For saving the Sundarbans, needs a master plan

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I travelled into the deepest of the Sundarbans after the cyclone of 1988. The cyclone caused the most damage to the Sundarbans.

by Swadesh Roy

I am not a botanist or environmental scientist, just a journalist only. I have no in-depth knowledge of what needs to be done to save and enhance the Sundarbans. Even then I have been seeing the Sundarbans since childhood and went there many times for more than four decades as a journalist. For the sake of journalism, I had to go to the Sundarbans because of my extra inclination to report on environmental disasters.

Sundarbans

While working with a foreign news agency on the Royal Bengal Tiger of Sundarbans, I became more acquainted with the biodiversity of the Sundarbans. Besides, I have visited the Sundarbans many times since my boyhood, as there is an additional attraction towards snakes and tigers. The Sundarbans in West Bengal has also been introduced for various reasons. After all, Jong sung Paul Cho, an economist and photographer friend, had been working with the Sundarbans for almost five years. Even at that time I went to accompany him in many ways and understood a different form of the Sundarbans. I am trying to write from these small experiences.

I travelled into the deepest of the Sundarbans after the cyclone of 1988. The cyclone caused the most damage to the Sundarbans. There is no need to write a full account of the situation I saw deep inside the Sundarbans at that time. But it was a ruin. We have the experience of seeing the ruins of cities, ports or villages but we have rarely seen those ruins inside the jungle. There is another aspect of such wreckage. That is the death of a dumb soul. Houses in the city collapse and large buildings reduceinto wreckage. But they are all lifeless. And the thousands of trees that fall in the forest, uprooted by the storm – they have lives. But they are not able to reveal anything. I am not a botanist but just a journalist, but still standing in the middle of the ruins of the Sundarbans in 1988, it was as if my heart was pounding.

It seemed that many souls have been suffering from death. And before reaching there, I crossed many villages near the Sundarbans and talked to hundreds of ordinary people. After speaking with each of them, they said, the Sundarbans has saved us again; what the media has said even after the hit of ‘Bulbul’, it repeats also after the hit of ‘Amphan’. And after talking to the people around the Sundarbans, it is understood that they have been recognizing this forest as their mother since birth. It feeds them, protects them. The devotion that the people around the Sundarbans have towards this forest must be brought some of it to the minds of our country’s leaders to save the Sundarbans. Because, until that devotion comes to the mind, the Sundarbans will seem like a normal forest to the country’s leaders. So their chest pain will not wake up with its destruction. They won’t really want to save it. On the other hand, the politics of the country has also changed. Now those who have money are staying in the city, without maintaining any connection with the locality, in a different way and become the people’s representative of the Sundarbans area collecting the nomination from main political party. So, now there will be no public representative like Sheikh Abdul Aziz (one of the founder of Bangladesh and serving as an agriculture and forest minister of the country in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman cabinet) who really loved the Sundarbans.

It may be said that there is no work without love. Lifeless effort is not an effort. There should have a soul, a love in the midst of all efforts. If we look at the work of three great personalities, Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Bose and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, we find an example of how love can be combined with any effort. These three have done each of their work with love. Much like motherly love. In fact, our leaders should perceive the Sundarbans with love like a mother. The Sundarbans is not only a great resource in the life of our nation, it is only one of its kind that we have. There is no alternative. It is not possible to create another Sundarbans with any technical method. So if we want to save the Sundarbans, we have to save it with love and sincerity.

For example, since 1988, many trees have been destroyed in the Sundarbans, including Bulbul and Amphan the latest. Our misfortune is that we do not try to save many of these trees by taking immediate action, i.e. by uprooting the displaced ones and again burying them in the ground. We do not try to cut the twigs of those that are broken in half for giving it a new life. If we really wanted to protect the Sundarbans, we would do it not only after every cyclone, but also after big tides. For this reason, we would have a department consisting of botanists. Their advice could try to save as many trees as possible from cyclones and high tides. But what happens instead is that after each cyclone, the injured trees are declared dead and many more living trees are cut down with them, and they are sold as dead trees. Therefore, in order to protect the Sundarbans, we must come out of this dishonest and unloving character. After that many new initiatives can be taken.

Botanists and environmentalists can give more accurate advice on what initiatives need to be taken. But what I understood as a journalist is how many trees were injured after a cyclone or tidal wave, and how to take scientific steps to save them. As well as how to plant new trees where the injured trees cannot be saved.

