By Aeri Wittenbourgh, Communications Officer, Concern Worldwide US
334 species of plants. 693 different kinds of animals, including 49 species of mammals, 59 reptiles and 315 water birds. 1,600 square miles of land and 725 square miles of water. Three wildlife sanctuaries. The Sundarbans, the world’s largest, contiguous mangrove forest located along the coast of India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal, is home to all of this. Just outside, 1.7 million people live along the forest’s outskirts, with many depending on its resources. The impact of climate change and environmental degradation have put both humans and habitat at risk. But that risk presents the forest and its people with a unique opportunity for transformation that can set an example for the rest of the world.
The Bay of Bengal is home to some of the poorest people of India and Bangladesh. Like most of the world’s poor and vulnerable, those living in the Bay of Bengal have contributed the least to climate change, and yet they are paying the highest price for it. This can be seen from Haiti to Somalia, with costs that include lives as well as livelihoods.
With the effects of climate change on the rise, we need to rethink how we address poverty. A holistic approach that puts resilience to climate change and the protection of biodiversity front and center is becoming a critical component to humanitarian aid, and the Sundarbans is a case in point.
With extreme poverty as much part of the landscape as the mangrove forest itself, many people here are driven into its wilds to eke out a meager living by cutting trees, harvesting honey, hunting, poaching wildlife, fishing and other activities that deplete the forest’s natural resources. But by simply stepping into the forest, they put their lives and the Sundarbans resources in jeopardy.
The Sundarbans, like many wetlands, supports a highly diverse ecosystem and is home to several rare and endangered animals. Rhino and leopard species, now extinct, once roamed its landscape, and crocodiles and river dolphins still traverse its estuaries. But the most famous animal here is also its most ferocious: the endangered “man-eating” royal Bengal tiger, of whom only 300 to 500 are thought to remain in the forest.
Rahima Begum is known locally as a Bagh Bidhava, or tiger widow. A 45-year-old mother of three daughters, she is in poor health and struggles to provide for them. Her husband, Sattar, went foraging in the forest and never returned, presumably lost to a tiger attack. She says that back-to-back crop failures as a result of salt water flooding forced him to take the risk. “He was bound to turn to the forest,” she says, “and that lead to this fatal fortune.” In addition to her loss, Rahima must also deal with the social stigma which attaches to tiger widows locally. Every year some 20 to 30 people are attacked by tigers, many fatally; actual numbers may be higher due to under-reporting. Several tigers also die each year from retaliatory killings.
Lives and the environment here are dependent on one another. Never was this clearer than during super cyclone Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009, when many people saved themselves from the storm surge by clinging to the branches and roots of the mangroves. The Sundarbans is a natural bioshield against extreme weather events that are occurring with greater frequency due to the impact of climate.
But the Sundarbans, weakened by environmental degradation, lost a third of its trees during Sidr; the forest requires sustained, managed care to reverse the impact caused by human pressures. This amazing ecosystem and all the life it supports, including both humans and tigers, can be brought back from the brink.
We believe that, in places like the Sundarbans, an approach which integrates alternative livelihoods with climate-smart conservation techniques can help reduce human dependency on natural resources. And that can only help people like Rahima and her family. In the future, it’s clear that humanitarian relief organizations must strive to find more ways to include conservation initiative in their response to human need, so that neither people nor our earth are impoverished.
Concern Worldwide‘s Sundarbans Development and Alternative Resources Initiative (SUNDARI) is designed to help offset the effects of climate change on the Sundarbans area and to improve the quality of life for those who live there.
About Concern Worldwide
Concern Worldwide is an international, non-governmental humanitarian organization dedicated to reducing extreme poverty, with approximately 3,000 personnel working in 25 of the world‘s poorest countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Concern Worldwide targets the root causes of extreme poverty through programs in health, education, livelihoods and microfinance, HIV and AIDS, and emergency response, directly reaching more than 6.5 million people. For more information, please visit concernusa.org or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
Photos provided by Concern Worldwide.