The true value of the Sundarbans is far higher than most people imagine

The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world — however, due to over-exploitation of resources, the future of the forest is in jeopardy. The Sundarbans’s inclusion into the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites on December 7, 1997 was due to the possibility of irreversible loss and the importance of the forest’s unique eco-system. Henceforth since 2001, Sundarbans Day is observed on February 14 for renewing efforts to save the forest from extinction. 

To halt Sundarbans degradation, we must give sincere attention to the process that contributed to creating a vulnerable future for the forest. Nonetheless, I seek attention to the fact that the Sundarbans is not just a forest of trees or fauna and flora and endangered animals — rather it is also a unique nexus of people and nature, a treasure of resources and knowledge. 

Forests are conventionally considered important for their ecological services or processes, which directly benefit the Earth and humans. Some of the key ecological services are: Carbon storage and sequestration, preservation and protection of hydrological function, and conservation of biodiversity. Thus, by simply being there, forests reduce and keep carbon out of the atmosphere and keep up the earth’s suitability for living. Therefore, forests can be considered as the lungs of the earth. 

The Sundarbans also hold resources that are necessary for communities living in the adjoining areas. Around 3.5 million people are directly or indirectly depending on the Sundarbans for fuel, fodder, game, fruits, house-building materials, medicines, and herbs. Resource abundance of the Sundarbans resulted into the formation of a few occupational groups including wood collectors, golpata harvesters (nypa palm), honey collectors, and fisher folk — popularly known as the Sundarbans-dependent people. 

Beyond direct economic and ecological services, the Sundarbans has generated an inter-faith harmony and cooperation. In addition, many people have strong cultural and spiritual attachments to the forest. These forest-dependent people follow social conventions in resource collection, and over the years have developed an evolving “ethno-task-scape” centring the Sundarbans — a reciprocally organic relationship between people and the forest.

The Munda, who live around the Sundarbans, consider themselves part of the forest. They believe the forest to be the most holy place. Besides, Sundarbans-dependent people follow common rituals, and they regard Bonbibi as the guardian spirit of the Sundarbans. Their belief in Bonbibi espouse a folk culture and practice — a form of forest religion. 

The folk culture and practice cut across religious divisions, both the Hindu and the Muslim residents of the Sundarbans venerate Bonbibi. The spirit is also termed as Bondevi, and Bondurga. Bonbibi is called upon by the honey collectors, the wood collectors, or fishers when they enter the forest expecting protection from the Bengal Tigers.

These folk beliefs translate into folk practices and encourage sustainable use of forest resources. Despite fast depletion of the forest resources and decreasing number of forest-dependent people, the essence of a forest-centred worldview has not yet ebbed in the remote areas of Sundarbans. Yet today, the wood collectors, golpata harvesters, honey collectors, and fishers try to pacify the tigers and keep them happy, offering roosters and pigeons. 

Besides, the ritual offerings for Bonbibi — the spirit of the Sundarbans — include wildflowers, creepers, weeds, and seeds, which are usually picked from the forest. The offerings mark the forest-dependent people’s commitment towards saving the forest and hence, contribute to the sustainability of the forest resources. 

For example: Bawalis (wood collectors) usually leave one stem in each clump after cutting (choose which have at least four to five stems) and they collect wood from a compartment every alternate year. They do not cut young and straight trees, but the trees that have limited possibility of growth. Similarly, Mauals (honey collectors) never set fire to the beehive, thus ensuring safety of the young bees. 

These techno-cultural practices or “indigenous knowledge” are important for preservation of the biodiversity of the forest. Many local people understand how to conserve and use forest resources in a sustainable way, because of their continued attachment with forests over many years. It has often been argued that the Sundarbans is currently being destroyed, in part because of the non-forest-dwellers’ lack of knowledge about the manners to best exploit the vast diversity of medicines, foods, natural fertilizers, and pesticides that the forest contains.

Deplorably, such folk practices and knowledge are irrelevant for the absentee capitalist who invests into profit-seeking undertakings around the Sundarbans, having support from the “development”-oriented government. Burgeoning industries in the Sundarbans zones merely calculate the material resources of the forest. These endeavours only become profitable if utilitarian motivations can destroy the social conventions and extract as much resources as possible within the shortest possible time. 

The capitalist approach of maximizing profit through establishing enclosures around natural resources and industrialization in the name of development and sustainability is not only tampering with the ecological balance as commonly believed, but is also posing threats to ways of living, inter-faith harmony, knowledge acquired through years of direct interaction with nature, and other cultural forms — a repertoire of tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

One may argue, increased industrialization benefits the people by creating job opportunities and thus reduces their forest dependency. This “politics of hope” juxtaposes different “futures,” facilitating capitalist fraud. Locals losing access to the forest are not better off than before. It is not an exaggeration to claim that capitalistic appropriation of the Sundarbans engenders massive ecological and social loss. 

A loss of the Sundarbans will result in extinction of wide-ranging cultural practices beyond the environmental crisis. The essence of my argument: The Sundarbans is not just a forest, but a site of human interaction that creates sociality.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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