Report on Saint Martin’s Island Ecosystem Boundary

This study was conducted by Save Our Sea, co-funded by the BOBLME project of United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

The report titled ‘Report on Saint Martin’s Island Ecosystem Boundary, Bangladesh’ was prepared as one of the outputs of the Strengthening national capacity on managing Marine Protected Areas (MPA) project in Bangladesh implemented by the IUCN Bangladesh, with the assistance of BOBLME-FAO and Save Our Sea.

My co-authors are Alifa Bintha Haque, Lecturer of Zoology at the University of Dhaka (formerly the Director of R&D at Save Our Sea); Mohammad Eusuf Hasan, Conservation Biologist, Dr Niamul Naser, Professor of Zoology at the University of Dhaka, and Dr. Kazi Ahsan Habib (Former Adviser at Save Our Sea), Professor of Fisheries Biology and Genetics at the Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University.

You can find the PDF file on Save Our Sea’s Website or search for it on the Website of BOBLME-FAO project.

Takeaways from Global Youth Biodiversity Network’s Asia Capacity Building Workshop

On May 27, 2017 we’ve just wrapped up one of the most important events in Asia this year. I know, most of you did not heard of it, but don’t be surprised; we know, relying on mainstream media as the only source of information has its own limitation- in many cases, the media fails to report on important things.

So, please let me convince you about how the recently held Global Youth Biodiversity Network’s Asia Capacity Building Workshop will shape the future of Asia and the planet Ocean.

The Homework

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One of my fellow participants at the workshop, Naseem Sultani from Afghanistan already written about it; the week-long workshop held in Singapore (with generous support from Singapore’s National Parks Board and Japan Biodiversity Fund) had a wide range of participants from the Central, South, Southeast, West and East Asia, and all of them are back to their home countries with a very specific homework. And the homework is not just about same-old-same-old romantic environmentalism about biodiversity; it is not about photogenic environmentalism of just holding another conference. The organizers were very clear about it, and this policy position was well reflected in all of the training sessions of the workshop (See the Schedule: PDF File).

The workshop was designed to train the youth leaders in real down-to-earth efforts for utilizing the already available multi-national process and mechanism (Convention on Biological Diversity, for example) on local, national and regional level to minimize the impact of market-economy on the diversity of life our planet hosts, and eventually help the governments in successful drafting and implementation of National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs) to achieve Aichi Biodiversity Goals.

With this homework, the trained participants are out, therefore, more learning and real work, in their respective countries.

Using ‘System Thinking’ approach, they’ve built a scenario of current status and identified best possible leveraged to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity in Asia as a youth group. They’ve conceptualized several programs for the coming years to establish ASEAN and South and Central Asian sub-regional networks, to build a knowledge network, and to run a grassroots conservation program through Participatory Action Research led by youth organizations and fellows. In the coming months; they will design, develop and start implementing the programs.

So, in a brief, with the goal to secure more diversity of life on the planet, this workshop just deployed a team of well-trained youth leaders in the field to take part in political and decision-making processes at local, national, regional and international levels. The team’s work will certainly help the national governments in Asia to bring sustainability in the development process, also achieve many targets of the Sustainable Development Goals in the process and reconnecting the people with nature.

Strength

DSC_9783.JPGIn these times of growth-hungry economy devastating the people and the planet, being a conservationist means you are engaged in really down-to-earth activities to reverse the process. The Convention of Biological Diversity’s stated role is to ‘prevent and attack the causes of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity at source’, you know it. And it’s not easy, rather daunting, oftentimes exhaustive too. But this workshop was a forum where we met the people face to face who are building their lives around this daunting task, it was really comforting.

Even in places like Singapore, where the economic violence affected the social-ecological systems severely, things have started to change, we’ve met several groups of people who are working for reconnecting people with nature. Even within such an extremely modified landscape, as a result of orchestrated efforts by government authorities and citizen-science groups like Otter-Watch and NUS Toddycats, the Singapore River is now hosting at least two large families of the smooth-coated otter. We’re aware that, there is no final victory in conservation, there will not be, but this sort of conservation-optimism story once again shows us the way.

And, it’s not just that, you listen to others’ stories, experience, and observation or go visit successful conservation initiative, which in some ways, or in many ways may be reasons to you, inform you about how people around the continent is bringing positive change for the conservation of biodiversity. One of the most important parts, for me, at the workshop was, I’ve learned a lot while articulating mine to others. Also, can sense that other participants were also re-discovering themselves by explaining their experience and ideas to others.

So, it is about self-motivation, as one of my fellow participants, Xu Waiting from Singapore was saying during their group presentation; ‘It’s the self-motivation what keeps you running to achieve what you believe in.’

We the people

image1 copy.jpgThe most important aspect of the forum was, I should say, together, we can now think of ourselves as a people, the people for advancing conservation in Asia. By taking parts in a number of self-organizing tasks (System Thinking, Project Concept Developing for example), through the process of feedback and evaluation, we’ve already started to work collaboratively.

As a team, now we know about our internal resources, strength, expertise we can offer to each other; and we have already come up with concepts about how to get easier access to this team and keep collaborating.

 

(The blog was originally published on the Global Youth Biodiversity Network’s website)

 

Photo courtesy: GYBN

Is Blue Economy a threat to climate, community, and wildlife?

