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The area of Sundarbans is the single largest swathe of mangroves in the world. Credits: Caritas

The area of Sundarbans is the single largest swathe of mangroves in the world.
Credits: Caritas

By Caritas Bangladesh staff 

Fishing for crabs in the vast mangrove forest of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh is a dangerous way to make a living. A local poem says you always have a ‘shiver of fear’ as you travel the complex network of waterways, mudflats and small islands because the Royal Bengal Tiger does not work to a ‘timetable’.

The Sundarbans, or “beautiful jungle”, is the single largest swathe of mangroves in the world. The coastal mangroves and seasonally-flooded fresh water inland swamp covers 10,000 sq.km. of the Bay of Bengal, half of which are in Bangladesh. They are one of the wonders of nature, home to a diverse eco-system of flora and fauna. They are a source of livelihood for the local people, who catch fish, collect wood, crabs, tiny shrimps and honey there.

In the dark forest and canals, however, tigers find it easy to stalk and attack men and women absorbed in their work. In April 2011, two fishermen on successive days were killed in the area by the predators. Between 50-250 people are killed by the Royal Bengal each year.

Hazari Lal’s family has worked the Sundarbans since 1850. His grandfather cut the mangroves and cultivated the lands. But that way of life is changing. Rising sea levels and increased salinity makes it more difficult to grow crops. Hazari and his sons were forced to supplement the family income by fishing for crabs in the Sundarbans.

Last year, a tiger attacked as they caught fish in a canal from their small fishing boat. After a twenty minute desperate struggle, the tiger fell in some heavy clay and was stuck long enough for the men to escape.

Hazari was reluctant to return to the Sundarbans after the attack. He applied to Caritas Bangladesh for financial support to establish a crab fattening farm in his village. After receiving training and a small investment, he learned to manage crabs in a nearby pond. He has earned enough to extend his farm and even purchase a van. He decided to stop of going Sundarbans in future.

Rising sea levels, and the increased salinity it brings, are affecting communities across the Sundarbans. There has been a decrease in the local biodiversity of livestock, fishes, plants, birds, crops and grasses. Farmland has been ruined.

Environmental damage is worsening the situation. Commercial shrimp farming started in the area in 1980. Landlords forcibly occupied cropland from small farmers and turned it into long stretches of shrimp farms. Shrimp needs less labour than traditional farming activities. The farms use salinated water which leaks into the surrounding area making it unusable.

Unemployment and outward migration has followed. Caritas Bangladesh is working with poor communities to help secure for them a livelihood.

In 2000, Caritas Bangladesh arranged a course on beekeeping for seven poor farmers in the hamlet of Singhertoli. After receiving the training, the farmers started beekeeping in hives besides their homestead. Gradually they built networks with the other bee keeping farmers surrounding the country. Now 150 farmers have ‘bee in a box’ hives in the village.

The farmers transfer the boxes into the Sundarbans, where the mangroves flower for short bursts from mid-January to May. The whole area becomes a massive beehive. The farmers have become so successful that others come from miles around to learn their techniques. And the bees are helping to protect biodiversity.

Honey is just one thing Caritas helps to harvest. Dhankhali village is another highly salinated area. Most poor people drink pond water. But the village pond is not protected by a high dyke, so when it rains, dirty water comes in. Cattle and other animals also use it. Disease is common, especially among children.

The community asked Caritas for support in 2001. Caritas worked with the village to prepare a joint water management plan and provided technical and financial support to build a water harvesting reservoir utilizing the local school’s roof and proper storage. Now the water is cleaner and disease has gone down.

As well as providing a livelihood for people and a habitat for a wealth of biodiversity, the Sundarbans also protect Bangladesh from flooding caused by the seasonal cyclones in the Bay of Bengal.

However, UNESCO says as much as 75 percent of the mangroves could be lost if sea levels rises as scientists predict and manmade exploitation goes unchecked. That’s enough to put a shiver of fear down anyone’s spine and a major reason why Caritas Bangladesh has been a constant voice advocating for international action on climate change.