People and conservation in the south, first impressions

No matter what they are up to; hurricane evacuees waiting at the gas station, shrimpers struggling to feed their families, mothers working hard to keep children in school, billionaire retiree anglers feeling under the hot and humid weather, salespersons greeting 25 people in an hour, or for instance my colleagues who are knee-deep into their work, people here on the South Atlantic Bight seems to be always in a better mood with a big smile. Though I am based in Skidaway Island, but trying to make it to other coastal cities and barrier Islands as much as possible. Some say, ‘southern hospitality’ is a myth, and I see, not only my colleagues or acquaintances, down here people generally are inherently cautious about being unwelcoming or unhelpful.

For me, this Island is remote in a sense that the only grocery is more than two miles away from my place, and in this late summer, we don’t have any neighbors on this jungle-campus of the University of Georgia on Skidaway river except the deer, raccoons, squirrel, mockingbirds, owls and chirping cicadas. Of course, we have the water birds who are year-round residents of the maritime forest and salt marsh, and the tidal visitors in afternoon; the pelicans and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. I remember, when Mona was driving me down here from Atlanta airport, it was late in the afternoon when we crossed the river to the Island, driving through the huge loblolly pines with ‘deer Xing’ road signs, I thought it is going to be the best of the both worlds, and it has been exactly turned out to be so. Mona, Dr. Mona Behl is my community mentor at the host organization.

I don’t know what draws me, but being near Ocean or streams make me kind of feel ‘home’.  Living this close to the Ocean, a tidal river, the bluff, the marsh, and all those ambient sounds always remind me the backyard of our home on the Island of Bhola, the place I was born and raised, bordered by the Ganges river mouth and the Bay of Bengal aka the northern Indian Ocean. Looking back, I reckon, in a way, that sedimentary swampy Island in the center of Bangladesh’s 710-kilometer-long coast, was the best place to continue to grow with what I had started.

The path I took can be termed in the present-day jargon as ‘youth work’, through a mix of outreach, public relation, and mass-communication. My father was a high-school language and literature teacher, and an Imam also– leading Friday prayer services and guiding the community.  For me, it started with public speaking from the school platform before I was involved in local politics at a very young age, then I found myself as writing for national newspapers and magazines. I had this personal trait, which may be loosely identified as being an ‘introvert’. But now when I look back it surprises me that, this personal trait was not a limiting factor for me to be a youth leader in my community. I was a fluent speaker and tireless organizer. I could spend a whole day on my bicycle to reach out to the farthest flock of young people. Though my community work, of course, was a limiting factor for my reading habit and writing too. And at the end of the day, I did not want to ditch my vision to be a writer who is deeply involved with the local community. But, the coastal local economy of Bangladesh was on the decline. Like most lower-income families who send their children to school, my parents did not see any ‘future’ for us on the Island. Jobs dependent on coastal and marine ecosystems was not ‘respectable’ anymore because of dwindling income.

The first thing after settling myself in the city of Dhaka what I did is to start writing for newspapers, and within a few years, the course of events had brought me back to community work. And here I’m today! as a ‘Scholar-in-Residence’ with the Georgia Sea Grant and Marine Extension at the University of Georgia, I am trying to understand how coastal people on the south-eastern Atlantic Ocean are faring in their life, where they do not have any apparently direct dependence on the ecosystems for subsistence, but highly vulnerable to ecosystem degradation, extreme weather, and sea level rise; trying to figure out how people of Indian Ocean nations can be benefitted from the American experience of nature conservation through institutionalized process facilitated by public agencies.

The stilt house I live in on the Island is part of a joint campus shared by an Oceanographic research institution established in the late ’60s, an extension facility of UGA, and a reef sanctuary office of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After the office hours, only 4 to 5 people stay on the 1425-acre campus for most of the days, mostly visiting fellows. There are few crews though, living on board the research vessel on the river. On some days I’m the only person staying the night on campus. Outside this campus, life on the Island is expensive. It is home to the largest and one of the most affluent gated communities in the country.