Whose Blue Economy? Questions of climate, community, and wildlife

Let’s be honest about this; throughout the last three years, I’ve been writing on the theme of ‘Blue Economy’ and its relation or lack thereof with conserving marine and coastal ecosystems, wildlife, and the communities. I mean, I was telling the same story on different occasions to the different audience and of course with new contexts and characters again and again. So, the chance was very slim that, they’re going to be anything totally new in this piece. But there is now, a lot. It’s because in the first couple of months of this year we’ve seen some important developments within the Bangladesh government agencies.

The latest in the series is establishing the Blue Economy Cell under the Energy, Power and Mineral Resources Ministry. The mandate of the Blue Economy Cell includes  explorations of off shore fossil fuel and deep sea mining. In contrast to the globally accepted norms and principles of sustainability, the government has taken the position that extraction of marine resources and industrializing the coastal region are the main tenants of building a new economic sector which it describes as a ‘sustainable’ economy.

In these times of changing climate, when a total collapse of coastal ecosystems, declining biodiversity, and dwindling fisheries have left millions of coastal people without nature’s service and benefits and exposed them to soaring sea and salinity; the government’s new approach to Blue Economy is certainly scary. We all know how unsustainable coastal development and the maritime economy is responsible for degradation of ecosystems and biodiversity loss, and let me convince you about how this ‘extractive’ blue economy in Bangladesh will make the situation worse for both the human and wildlife along the coast and in the sea.

Communities suffering from fossil fuel driven economy and industrial food production

Since 2012, I’m traveling across the coastal region very frequently. Let’s take the east coast as an instance. If you travel from Chittagong to Teknaf, either by the beach or through the mangroves and hills, when approaching the sea through Bangladesh’s southernmost localities, stories of vulnerable communities and threatened diversity of life in a densely populated coast will gradually unveil them before you. You’ll pass through water and soil salty enough for destroying agriculture, you’ll meet communities taking boat journeys across the ocean for a ‘paying job’ and finally the hilly roads will take you to the Bay of Bengal where the fishesh are disappearing.

Global warming induced sea level rise and more frequent extreme weather events are already making life measurable here in one of the world’s most densely populated countries. On the hill; shrub, coarse grasses and bamboos have taken place of degraded forests. These hills originally were covered by Dipterocarp forest. Deforestation continues, mainly due to illegal logging and agriculture. Farming for betel-leaf, betel-nut, and banana is dominant in the hills and forest lands. Farming increases the risk of soil erosion on the hill slopes. The hills were extensively drained by creeks and small waterfalls, but now, during monsoon when heavy rainfall continues the saturated hill soils are prone to landslides causing deaths and damage to properties.

Communities living here in the tidal floodplains and low hill ranges are largely affected by degradation of mangroves, beach and dune systems. Mangroves are largely degraded and deforested, the total Chakoria Sundarban forest is gone but the bare mud flats and the inter-tidal zone still provides ground for crab fishing to hundreds of families here. Overall dependence on marine-fishing has decreased rapidly. Bombay duck, Greenback mullet, Gold-spotted grenadier anchovy, Ramcarat grenadier anchovy, Tongue soles, Bigeye ilisha and Pama croaker traditionally formed the main catch. Fishers say it seems that these fishes aren’t available now in nearshore shallow areas they usually fish in. They now need to go too far off shore which they can’t due to lack of the seaworthy boats. Due to intermittent floods and salinity intrusion, agriculture, aquaculture or salt farming is also very difficult now.

At least one in every six families here have a member currently working in ‘Melesia’ (as they pronounce ‘Malaysia) as ‘undocumented’ and illegal migrant workers. And of course, they’ve traveled to Malaysia by mechanized boats evading the reluctant eye of Bangladeshi border guards and with the help of Burmese and Thai corps in most cases. Most of the family I’ve encountered is happy in this regard because they say migrant workers are sending home a good amount of money. How they use the money from Malaysia? Back home the family can afford school for their kids or build a new boat with a hope that there are more fish in the sea, which is not the case in the most instance as it turns out. But still, all they have got is the sea.

Unfortunately, the sea is losing the habitats and the diversity of life it used to host. The only coral ecosystem in the Bangladesh’s waters around Saint Martin’s Island is almost lost. Unsustainable fishing and tourism are killing important marine wildlife such as Sharks and Sea Turtles. As we know, the sea turtles and top predator sharks play important role in the marine ecosystem. Cox’s Bazar, once the world longest beach used to see nesting of mother turtles in thousands, now it came down to few dozen annually. The nesting beaches are almost lost to coastal development; the last remaining part of the beach is being encroached by a under-construction road dubbed as the Marine Drive. Threatened species of sharks are being caught indiscriminately, the local population of this top predator of the ocean is not managed as a fishery nor protected as wildlife in Bangladesh. Land and vessel based pollution is rampant which in conjunction with the global warming and ocean acidification has sucked out the dissolved oxygen from a huge part of the Bay of Bengal, as a recent study shows. The study published back in January in the science journal Nature Geoscience reveals a new ‘dead zone’ appears to be emerging in the Bay of Bengal, in waters extending from 100m to 400m in depth.

Better standard of life on the lands largely depends on a healthy sea, so how’ll be living for Bangladeshi people on a dead sea? If we do not change the course of our economic activities, the environmental degradation and climate vulnerability which are common throughout the total coastal region will get worse. An estimated 40 million people in coastal Bangladesh, crammed into the world largest river delta. Under the huge pressure of Ocean acidification and pollution, the sea is not only failing to serve the communities but becoming dangerous and unpredictable also with more frequent extreme weather events.

