The future of the Sundarbans lies in the hands of its youth

The future of the Sundarbans lies in the hands of its youth

The following is an excerpt adapted from an upcoming article in Aramco World Magazine written by friend of MAP Lou Werner.

The great mangrove forest at the head of the Bay of Bengal known as the Sundarbans has one of most complex river systems in the world, a fine mesh net of distributaries seaward to the south and tributaries from the plains and mountains of the north, including the waters of three of Asia’s largest- the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna – as well as some fifty others.

The natural contour of this feeder system is also affected by manmade interventions like large upstream dams, notably the Farakka Barrage on the Ganges in India; artificially dredged connector canals called “cuts”, such as the Halifax Cut between the Nabaganga and Madhumati Rivers in Bangladesh; and many low-lying artificial rice cultivation islands called polders, made by building high, non-floodable embankments.

The distributaries run heavily in the rainy season and slowly in the dry through a web of 450 creeks, branches, and canals. Some of these are filled with sediment so they flow poorly, and others are temporarily dammed by farmers so they periodically dump large amounts of highly saline water into the rivers’ more brackish flow. In unlucky years, cyclones blow in and wreak their own havoc.

An even more insidious threat to the Sundarbans is global sea level rise, and the people who live nearest the forest increasingly see their lands under threat. Those on the Bangladesh side of the border, where the human and non-human ecosystems are most interlocked, amount to some four million people.

One does not need to be an oceanographer or hydrologist to know much about one’s environment. Experts aplenty can be found on the banks of the Passur River, one of the forest’s major distributaries, at the Badamtala Laudop School’s student-led Mangrove Club. Fourteen year old club president Pronoti Mridha has taken a three-day workshop taught jointly by the Khulna NGO CLEAN (Coastal Livelihood and Environmental Action Network) and the US-based NGO Mangrove Action Project, and she has clearly learned a lot.

Sundarbans Bonbibi

Sundarbans Bonbibi

The annual worship ceremony of Bonbibi, Protectress of the Sundarbans, takes place at forest altars not far from Pronoti’s school. The legend is read before effigies of (from l. to r.) the Devil King disguised as a tiger, the Goddess Bonbibi, the boy honey collector, and the deceitful merchant who offers the boy’s life to the tiger in return for a free hand to exploit the forest. Bonbibi rescues the boy, punishes the merchant, and sends the tiger back into the forest- all in rhymed verse intoned by a priest before the faithful. Photo credits: Nasir Mahmud

For a foreign visitor, she answers correctly a series of rapid-fire questions, “Why might one see a swarm of bees out over the water, far from land? Which birds are resident and which are migratory? Identify the links in the Sundarbans food chain.” Pronoti stops after naming the twenty links that she learned from a classroom exercise, in which twenty students, each representing consecutive prey animals in the food chain, hold a rope at even intervals. If one species disappears, that section of rope falls to the ground, and the entire chain is in danger of extinction. Pronoti ends her examination with a firm answer, “I want to be an entomologist…ants, not bees.”

Pronoti leads a visitor into her club room where thirty school age members are waiting. The questions continue, some with a twist, for those brave enough to step forward. “What is more beautiful, a macharanga or a akash moti?“ (literally, a “colored fish” and a “sky pearl”, both being the names for local insect-eating birds. “What kind of Sundarbans tree is that?” the visitor asks while pointing out the window to a banana plant. One boy corrects his elder and answers confidently, “No sir, bananas do not grow wild in the mangrove forest.”

Pronoti then leads her club members in a dance and song to illustrate what the natural ecosystem means to her parents and neighbors who make their living from its bounty. Rain, flood, forest, fish and fauna are all conjured up through hand gestures and foot stomps. The song ends with a loud round of applause.

The future of the Sundarbans mangrove forest lies in the hands of young people like Pronoti. If she grows up to some job in the worlds of science and policymaking, and if her country listens closely to what it can do to protect its forest and then acts accordingly, then perhaps Bangladesh will survive all the environmental insults that come to it from other parts of the globe.