Amid all these, when I am alone on the campus which was formerly part of plantations run on slavery, what comes back to me is the flashback of the daily life on this island from more than two hundred years ago. The flashbacks are becoming more organized into some kind of visual frames day by day, as I’m reading a lot about the history of this region and talking to people. When I walk through the nature trails or just sit idle on the bluff in the middle of the night, I can feel like I was here with the indigenous tribe hundreds of years ago, but certainly, I was not. Sometimes, I go the neighborhoods in the downtown of Savannah. I need to talk with people who are living in poverty but not living on the Island anymore. Because I am trying to come up with a public program for Georgia Sea Grant which will diversify the audience, will be able to attract people of marginalized races, ethnicities and lower income levels.

I try to keep the conversations very personal. Many of them ask me about the institutional nature of my work. With pleasure, I mention that I am grateful to the American people for they have institutionally and financially facilitated this opportunity to serve them.  This sort of exchange of experiences has all the potentials to help them address unique environmental challenges through people to people collaboration. In this time of disaster and despair, this kind of learning-sharing can significantly influence our ability to look for common grounds for collaboration among the coastal communities of the world. Of course, many of them are doubtful about their benefits from any international roles taken by US government, or they just distrust any activism by ‘liberals’. For some, the ‘fact’ that the former Vice President Al Gore– the ‘guy close to Hillary’ is one of the celebrity leaders in the fight against climate change is enough to dismiss the whole threat. 

A few of them ask me, what’s in it for you? I tell them my story, what happened back in Dhaka when after a few months into my first full-time media job, I managed to start extensively travel to the communities living across 710 kilometers long coastline on the Bay of Bengal. Those experiences were unlike anything I have ever read in newspapers. During our childhood, we had three newspapers at our home,of course, one-day-old, arriving from the capital by passenger ferries. We used to read them through next 24 hours, starting from the dateline to the printers line, before taking the afternoon walk to the river next day, waiting for ferries. But during my travel to the coastal areas, I realized that I knew nothing about these people. I thought all the ‘bad’ things are happening only on our island. During those years, I got to know what is actually going on in the life of coastal rural people in other places, who were forced to migrate to inner cities and take the perilous boat journey to other nations. But in public sphere on the national level, they were barely present in any discussions, they were totally left out.

I am grateful that my travels and conversations pushed me into serious community works, once again. The last couple of years, at the network we have founded in Bangladesh, with our associates and affiliates, we are trying to design, develop and monitor Participatory Action Research initiatives in coastal communities to enhance resilience.  But no matter what we do, what is missing is concerted efforts to remove policy barriers for the communities so that they can avail the public resources to address social-ecological challenges by themselves. Conservation NGOs and INGOs in countries like Bangladesh do their ‘projects’ in a colonial ‘settler’ mode; they mostly address problems which do not exist in the first place. For instance, they run ‘awareness’ campaign among communities when the communities do not have access to the forest anymore, and the deforestation is led by industries. If sometimes they are forced to act based on local priorities, they always deploy top-down interventions, sometimes with misleading names, ‘co-management’, for instance.

They are always ‘parachuting’ science and conservation initiatives based on stand-alone projects and then leaving to pursue another project that may or may not be consistent with previous efforts. Virtually there’s no effort for local institution building to run permanent programs for creating local workforce and helping communities to achieve and maintain social-ecological resilience. There is no NGO-led ‘conservation success’ in last few decades which benefitted the people en mass. This is unfortunate, but this scenario is going to be changed, I believe.

Unlike those green-washing projects, I see at Sea Grant there is a notably different approach to conservation, the approach which necessarily related to its institutional nature. At Sea Grant, I see, my colleagues are working for the people, and with the people. I know, how this publicly funded institution strives for working with full intellectual autonomy to serve the most vulnerable people of the nation while remaining accountable and transparent to them. I am observing how the community leaders, natural resources managers, social workers, businesses, and members of academia work together for healthy coastal ecosystems, resilient communities, and environmental workforce development. This is one of the strongest public institutions in the world engaged in coastal and marine research and extension, and they are working for you, I say to the people I come across here.

To my relief, whether we agree or not, we can find some common grounds to explore more. It seems, the binary of global south and north does not work always. Besides, this region is the south of the global north. Particularly, many white people are proud as ‘southerners’. And, I am from the ‘south’ also, globally and locally, in a totally different meaning though.