Unsustainable economy, ecological collapse and climate vulnerability

With less than 1oC of global warming, the loss, and damages from frequent cyclones, floods, salinity intrusions, and droughts are mounting for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people in the Bengal delta. People are losing their lives and livelihoods. On May 27, 2009, cyclonic storm Aila sustained only three minutes but ‘resulted in 190 fatalities and at least 7,000 injuries across the Khulna and Satkhira Districts. Across 11 of the nation’s 64 districts, approximately 600,000 thatched homes, 8,800 km (5,500 mi) of roads, 1,000 km (620 mi) of embankments, and 123,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of land were damaged or destroyed.’ The damage estimated was $295.6 million (2009 USD). The loss and damage of such a scale were for the second time in two years. Just in November 2007, At least 3,447 deaths have been reported from the cyclone Sidr, with total damages came close to $450 million.

This interface of the unsustainable economy, ecological collapse and climate vulnerability could have been avoided if the nations of the world, as well as Bangladesh, followed the approach of Green Economy that is ‘decoupling environmental degradation from development’. But the most striking irony is, the policy makers of the world’s one of the most climate vulnerable country- Bangladesh are still pursuing the process of traditional unsustainable development in the name of ‘Blue Economy’. While the inception and gradual developments of the idea of blue economy testify that it is, in fact, the green economy’s latest version customized for coastal and marine areas, recent developments in the government of Bangladesh shows no indication of this understanding. Things like dirty coal or destructive tourism in critical coastal ecosystems were not even supported by the green economy approach, but the government is now trying to justify a coal-based energy policy and unsustainable coastal mega-infrastructure spree in the name of blue economy.

It is important to note that, ‘blue’ is the new ‘green’ and that not every maritime economic activity is to be considered as ‘blue’. The United Nation’s framework on Blue Economy and the World Wildlife Fund’s Principles for a Sustainable Blue Economy is pretty clear that blue economy is not a synonym for the maritime economy. This hustle and bustle about the blue economy in Bangladeshi bureaucracy started during the time of maritime boundary dispute resolution with neighboring Myanmar and India. After the verdict of ITLOS, exploring offshore fossil fuel and leasing blocks to Big Oils became hassle free. But importance on the extraction of fossil fuel or deep sea minerals or promoting more destructive tourism practices (allowing vessels in the coral ecosystem of St. Martin’s Island for instance) is not a positive gesture for sustainable or at least environmentally passive maritime economy.

For a more nuanced understanding of blue economy approach, Bangladeshi policy makers should take a look at the much-acknowledged book ‘The Blue Economy’. The author Gunter Pauli puts the principle of this approach ‘Nature evolved from a few species to a rich biodiversity. Wealth means diversity. Industrial standardization is the contrary’. As the ocean is the main regulator of our planet’s climate system, the idea means and includes protection of marine ecosystem and diversity of life, so that the oceans, the lungs of our planet can operate normally, and support livelihoods for the global population with its ecosystem services and benefits.

Prospects and challenges for ‘blue’ Blue Economy

The government should follow globally acknowledged frameworks and principles to bring sustainability in maritime economic activities and any other development project in coastal areas. They have got really nice and easy way to do that; that is the leading international instrument to incorporate sustainability as the main mantra of development- the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Total 169 targets under 17 goals are meant to guide the transition of development towards sustainability for next 15 years. Among them goal 14 deals about Ocean, it is titled ‘Conserve and sustainability use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’.

As a goal making exercise, nations and other interest groups came together, discussed new goals and adopted them. It is more or less suitable to act as an ‘accountability standard’ for nations’ journey towards sustainable development. The UN and other inter-governmental bodies will devise strategies facilitate capacity building; mobilize financial mechanisms to help the nations in achieving the targets. Particularly, SDG 14 stressed on increased scientific knowledge and research capacity as well as the transfer of marine technology, which will enhance the capacity of countries like Bangladesh in marine science and technology.

Once scrutinized according to local pretext and needs, Ocean SDG can be standard of accountability for Bangladesh’s own quest towards marine conservation and blue economy. On a national level, Bangladesh needs to scrutinize the targets to set priorities, to determine, on what targets we need to do more work before we may proceed. Considering present scenario and status of Bangladesh’s coastal and marine social-ecological systems the priority areas for investment should be; restoring marine and coastal ecosystems, science-based management of sustainable marine fisheries, significantly reducing land-based marine debris and nutrient pollution and ensuring full access to marine resources to small-scale artisanal fishers. These are the sectors where Bangladesh still is in need for policy and strategy formation before starting work.

National Environment Policy, National Fisheries Policy, Coastal Zone Policy, Biosafety Guidelines of Bangladesh and National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) 2015-2020 should be revamped according to the demand of Ocean SDG. In addition, we need to devise appropriate strategies, policy frameworks and National Program of Action (NPoA) regarding Ecosystem Restoration, promoting community-based cooperative enterprises in deep sea fishing, Fishing Monitoring and Regulation, Bycatch reduction, Marine Debris and Nutrient reduction, Ballast Water management and prevention of Invasive Aquatic Species.

We need to restore marine and coastal ecosystems in appropriate cases and establish sustainable management. Chakoria Sundarban and Coral colonies of St. Martin’s Island are among coastal and marine ecosystems of Bangladesh which are totally degraded and requires restoration works. Due to lack of scientific research and survey, we are not sure about the extent of our marine subsystems which are degraded to the level that they ceased to provide ecosystem service and benefits, hence need restoration. Identifying the subsystem in the bay of Bengal and coastal water and delineating their boundary for further conservation management should be the priority. A NPoA is a good point to start with.

