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