 

September 9, 2017
Skidaway Island

Inside a student political meeting at the birthplace of American public higher education

To what extents young people are involved in community works and politics in the birthplace of American public education? And how they mobilize the organizational process? These are the questions which took me to the ‘Young Democrats of UGA’s weekly meeting in Athens yesterday. To explore about people’s participation in public policy I’ve met and talked with many people in last few months, but this was the first time I was in a kind of totally political meeting.

Of course, I did not participate in the meeting, but I ‘observed’ the meeting as a foreign scholar working with a Public Outreach unit at the university, did not say a single world or contributed to anything. Around 30 students participated in the meeting titled ‘Spooky Politics’. Trendy name it is! After all, this is the Halloween week.

It was a classroom, number 348, in the Miller Learning Center. When I arrived on time at 6.30 in the evening, the Pizza time was almost over, so the discussion began. Scheduled for one hour the meeting went to super overtime, ended around 8.

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Barack Obama’s photo was distributed over the total presentation as the filler which worked as some kind of icebreakers in the meeting. Turns out, the young democrats still miss the former president.

My top takeaway from this meeting of Democrat Party’s young supporters is that they conducted the session in a very effectively minimalist way. There was an exclusively fun part, a Costume Contest where only the guy with ‘Richard Nixon’ mask failed to win a prize. And there were no ceremonial or ‘motivational’ fiery speeches in the meeting like we see in Asian countries. It was something between a responsive Briefing Session about recent political developments and a kind of a moderated ‘Talking Point’.

There was an MS PowerPoint presentation for the whole program divided into some categories; local and national news, weekly actions, forthcoming local and national legislative agendas, and the ways students can contribute in taking actions about those agendas. Almost, every discussion came with some recommendations about how the students can engage themselves in the process.

Secondly, the students seemed to have a strong and sincere conviction to their liberal cause. When discussing recent political news and forthcoming agendas, topics related to public infrastructure, and environmental sustainability got more importance. And when discussing the latest ‘Terror Attack’ in New York, the presenter Ruth Pannill was careful about the contents. The reason there was no visuals on the slide probably was not a technical glitch, but a conscious decision. ‘It’s important that this kind of terror attack is not being exploited to spread Islamophobia’, she said.

Thirdly, the student politics are heavily partisan too. A lot of discussions was about the forthcoming Georgia state legislative special elections. It seemed the students are seriously taking part in the campaign because if the Republican party wins they will retain their ‘Supermajority’ which gives them the power to change the state constitution.

The local Democrat candidate is Deborah Gonzalez. Ms. Gonzalez is a Latina who raised her two children as a single mom. The meeting was apparently happy about the fact that in contrast to the Republicans, their candidate is not a white male.

The Republican candidate 22-year-old Houston Gaines was heavily criticized at the meeting for his alleged failure to elaborate on important public issues. One of the presenters mentioned that in an electoral forum Mr. Gaines who is a former student body president at UGA, even failed to elaborate on what ‘unique perspective’ he will bring to the state legislature. At a point in that forum, the UGA graduate said, ‘It’s obvious just by looking at us that we have a different perspective’. Young Democrats also made fun of Mr. Gaines for this. Terming him a ‘man-child’, one of the student leaders said, as if being white and man is a perspective.

And another important note; the participants were most responsive when the discussion entered into ‘crazy things’ the current Republican president is doing. Almost everyone has something to say about it.

Lastly, the students seemed very engaged about any discussion on ‘legislative’ process. After discussing recent and forthcoming legislative agendas at both state and federal level, the students were asked to reach out their representatives with feedback and demands. Texting, calling and attending town halls, ‘make them scared for the midterms if they are doing shitty things’, one of the leaders said.

Also, turns out, the students think it is really difficult to find out important decisions and processes from House and Senate website, mostly because of acronym-infested and jargon-filled language.

So, of course, it was only a single meeting, which I decided not to ‘participate’. One can’t possibly know much more as an observer. Probably, at the meeting, I’ve got some ideas about how politically active young people see their potentials to shape public policies in the USA.

But I look forward to more one to one and group conversations with the southern youth. In a country where most college graduates are deep in the financial crisis with all the loans and so on, there should be more intriguing perspectives from the youth to find out.

I’m looking forward to exploring more about their thoughts about policies which oftentimes negatively impact the access to natural resources by families which eventually leads to more fiscal spending and debt.

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)