A science-based management plan for sustainable marine fisheries is the second important target to achieve. Assessment of marine fish stock and determining Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) by intensive field investigation is the starting point in this process. Management plans should be triggered by proved Stock and MSY. The amount of discarded bycatch, especially from Shrimp trawling, need to be significantly reduced (at the present the bycatch ratio is 8:1). Bottom Trawling and Shrimp trawling can be considered for an extended temporary ban, given the damage to juvenile fish populations, predator loss, marine mammals and turtles, seabed communities and fin-fishes. Marine Fisheries Ordinance and Rules of 1983 need to be amended to meet the demands of improved management. Coordination between government agencies and private sector should be institutionalized for full observation of Bangladesh Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing.

Protecting reserve in at least 10 percent of marine and coastal area based on scientific information is needed to be achieved also. It’s a tricky one. If one can just decide not to consider ‘based on scientific information’ part, protecting the reserve is then just a matter of declaring a reserve and increase the ‘percentage’ in the paper, which was done before in Bangladesh. To initiate the process of effective reserve protection Bangladesh needs standardization of protected area categories according to IUCN standard. A policy framework for planning, establishing, managing and evaluating the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) which will include ‘reserve’ as a category needs to be drafted. Instead of depending on anecdotal reference or legends, the whole process of triggering MPAs should be scientific research.

Significantly reducing marine debris and nutrient pollution demands the establishment of efficient solid waste management, recycling and organic agriculture and less importance on aquaculture. From policy aspect, we have an advantage in this regard as we already have our Marine Pollution Ordinance 1977 and NPoA for Reducing Land-Based Marine Pollution. To adjust with the demand of SDG 14 we just need to amend these instrument to address the requirements of the survey, monitoring and removal of marine debris, reducing micro-plastic pollution by consumer products and other industrial waste, vessel based pollution like ballast water and Invasive Aquatic Species.

Ensure full access to marine resources to small-scale artisanal fishers is the most important part to make the marine fisheries sector more inclusive. Legalization of huge fleets of artisanal fishing boats should be the first priority. An institutional form of coordination between Department Fisheries and Marine Mercantile Department of Department of Shipping to run registration and licensing activity is the first step. In the long term, ways to motivate, facilitate and promote small-scale artisanal fishing cooperatives in deep sea fishing can be an effective process to transfer more access and control to coastal communities over their natural resources.

While SDG is the main mantra of sustainability now, the base-rock of sustainability is ‘going local’. Globally it is evident that management of natural resources is more effective when the responsibility rests on the local community. Participatory research and locally-led conservation efforts should be the guiding approaches for policy reorganization for bringing sustainability in maritime economic activities. To facilitate the transition, not only the resources for climate mitigation and adaptation but the development budget under the government’s Blue Economy initiative also need to be solely invested in restoring and protecting coastal and marine ecosystems.

 

Photos: © Mohammad Arju

‘I am the river; the river is me’, what it means for Conservation?

What will be the implications of attributing essentially secular person-hood to a natural process, a River, for example? Was it even something Maori people wanted for the Whanganui river as such? How will this new development influence the secular notion of ‘nature’ and vice versa? How it challenges the idea of ‘natural resources management’ as we know it? Will it bring any hope for dysfunctional and ‘native’ hating European approach of nature ‘conservation’

These are the questions I’m exploring since last week. And I’d love to share a brief note from what is gathered so far.

First of all, technically speaking, the New Zealand parliament did acknowledge Whanganui River as a legal person.

Of course, the 170-year old political battle of Indigenous people was not only about securing equal status for a river to a human person, the kind of legal person-hood enjoyed by incorporated entities (companies for instance).

The Maori people consider themselves as an indivisible part of nature; as a people, they consider the rivers, the mountains, the sea as members of their kin, their ancestors. But unfortunately, there is no scope of recognizing such a relationship within secular law. So, they had to choose an ‘approximation in law’, as one of the leaders said.

Secular ‘personhood’ for the Nature?

The ‘approximation’ of course granted the River ‘its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.’ But the NZ parliament agreed to do more by recognizing the river as an ‘ancestral’ river of Whanganui people; as a ‘person’ the River will be essentially considered as a member of the Whanganui people, not otherwise. Thus, the legislation also effectively says that from now on the rivers’ ‘interest’ will be represented by the indigenous people.

Technically, under the English common law, the Whanganui River is now a ‘minor’ person who needs to be represented by two guardians before the law. Supposedly, on behalf of this minor person, the guardians are entitled to sue anyone violating this persons’ rights. What if anyone invokes the rivers’ ‘liability’ in a case of a flood? Maybe it sounds naïve as much as the person-hood of the River seems amazing. How exactly will the things be played out in the court of law? That is something to see in the coming years.

What interests me more is, how this new development will be translated globally in different contexts. Moreover, how diverse form it will take if people in countries with the diminished participation of the citizens in the government try to peruse this political path of reclaiming their relationship with nature?

But one thing we can be sure about is, in absence of effective direct participatory government, in these times of judicial activism, courts in many countries will step in where ecological degradation is an epidemic. Citing the parliamentary precedent from NZ, an Indian court already tried to declare Ganga and Jamuna Rivers as ‘human person’. Turns out, ancestral status as goddesses is not protecting the rivers from pollution and encroachment

The Maori Message

So, this new development has all the potentials to be a stepping-stone for a new political path of reclaiming the relationship with nature, and for a legal one also. But if it is to be, it is totally up to the people, a common law court can’t deliver it. For the Maori people, it took almost two centuries of struggle. In spite of that, they were faced the Hobson’s choice of ‘legal status as a person’ for their natural kin. And they took it. Because in New Zealand, probably their leaders did not see themselves in a position to radically change the perceptions towards nature and ‘development’ in a Maori way.

