 1970s, water of Sundarbans started submerging farmland of the surroundings causing threat to survival of the people (Das Gupta & Shaw, 2015). Thereby, several people abandoned their homeland and migrated to safer islands.

Analysis of past cyclones reveal that there is an increase in the number of high and very high-intensity cyclones in the region. One of the deadliest cyclones named Aila occurred in May 2009 that resulted in massive loss of life and property (Mukhopadhyay, 2011). Locals have shifted to the restricted forest areas to feed their family members where, wild animals often attack them (Inskip et al., 2013).

Database and research methodology

The research paper is based on the secondary research of studies conducted worldwide. The primary survey was conducted to achieve in-depth understanding of Sundarbans' community, their livelihood and understand local's perception about the human and animal conflict. A household survey was conducted after 10 years of cyclone Aila at Bali village and Satjelia village in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, India in 2019.

Discussion

Source of livelihood

Sundarban provides sustainable livelihood to millions of people (Jalais (2007). Village youngsters go to the forest for their livelihoods like cutting of woods and fish catching. These youngsters sometimes enter into the reserve forest unintentionally, thereby tigers often attacked on them, many of them lost their lives.

Fishing is allowed in the periphery of the forest only and it is completely illegal inside the reserve forest. However, the quality of fish catch available in the periphery has deteriorated. Thus, the locals have to break the law and illegally enter the dense core forested area, putting their life in jeopardy. Selling that fish is illegal, but most villagers sell those fishes through the middleman that has worsened the vicious cycle of poverty (Azad, Pitol, & Rakkibu, 2021).

The entire agriculture activities in the region are solely dependent on rainfall due to absence of irrigation facilities. The intrusion of seawater has compelled people to grow dry climate crop (Nasrin et al., 2020). Building embankment to protect the crops from encroaching brackish water is a pre-requisite in this ecosystem, which hardly works against adverse climatic conditions (Abdullah et al., 2016).

Hence, agricultural productivity in the region is declining. Fragmentation of the land holdings among cultivators is another reason for declining agriculture yield. Both agriculture and fishing are good livelihood option where productivity is very low.

Honey collection is usually done in prohibited forest areas. In the present scenario, honey collectors face hardship as illegal felling of trees, disrupts and damages the bee hives. Flowering branches are cleared out illegally and since the flowers play a pivotal role in making honey sweet, it has negative consequences on that particular livelihood (Koli, 2013).

Forest officials discourage villagers from going deep inside the forest for honey due to attack of wild animals. They enter inside protected areas at their own risk. Hence, in case of mishap, forest officials are not held accountable and they refuse to provide any kind of compensation.

Tourism

The rough terrain, the largest mangrove forests, Royal Bengal tiger population and other exotic animals are key attractive points for tourists in Sundarbans (Uddin, 2019). Tourism brings some scope of employment to indigenous people. Different aspects of the scenic beauty attract tourists to Sundarbans such as bird watching, dense mangrove vegetation, wildlife, particularly the royal Bengal tiger and village life.

Eco-tourism provides multiple opportunities for work to the local people (Das & Bandyopadhyay, 2013). During the tourist season, these people get additional and alternative opportunities to earn their livelihood. The residents of Sundarbans treat the river as their protector and preserver of life (Kumar et al., 2020).

Mangrove protection

Sundarbans delta has the largest remaining area of mangroves in the world (Giri et al., 2014). It functions as a protective barrier for its inhabitants from storms, cyclones, intrusion and sea water seepage. Mangroves always helped to reduce the intensity of cyclones hitting the coastal infrastructures in the area. It has complex roots that trap and bind together the soil and resist any kind of erosion.

Recovering land and developing climate resilient coastlines are the main challenges (Mukherjee et al., 2013). In the vulnerable part of the world, these extraordinary forested areas are one of the vital protections against nature's extreme events. The most recent cyclone, Amphan, has ravaged the mangrove forest of Sundarbans and destroyed several thousand kilometres of forest and wrecked several local villages (Mukhopadhyay, 2011).

If this vast stretch of mangroves doesn't exist, then cyclones would reach Kolkata and ruin it. This protective citadel can't be taken for granted. The sea level is rising faster than ever before due to the global warming and rising water carries more salinity. It is essential to maintain the delicate balance of saltwater and freshwater for the health of Sundarbans.

Mangrove's species which can't bear extreme saline water will eventually perish. Mangrove's health is degrading which definitely affect its resilient and recovery potential against climate change consequences. The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events will increase in the future (Das Gupta & Shaw, 2015).

Fishing

Fishing is one of the vital professions in Sundarbans and fisherman traditionally catches fish (Mukherjee et al., 2013). They practice fishing differently in October than the rest months of the year (Mahmood et al., 2021). They don't catch fish from the river directly during October, but they setup their nets strategically.

Afterwards, fishermen enter inside the delta with their food, water, other essential particulars and stay there for 8 to 10 days. First, they select their fishing area, then construct a temporary base camp for their dwelling, locally called as Tong (Singh et al., 2010). The base camp is mainly made up of bamboo and thatch, which takes around 2 to 3 days to prepare.

After a few days, they pick up their nets and catch fish. They throw caught fish underneath the boat where fishes are alive as it contains little amount of water. Alive fish is needed to get a sufficient market price. After the fish catch, some of them set off to the fish buyer who is locally called Paiker.

Suggestions and recommendations

Post discussion, it was concluded that apart from human and animal conflict, the community is also facing livelihood conflict. The idea of conservation, sustainability and their yield in the preservation of traditional forests are an integral part of natural ecosystem.

The set of laws that govern the forest resources should be drafted in a manner that follows bottom-up approach instead of top-down approach. Locals must be trained through capacity building programs to boost eco-friendly tourism activities in Sundarbans.

Government officials at the top and policy-maker should keep local's grievances in mind, whenever they are framing any policy like construction of safe passage in wildlife dominated areas to avoid wildlife-human conflict.

The foundation of forest laws in Sundarbans states that multiple natural resources are found in abundance and these resources should be utilized sustainably. Those who are not abiding forest laws shouldn't be allowed in any case into the forest premises. Only local dwellers should be permitted to cut down the needed trees because these are their vital source of livelihood since ages.

The area specific approach and regional plan for the region is the need of hour as the region is suffering from multiple problems such as threat to tiger conservation, increased salinity of the water and erosion of embankments.

Any developmental plan should be participatory in nature and include roof builders, harvesters and Nypa palm collectors, honey collectors, lime makers, snail gatherers and many others. The wisdom and traditional knowledge of indigenous people and local community should be respected, promoted, and responsibly disseminated as these are playing crucial role in promoting tourism in Sundarbans.

The full paper can be accessed here

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