Besides, after the cyclone in the Sundarbans, I saw a large number of small creatures and insects die. The general idea seems that the biodiversity of the Sundarbans is interdependent. So it is up to the biologists for deciding if there is a way to reproduce them when they die so massively. That way they should be given the opportunity to work. We also need the fauna of the Sundarbans. It is not right to imagine any Sundarbans without fauna. For example, many wildlife of the Sundarbans and its adjoining areas have been destroyed and fall in obsolete goods exports during the reign of military ruler Ziaur Rahman. At that time, frogs, water monitors and various species of snakes were caught from the Sundarbans and its surrounding areas and exportedabroad. As a result, these creatures are almost non-existent in that area. This has caused a lot of damage to crops and the environment in the Sundarbans. Because they ate other insects and animals to help protect crops, the environment and even dams. Frogs and water monitors ate a lot of insects to protect the crop. It would help using less pesticides. The environment was protected. On the other hand, snakes used to eat rats as their food and also protected crops from rats. There is also a need for biodiversity for the overall forest. They are dependent on each other.

Farakka Dam upon the Ganges river is another cause of deforestation in the Sundarbans. Because, Sundarbans meant not only that forest by the sea but alsosurrounded by two banks of the rivers. There was a forest of various kinds of trees and scrubs; which was part of the Sundarbans or as a diversity. These plants and shrubs have been destroyed by humans as well as many plants have died in excessive salt water. Farakka Dam is the cause of this excessive salt water. Fresh water does not come through the Ganges like before. Due to the lack of fresh water in the Sundarbans, especially in thedistrict Khulna, Bagherhat Jessore, Satkhira the green forest villages and river banks have been destroyed. Overall, there are doubts about how long the Sundarbans can be protected by keeping it isolated from the sea. Plans should be taken for bringing back the trees and shrubs on the banks of these rivers carrying the Bay of Bengal. These were directly part of the Sundarbans.

However, the biggest obstacle in this case is unplanned shrimp farming. Shrimp farming is a must in Khulna, Bagherhat and Satkhira areas. Because, shrimp is a very lucrative crop. Shrimp farming have changedthe fortunes of many people. Many people have found employment. Again, there is a character of indigo farming around this shrimp farming but it mustn’t have discussed here. However, this unplanned shrimp farming has become a cause of environmental disaster and destruction of the entire Sundarbans. As I mentioned earlier that I am not an expert, but what I have learned from five decades of my short experience is that the Sundarbans cannot be protected in isolation. In order to protect the Sundarbans, the entire Sundarbans area must be protected. That is why we need planned and scientific shrimp farming in our country like Thailand. If necessary, more scientific methods can be applied – therefore a master plan around shrimp farming is needed. Following this plan, the shrimp farming will be cultivated in this area and the Sundarbans will also get backthe vast ‘Sundarbans area’ it was before.

Outside the Sundarbans, this ‘Sundarbans area’ is essential for the survival of the Sundarbans. Of course, this is a very difficult task for the government. Because many politicians and big businessmen are involved in shrimp farming. The present government administration has no power to bring these politicians and businessmen into an organized system, it can only be done if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina takes the initiative herself. And Sheikh Hasina will have to take this decision to protect the entire ‘Sundarbans area’ including the Sundarbans and restore its environment.

Another thing that has been observed in the Sundarbans is whether the embankments that were built in the sixties are not 100% science based. Because, many rivers and canals have died due to these embankments. As a result, much of the sediment that is sent to the rivers in the vicinity of the Sundarbans by the Bay of Bengal tidal remains in the big rivers. And as a result, the big rivers of thirty or forty years ago have become narrow. If these narrow rivers cannot be turned into rivers of great power again, then the Sundarbans can’t be protected till the end. It is also necessary to consider whether the Sundarbans will survive if the rivers die. The Sundarbans has gradually died as rivers have died in many places. They have now become new settlements for people. If it continues, many parts of the Sundarbans will become settlements for people. These issues also need to be kept in mind in the master plan for saving the Sundarbans.

Now many may wonder why this article was written about the Sundarbans at a time when the country is on the brink of collapse with the effect of Covid-19. In fact, blocking the Amphan on the 20thMay, the Sundarbans has prevented enormous deaths along with this coronavirus situation and has itself been damaged. So, just as we are trying to survive in the coronavirus, if we want to save the Sundarbans as a part of our lives, we must try making up for the loss of the Sundarbans even in these difficult times.

Coronavirus is the result of a natural disaster and likewise, if there isn’t any Sundarbans, such a catastrophe will come down on a large part of Bangladesh in a different way.

Swadesh Roy, Senior Journalist, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is a highest state award winning journalist and can be reached at swadeshroy@gmail.com

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