While today we’re seeing people affiliated with ‘conservation’ movement, and ‘Natural Resource Management’ regimes across the world, and in general people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘nature-loving’ are cheering this legislation as ‘victory’; I think it is important to note what a Maori MP said to us, he said ”It is not that we’ve changed our worldview, but people are catching up to seeing things the way that we see them.”

As far as I’ve read through interviews of members of the different Maori communities, the message is very clear to me; a River is not a ‘resource’ you are entitled to ‘control’ or ‘manage’, just let her be and live respectfully.

 

PHOTO: The Whanganui River. Mount Ruapehu can partly be seen at the top right of the scene. Photo by James Shook. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saving Saint Martin’s Island is not a lost cause, yet

It is true that what is left of the coral colonies in the Bay of Bengal around Saint Martin’s Island is almost a ruin. But it is not lost yet. Still, we’ve time to salvage the almost collapsed social-ecological systems of St. Martin’s Island.

Peoples say the local population is growing rapidly, tourists are coming in droves, in thousands and the island is losing its natural beauty; more than that, the local people are not cooperating with any efforts of environmental protection, so on and so on. In short, the island does not stand any chance when it comes to protecting its biodiversity and touristic attractions.

Such has been the narrative since we’ve started working in St. Martins. At least, I am getting these speeches from the people and institutions that are responsible for environmental protection of Bangladesh’s only island with coral associations.

In addition, this narrative is being repeated once again in the wake of the government’s recent initiative to promote more tourism in the area, among other seemingly horrific things, which also include making it a destination for a regional Ocean cruise.

Indeed, the scenario is not something which can be described as ‘promising’. Even the government has acknowledged the scenario by declaring the terrestrial area of the SMI as an ‘Ecologically Critical Area’ long ago in 1999. And the irony is, the degradation of coral habitat finally started with introducing irresponsible tourism back in 2013 under a Ministry of Environment and Forest run project titled ‘Promoting eco-tourism in Saint Martin’s Island’.

You just can’t allow ships coming into a very shallow coral habitat carrying thousands of tourists daily and host minimum three-thousand strong entourage on the island overnight. Only responsible ‘marine’ tourism (such as Diving, Snorkeling, Sailing, Angling and harmless watching from the onboard boat without big propeller) is counted as ‘Eco-tourism’ in a coral habitat. But the ministry did the opposite thing under the eco-label of ‘eco-tourism’ with expected consequences.

And now, about 67% of the coral is bleached to death, according to a survey. So, it would, of course, be foolhardy to say that, everything is fine in the SMI. But it would be equally hard to argue that, the island with its coral colonies is beyond saving, which I’ve heard from almost every government officials, conservation practitioners, and researchers I’ve ever met. Because what do we need is just reverse the process; shutting down irresponsible tourism. It works.  A closer look deep into the coral colonies around SMI, in fact, will assure you about this.

Saint Martin's Island

I took this photo last year after two consecutive tourist seasons were largely disrupted by the nation-wide violence erupted in the wake of last general election. Healthy coral colonies; It was an unusual sight in the island during last decade and after tourism fully revived last year. If we can have a planned retreat from the island for more years, say we keep the tourism shut for ten years, help it to regenerate, we will able the salvage the coral habitat.

So chances are good. Besides, the corals here in SMI are more tolerant than purely marine populations, it seems.

Saint Martin's Island

The photo says it all. It seems that species in St. Martin’s Island are too tolerant to be easily defeated by siltation. Like other coral colonies under the influence of estuarine sedimentation, they fight longer with the adverse environmental attribute.

And about the narrative that, the extent of degradation of the ecosystem is so high that, taking any small effort now (like what Save Our Sea is now trying to do by engaging tourism businesses and community) will be like bailing out a barge with a bucket. I do agree about the bucket. And this is what we need.

 

Team Turtle

The ‘Team Turtle’; in nesting season of 2015-16, 38 of the volunteers patrolled the beach at night to protect the nesting sea turtles. Coordinated by Save Our Sea, they were on their own, and thanks to the Department of Environment to house them at the Island. While the government and NGO-run turtle conservation efforts largely produced dubious success stories, the turtle volunteer activity continues to document the real scenarios and engaging local youth in conservation without any monetary incentives.

‘Project-based approach’ did not work in the coastal region (such as Saint Martin’s Eco-tourism Project, Coastal, and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project). Because these sorts of big projects run by desk-based managers and experts are designed to be doomed. Without any understanding of the community and ecosystem, these projects actually accelerated and covered-up the degradation of SMI. They did more harm than good by alienating the local community. So, instead of big fat bideshi or deshi projects, we need to start small.

 

Team Turtle

This photo is something, which testifies to people’s power to protect nature’s magnificent creatures. The turtle nest was saved by the volunteers from disastrous nest-relocation, which saw at least 600 unsuccessful hatchlings in the island in last season only. On the night of nesting, after almost months of intensive activity on the island, the Save Our Sea team was out the money. The price of the fencing materials was bKash-ed by one of our colleague from Dhaka, the fence was made-installed and maintained by local youth. Later we have conserved (in-situ) two more nests in the last season.

