By Inzamamul Haque
On International Women’s Day, a look at how women in coastal communities next to the Sundarbans are protecting nature, their villages and creating livelihood opportunities
High tide in the Sundarbans brings the fruit of the keora tree, a species of mangrove, floating upriver. The fruit, which is popular across the coastal belt of Bangladesh, can be easily collected and sold.
For years, 45-year-old Shilpi Rani, who lives in the small rural administrative unit of Padmapukur in Satkhira district of southwestern Bangladesh, made a living from keora fruit. Then in 2009, Cyclone Aila breached the embankment protecting her village. The sudden intrusion of saltwater caused many mangroves to die. Despite being close to the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, the villagers faced an acute shortage of wood for fuel.
Once the floodwaters retreated, Rani and other women in the village started collecting keora fruits again. But this time they planted them, hoping to replace the mangrove trees and ensure their source of fuel and income.
In the years since, the communities of Padmapukur have observed another benefit to mangrove reforestation: the trees protect them from storm surges in the Bay of Bengal. So, on the new flood-control embankments that surround villages, they have planted mangroves as a shield. With the extra fruit from these trees they make jams and pickles, which they can sell. This is a significant addition to families’ incomes, and empowers the women of Padmapukur.
Rabeya Khatun, another resident of Padmapukur, has gone a step further than collecting keora fruit and planting it. After Cyclone Aila, she started to go to the edge of the Sundarbans to collect saplings of various mangrove species and plant them on the embankments. Later, with the help of local NGO Friendship, she formed a group of 15 women who carry out community-led mangrove planting. Having witnessed the erosion that happens when there are no mangroves, she believes this will help to protect people’s livelihoods and the Sundarbans.
Mangroves and climate resilience
As climate change makes storms more powerful and pushes saltwater further inland, the role of the Sundarbans as a storm shield has become more crucial. Farming has become less and less productive as soil and water turn more saline, and farmers are being forced to seek other means of sustenance.
Communities that are less resilient to the impacts of climate change are more likely to be forced into precarious and dangerous livelihoods. In 2009, Basanta Mandal lost his farm in Padmapukur when saltwater turned the soil barren. He now depends entirely on the Sundarbans for his livelihood. “Before Cyclone Aila, I used to grow rice on my land,” he says. “But I lost that land because of floodwater. Nothing grows in my land due to salinity. Now I have no other alternative than going to the forest to collect crabs and honey.”
Like Mandal, many former farmers go deep inside the forest to collect honey or catch crabs and fish. It is a risky venture, with the forest’s large tiger, crocodile and snake populations. Meanwhile fish catches are declining as greater numbers of people turn to the forests’ resources.
Sandhya Rani Mandal lives in Mirganj village, in the Shyamnagar region of Satkhira district. She used to catch fish and crabs from rivers near the village, but was always afraid of being attacked by tigers or snakes. She received training from Friendship and now plants mangroves and sells the saplings. In many households, mangroves are often the only safe and assured source of income.
Government encourages mangrove plantation
The initiative has spread. Abu Naser, divisional forest officer of the Sundarbans West Division, tells The Third Pole: “Through the women-led mangrove plantation initiative in the islands and embankments of Satkhira and Khulna districts, we have been able to have at least 100 acres [40 hectares] of new forest coverage. At least 1,500 marginalised women are involved in this initiative which is going on for the last few years.”
Naser adds that the government has been working on mangrove afforestation in the coastal islands east of the Sundarbans since 1960. “Under this initiative, we have been able to create a coastal greenbelt from Patharghata of Barguna to Maheshkhali of Cox’s Bazar district. Through this, the temporary islands have gradually transformed into permanent land formation. We think we have been able to increase 1% of our total land and forest by mangrove plantation.”
Mohsin Hossain, another divisional forest officer, tells The Third Pole: “This initiative of collecting saplings for afforestation is very effective in protecting the environment. And here the participation and leadership of women is overwhelming. We believe that their involvement in this work will sustain the continuity of mangrove afforestation.”
Many mangrove species reproduce through floating seeds. They grow naturally where they find soil, Hossain points out. “These trees grow well if disturbance by the cattle is controlled. Mangrove afforestation along the embankment is very effective as it absorbs about two-and-a-half times more carbon than ordinary trees. Such initiatives will play an important role in absorbing carbon emissions and protecting the environment.”
Life for people is still precarious
Life in coastal Bangladesh is getting more difficult due to saltwater intrusion, especially for women. Mashkura Khanam of Abad Chandipur village in Satkhira says: “I got pregnant for the first time two years after marriage. But I had a miscarriage. I got pregnant twice more but had miscarriages both times. People are rude to me because I don’t have children. It upsets me.”
Elizabeth Sarkar, medical officer at Friendship Hospital in Shyamnagar – a town in Satkhira district – tells The Third Pole that due to high salinity in the water that people drink, many, especially women, suffer from high blood pressure. “As a result, pregnant women are more likely to have miscarriages. People living in this region often get skin and genital infections as they use pond water for bathing. Here the ponds are also saline.”
The women who plant mangroves see their action as a fight against this situation. They have now planted mangroves not only along the embankments but also on many riverbanks, such as the Kholpetua River in Satkhira and the Kalinchi River in Khulna.
Kazi Amdadul Hoque of NGO Friendship’s climate action programme tells The Third Pole that these activities also give people a sense of ownership in the new mangrove plantations. The NGO is working with residents to expand afforestation and increase resilience to climate change.
The Bangladesh government has a social forestry programme under which local communities can harvest the fruits and the dry wood from the trees they plant, as long as the trees are not harmed.
Haque says near Shyamnagar town alone, residents led by a local NGO called Shushilan have planted mangroves in around 100 hectares, with women taking the lead in managing the social forestry programme. Preparations are underway for planting in another several hundred hectares, along with maintaining old trees.
Maintaining the plantations requires constant vigil, especially of cattle and goats that seek to eat the saplings. In Padmapukur and other villages nearby, men now join women to patrol the plantations. As the plants mature into trees, one woman is appointed the supervisor for each hectare.
Haque says mangrove afforestation is being carried out in 22 villages of Shyamnagar and Assasuni sub-districts of Satkhira. Around 1,500 residents have been involved in the programme since its inception in 2016, and over 1,000 of them are women
Anita Rani Mandal is one of the supervisors. “We have covered the saplings with nets so that cows and goats do not eat them,” she tells The Third Pole. “We repair the net from time to time. When the trees grow big, no storm will affect my house or the embankment.”
Spreading beyond Satkhira
Another NGO, Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS), is promoting the plantation of mangrove saplings and mangrove-based shrimp farming in Dakop sub-district of Khulna, the district next to Satkhira. Five mangrove nurseries have been set up, all led by women. Several hundred women work in the mangrove nursery of the NGO in Shyamnagar in Satkhira district.
Maksudur Rahman, chief executive of BEDS, tells The Third Pole: “We are motivating the local people to plant mangroves by providing them with training and free saplings. We are promoting various products harvested from the forest such as honey and pickles. As the demand for their products increases, the local people are taking initiative themselves to protect the mangroves.”
Mangrove-based fish farming has started in 20 places around Banishanta town in Dakop. People who previously depended on entering the Sundarbans for their livelihoods are employed in these farms. The NGO has trained over 12,500 people on mangrove-based fish farming, Rahman adds.
Wasiul Islam, a professor in the department of forestry at Khulna University, tells The Third Pole: “By encouraging villagers to start mangrove cultivation, we are not only creating employment opportunities but also reducing pressure on the forest.”