Rather than siphoning off foreign or domestic taxpayer’s money on designed-to-be-doomed projects, we need to start to remove the legal restriction on the community (who was the protector of the island before irresponsible tourism started) so that they can simultaneously rehabilitate the ecosystem and revive the marine fisheries, which is their most sustainable option for livelihoods.

 

Save Our Sea Team

Dr. Kazi Ahsan Habib (left) and Alifa Bintha Haque (right); two of the researchers with Save Our Sea, who joined the team voluntarily to delineate ecosystem boundary of the Island. Without any financial consideration, they took conservation as their responsibility to discharge with own capacity. We do hope, the conservationists will get it that, being ‘hired’ by some agencies or projects does not make one a conservationist. Conservation is not something we can wait to be ‘funded’ by some other external forces; rather as part of nature, it is our job to take part and fund conservation efforts with our own capabilities. I am optimistic; I can see many of the young professionals are thinking this way.

The efforts needed to be rooted in the community in a true sense. If we can make it happen, passionate conservationists, other individuals, and institutions will certainly join the efforts with their own capacity, as they are doing right now with Save Our Sea.

 

Save Our Sea

The smile of volunteers. Heroes from our local Turtle Team and cleanup volunteers with Enamul Mazid Khan Siddique (fourth from the left). Despite having a full-time job in a I-NGO, Siddique personally helped the students and other young professionals in Bangladesh with training, guidance, and inspiration to build their lives around coastal and marine conservation. The list of such conservationists by passion we know is much longer in Bangladesh and other Bay of Bengal countries. This brings me the hope that once more organized, these people are going to bring some real change for Saint Martin’s Island and other coastal and marine ecosystems.

This post I guess explains why I’m optimistic, why I’m supporting hope over fear. The photos, I hope, explain that we’ll be able to see a locally-led marine protected area in Saint Martin’s Island very soon.

 

Photos: © Mohammad Arju

 

(This post was first published on Save Our Sea’s blog)

Humans of Hilsa

The last ban season (October 12 – November 2, 2016) to protect spawning Hilsa alias Ilish has gone well. After the ban; catching, selling, transportation and hoarding of hilsa resumed on November 3. The prohibition on fishing was enforced in 7,000 square kilometers of Hilsa breeding grounds in outer and inner coastal districts.

Shoals of mother Ilish start swimming upstream from the sea towards the rivers, weeks before the full moon in October (Ashwin in Bengali calendar), and they return to the sea after spawning Usually 15-day long, the ban has been extended to 22 days this year. While the years of consecutive ban season delivers result now, the king Hilsa is returning to the rivers, but how’s life for the fisher folks?

I traveled to the coastal districts during the ban to meet the fishers- who contributed to this conservation success despite being ultra poor.

Hilsa Fisher 1

On the second day of the ban, Abdul Hamid was busy in sorting out fishing gears at Patharghata landing station in coastal Barguna district. The boat has returned to the sea after the ban ended on 2nd November, but he has not and will not until the next monsoon because at the late sixties ‘he just can’t handle the chilly weather out there’ said fellow fisher folks. In winter, he will work in the field to support his extended family. Hailing from Padma village on the bank of Bishkhali River, Mr. Hamid is in fishing since his early age, but never got any financial assistance or free rice during ban periods, which the Department of Fisheries officials say they distribute among tens of thousands of fishers in 85 coastal sub-districts.

 

Hilsa Fisher 3

At least 900 fishermen got arrested and jailed for seven days to two years for violating the fishing ban across the region. This group of fishermen said people were arrested even while taking the boat to the harbor for repair and maintenance.  ‘What troubles me the most is replacing of an appreciation of the science of the fishing embargo and community motivation with the fear of punishment. Fear is the only driver that keeps the fishermen on the bank during the ban,’ said conservationist Mahatub Khan Badhon.

 

Hilsa Fisher 2

After the last fishing trip of the open season, crews of FV Anukul-2 got back from the Swatch of No Ground in the Bay of Bengal. Fishing in the open season was extraordinary this year with an unprecedented big catch of Hilsa in more than a decade. The catch soared up to half a million tons just before the ban began, said Fisheries Research Institute’s center at Chandpur. This is a huge surge from 1,99,000 tons back in 2002 or even the last year’s 3,87,000 tons. So, the 22 straight days of the last ban was time for some boat-keeping, sorting out the nets and many repairs.

 

Hilsa Fisher 4Kalam Miah, ‘the giant catfish’, as his fellow fisher folks call him, lives on the bank of the mighty Padma in Rajbari district. During the ban on Hilsa fishing, this inner coast fishing community was still in the river with their nets especially made for catfish. Mesh size of their net is so big that average Hilsa can get through, but not their targeted giant freshwater catfishes such as Boal, Aor, Pungus. First imposed in 2003-04 the October ban to protect spawning Hilsa was 15-day long in previous years, in place to an area of 7,000 square kilometers that includes rivers in 27 districts. This year, along with the extended time, it also included the coastal water and the total area of Exclusive Economic Zone in the Bay of Bengal.

 

Hilsa Fisher 5

On last day of the ban, the painter was giving his last touch to the boats. He traveled to this fishing hamlet in the outskirts of Chittagong to ‘decorate’ the boats before they sail again into the sea next morning. The major share of Bangladesh’s marine catch comes from this kind of mechanized and non-mechanized small boats, which last year accounted for 515000 metric tons, 85.86% of the total marine catch. Official estimates limit the number of these mostly artisanal fishing boats within 68,000. Back home in the central coast district of Feni, the painter owns one.

 

Hilsa Fisher 6

With this dinghy and small-mesh driftnet, Mohammad Ismail managed a fortune from Hilsa fishing at Haringhata River in the open season. The price he got over a couple of months before the ban started was ‘over one lakh and ten thousand takas,’ he said. Visiting the neighborhoods with the newly bought cell phone in the pocket was the only ‘work’ he was doing during the ban. ‘No one will observe the fishing ban if the Coast Guard was not there because it’s just impossible to resist the temptation of Hilsa’ said Mr. Ismail.

 

(This photo-story was first published by Daily Sun on November 26, 2016 titled ‘Hilsa Heroes’)

Will Bangladesh and India turn the Sundarbans into a Busy Shipping Lane?

Shipping and navigation through the Sundarban are booming like never before. Unauthorized navigation routes are expanding. The vessels range from the ocean-going mother and feeder cargo ships,  container carriers, tankers, lighterage ships, mid-size bulk cargo and tankers from inland waterways, and trans-boundary cargo ships between Bangladesh and India. Without any sort of environmental management in place, this increasing navigation and shipping are multiplying the risk of accidents/spills and regular pollution in the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Sundarban West Wildlife Sanctuary
Sundarban West Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo © 2014 Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea

It was a quiet and cool at daybreak in the world’s largest mangrove forest – the Sundarbans – on December 28, 2008; amidst the morning mist, I was heading towards the wildlife sanctuary. I was tired and fell asleep on the deck as soon as the mechanized boat sailed, only to find myself rudely awakened, with a giant cargo ship before my eyes, its siren sound in my ears.

From the master bridge, the cargo crew was shouting toward our tiny boat over loudspeakers. In response, our boatman was desperately explaining ‘something’ with a diverse range of sign languages, it seemed. The fact that we weren’t flying the Bangladeshi flag meant the cargo ship suspected us of being pirates.

In the middle of all this, I somehow managed to locate where we were. That’s when the question hit me: why is there a cargo vessel on the Arpangasia river, deep inside the forest?

Accident or no accident, Sundarbans suffers daily

Now, eight years after that face-off, in these times of controversy and protests against a coal-fired mega-power plant in the impact zone of the Sundarbans, the forest faces a very high volume of shipping and navigation every day. Data from the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority shows a 102% increase in cargo carrying between India and Bangladesh through Sundarban waterways over the past 8 years. In 2008-09, a total of 9,44,422 metric tons of cargo was transported between India and Bangladesh under the arrangement of the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWT&T); and in the last fiscal it was 19,12,526 metric tons.

grain silo in Sundarban
A 50,000 tonnage grain silo under construction in Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) within zero kilometers from Sundarban reserve forest near Mongla port. The proposed Rampal coal-fired power plant sits some 16 kilometers north from the silo. Big industries reportedly bought adjacent lands in the government acknowledged ECA where any activity which can destroy or change the natural characteristics of soil and water are legally prohibited. Photo © 2015 Garth Cripps/ Blue Ventures

The PIWT&T was first signed in 1972 and since then it has been continuing without any interruption. The latest renewal was signed on June 6, 2015. There are eight navigation routes permitted under this protocol, four among those are laid near the Sundarbans.

Officially, the acknowledged routes of PIWT&T are drawn along the northern edge of the forest. However, during my participation in several learning trips throughout the last year, I have found that the vessels use four major de facto routes laid through the river and canals of the reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries. I have encountered vessels deep inside the forest and even in the Sundarban West Wildlife Sanctuary – which is also a UNESCO world heritage site – and on the  Arpangasia, Jamuna and Malancha rivers too. In the first half of 2015, on average of 228 vessels used these routes monthly.

This is because the de jure routes have not been navigable since the late ’90s. On the other hand, data released by the Mongla Port Authority shows a 172% increase in the number of ocean going vessels over the past eight years through the Passur river. In the last fiscal, the total number of ocean-going vessels through this Sundarban stream were 889, while it was only 326 in the year of 2008-09. Exact data of shipping by domestic cargo ships is not available.

The Sela river, which runs through the sanctuaries for endangered Irrawaddy and Ganges river dolphin and along the northern edge of the Sundarban East Wildlife Sanctuary, has been under the spotlight since December 9, 2014, when a wrecked tanker released approximately 94,000 gallons of heavy fuel. The Sela oil spill brought devastating consequence for the mangrove habitat and wildlife. The shocking picture of oil-soaked birds and other megafauna like dolphins successfully drew local and global attention to the danger of non-regulated navigation through a wetland of international significance as designated under the Ramsar Convention also.

Shipping in Sundarban
While the northern waterways are non-navigable, bulk cargo vessel and oil tankers regularly ply the rivers inside Sundarban. Photo © 2014 Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea

The shipping ministry suspended navigation through the river, with huge press coverage in response, only to silently re-open it after a few days. During four days of observation in four different months of 2015 at the confluence of Sela and Passur rivers,  I have observed on average 17 ships are coming through. The inland shipping authority has not made public any shipping data till date.

The question is, why does the Bangladesh government not spare the Sela river and wildlife sanctuaries by diverting the Mongla-port bound domestic vessels to the original port route – the Mongla-Ghashiakhali channel? It is because the agencies are failing to maintain the depth and navigability of the Ghashiakhali channel in the face of land grabbing by ‘influential’ shrimp businesses and other industries. Apparently, even a directive from the prime minister’s office failed to remove the shrimp farms and evict the land grabbers to permanently reopen the route.

Everyone said the devastation from Sela oil spill is an eye-opener for the responsible authorities, but after more than one and half years, it is clear that it was not. Just months after the accident two other wrecked vessels released tons of fertilizer and coal into the rivers in May and October 2015 respectively.

‘Lot of ships will be coming, carrying so much coal’

Now, with the 1320-megawatt coal-fired power station, a joint venture by Bangladesh and India near the Sundarbans on the anvil, the National Shipping Corporation has started the process of procuring 16 new vessels to carry coal for the power plant. The mega plant will need an estimated 4.72 million tons of coal per year to be imported through Sundarban rivers. Beside combustion of coal in the forest’s impact zone, the power plant is going to aggravate the unsustainable industrialization in the state-acknowledged ecologically critical area near the forest, and it will boost shipping on a larger scale.

Rampal coal fired power plant
The Rampal power plant will need an estimated 4.72 million tons of coal per year to be imported through Sundarban rivers for combustion of coal in the forest’s impact zone.

This coal-fired mega power plant is going to be a deciding factor for the fate of Sundarban. For Bangladesh’s government, it is not about merely building a power plant close to or far from the mangrove forest. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her latest briefing on this issue made it very clear that her government is determined to meet the growing demands of electricity for the country’s envisioned industrialization. And this ‘Bangladesh-India Friendship Thermal Power Plant’ at Rampal is one of those coal-based plants the government has decided to install in different parts of the country to meet the growing electricity demand, she said. The government thinks coal is more suitable than petroleum, natural gas and other fuels in terms of availability and price. Moreover, areas close to the sea are best suited for building coal-fired plants because it reduces the shipping cost of imported coal, she added.

So, even though the government endorsed Environmental Impact Assessment report acknowledges some threats originating from the mega-project, it decided to carry on. The EIA states that the proposed jetty to unload coal in the Sundarbans, and shipping through the forest, will cause oil spillage, air, noise and light pollution.  An influential member of the ruling party and cabinet, finance minister M.A. Muhith recently said publicly that the Sundarbans are surely going to suffer due to this power plant but the government will proceed with the project. ‘A lot of ships will be coming, carrying so much coal. So flora and fauna will be substantially affected,’ said Muhith, who is also the founding president of Bangladesh’s most familiar environmental civil society platform,  ‘Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon’.

Sundarban East Wildlife Sanctuary
Sundarban East Wildlife Sanctuary, close to the proposed Rampal coal-fired power plant. Photo © 2015 Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea

Given the continuous manifold increase in international, regional and inland shipping through threatened wildlife sanctuaries and reserves, the odds are very high that devastating accidents will happen. Nevertheless, there is no mandatory standard for ship safety features to mitigate the risk of the accident. The forest and environmental authorities are seemingly comfortable with rapidly increasing shipping through the Sundarbans.

More than one decade after signing a MoU with the concerned regional forum to develop and adopt a national contingency plan to respond to oil spills and other chemical leakages, there is no known progress to date. Immediately after the Shela oil spill, the ministry of environment and forest said that they revived the efforts for contingency plan under a UNDP-supported initiative. However, I do not know of any progress made though the project expired. When contacted, the chief conservator of forests, Md. Yunus Ali, said, ‘This task was given to the environment department. They conducted consultations with stakeholders in their office. I am not updated yet about the finalisation of the contingency plan.’

Increased shipping not only multiplies risks from the oil spill, the release of coal, chemical, fertilizer and fly ash by accident; in course of routine operation, vessels discharge ballast water, bilge water, and there is cargo tank washing too. There is also the impact of ship-induced waves on the mangrove ecosystem, disturbance to wildlife and the risk of international wildlife trafficking spreading widely with regular vessel based pollution.

The moving and maneuvering of vessels induce a variety of hydrodynamic changes and physical forces which have an impact on the surrounding flow, alluvial banks, and sediments of the rivers. These impacts potentially harm the environment and can ultimately lead to environmental degradation.

Shipping in Sundarban
International and domestic vessels use rivers and canals in Sundarban without any ballast water management, ship safety standard, and monitoring-surveillance mechanism in place. Photo © 2014 Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea

The growth of Mongla port also comes with increasing risk of Invasive Aquatic Species for the delicate ecosystem of the Sundarbans. According to resources available with the international ballast water management consortium, GloBallast; the introductions of alien species by ballast water in the hulls of vessels have negative effects on mangrove habitats. For instance, they compete with indigenous species for space and food.

In the absence of minimum environmental management and preparedness, Bangladesh and India are allowing a high volume of shipping, navigation, and industrialization in and around the Sundarbans mangrove region. Even in the British colonial period, when the 21st century’s new obligation of ‘sustainability’ was nowhere to be heard, the authorities were very careful to avoid using the rivers and canals inside the Sundarbans for shipping and navigation. In the era of ‘golden fiber’ jute trade between the Khulna-Barisal regions and Kolkata, the ‘River Conservancy’ was there in the bureaucratic consideration to maintain navigability of waterways outside the Sundarbans.

‘History of the Rivers in the Gangetic Delta, 1750-1918’, a report prepared by a former chief engineer of the colonial irrigation department, C. Addams Williams,  describes some of the many initiatives to maintain the navigability of the northern waterways of Gorai-Modhumoti river systems. Those rivers still exist, with inadequate water flow, however. For safer trade routes, Bangladesh and India can work together to improve the navigability of northern rivers by simply increasing the upstream water flow and establishing an environmental management regime for Mongla port bound ships though through Passur river.

Originally published on The Wire.