Leading like a diver

[ I am a Community Solutions Program fellowHosted by the NOAA’s Georgia Sea Grant College Program and based at the Athens and Skidaway Island campuses of the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension Service. The practicum part of my fellowship has ended this week with an End of Program workshop held at a hotel in Washington, D.C. Following is the script of my EOP speech which I shared with international fellows. Here, it’s slightly edited for clarity. ]

We, underwater divers, sometimes joke about ourselves; that is, diving is a lazy person’s adventure. Because, in the depth of the sea, the slow and steady you swim, the better you navigate. For me, it’s true about life on the land also. Slow and relying on others to lead together. It’s all about doing things we love with the people we love.

Living coast event
Work photos from my CSP practicum; public program development and implementation.

And, it’s been quite a few months like that, as we are on this fellowship; to me, it feels like the first workshop here in DC, the first time we’ve met DD was just days ago. For me, the last few months were very peaceful; working with wonderful colleagues was almost like a drift-dive with sea turtles. It feels like time is flying by.

Dear fellows and guests! My thematic focus is ‘Environmental Issues,’ and my leadership journey is about PEOPLE. Back in Bangladesh, it started with me and a few of our friends’ commitment to the people living in the northeastern Indian Ocean region, one of the most climate-vulnerable communities in the world.

Black gill cruise
Work photos from my CSP practicum; covering and communicating citizen-science based conservation program.

As for our teams in Bangladesh, the strength is our shared life experience as a people facing an unprecedented loss of social resilience and ecosystem services. Our trust in people’s power led us to build a network of conservation movements. Throughout the networks, we always prioritize knowledge collaboration and learning-sharing. It’s one of our core approaches.

Also, these conservation groups are unconventional because it’s not about animal biology; we have people from all of the wakes of life, professionals from all disciplines collaborating for mainstream conservation into policies and practices.

Shellfish Research Laboratory
Work photos from my CSP practicum; my base for the practicum was this Shellfish Lab of UGA MAREX on the campus of Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Georgia.

What drives us is the commitment to institutionalize community action to build locally-led efforts for conservation. We have had a few successes. To proceed, we have a lot to do with very unjust Natural Resources Management Regimes and approaches worldwide.

The state of my practicum, Georgia, faces very similar challenges. To me, last few months, it never felt like a foreign country. As a Scholar-in-Residence with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant Program based at the University of Georgia, one of my projects was to prepare a coastal public education program that will diversify the participants. During the planning phase, as part of the conversations with local families in the coastal city of Savannah, many people said to me that environmentalism is for affluent people.

Coast Fest Georgia
Work photos from my CSP practicum; helping to organize and covering public programs for Georgia Sea Grant.

These lower and middle-income families don’t have a recreational fishing license or a villa on the beach. But they do suffer the most from the changing climate and increasing disasters. Many of them asked me, what’s in conservation for their children? They will move to inner cities anyway, looking for jobs. As a child born and raised in coastal Bangladesh during the decline of the coastal economy dependent on a healthy Ocean, their experience is very familiar to me. During the conversation with these families, one aspect of my talking points was, this feeling of being left out can be a starting point to take part, to prepare our young ones as the environmental stewards, to take over the policy process at the top. At a point during such a conversation in Skidaway Island, one of the mothers approached me and said, ‘I want you to be the mentor for my son, no matter wherever you stay.’

Sea Turtle Release
Work photos from my CSP practicum; met and connected with a number of local conservation groups in Georgia and other states of the U.S. This photo is from Tybee Island, of a rescued Sea Turtle release in the Atlantic by a local conservation group.

Her son, Scott the Junior, is an excellent artist at his age, and he told me he wants to be a Marine Biologist. We agreed to be a mentor and mentee. Last few months, there were a lot of moments like this. It was a blissful time for me. In this way, my life and leadership were always about people and will continue to be like that.

For now, with my host organization, we are planning to initiate a permanent conservation capacity-building program for early career professionals in five Bay of Bengal countries. It will be precisely a transboundary, collaborative learning for community action.

Dear fellows! To share is the most effective way to evaluate our works and develop. So, no matter what thematic area you are focused on, no matter which regions you are from, let’s share all of our experiences about the people we work with and work for. As a communicator, it will be my pleasure to collaborate with you based on shared experiences.
Many thanks for your attention, and remember that we can do the community works better if we do the learning-sharing better.

The real challenge for ‘Ocean Literacy for all’

As UNESCO prepares for a global Ocean Literacy roadmap, the real challenge is getting the message right for diverse communities and cultures around the Planet.

The narrative of ‘Ocean Literacy’ is currently available and promoted by some organizations from the global north, with all its concepts, principles, and framework improvised using Eurocentric narratives and philosophies of education exclusive to some parts of southwestern Europe northern America.

Now, as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and its Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe based in Venice, Italy has started to facilitate a roadmap building process for the ‘Ocean Literacy for all’ campaign, it should prioritize making this campaign about assisting the conceptualizing and preparatory process of local Ocean Literacy programs around the globe.

It is evident that the question is not about disciplines of science that contributed to the Ocean Literacy concepts, principles, and frameworks developed, for example, by COSEE members http://www.cosee.net/. Scientists and educators in the United States are certainly the fine people to do that, to interpret the sciences and construct a new narrative to mainstream Ocean conservation into education in the global north.

The challenge is, the narrative should not be universal, and it does not need to be.

Let us explain. It will be problematic if not unnecessary to make this principle ‘the earth has one big ocean with many features is a must-have one for Ocean Literacy. Because people in many non-European societies easily relate to the global ‘interconnectivity of the ocean. For example, people can best relate to the ‘interconnectivity of Ocean Basins without rendering them into ‘one’ in many places. There are places where the ‘seven seas’ approach is culturally more helpful for the people to acknowledge the interconnectivity and act accordingly. And there are places where this ‘oneness’ is inherent in the culture. It’s nothing new to ‘learn.’

Jibanananda Das

For more than 210 million people in Bengali Linguo-cultural regions in Asia, the narrative of the Severn Seas connects people to the Global Ocean as a unique, interconnected water body. So do they need to memorize/follow a new ‘principle’ of ‘one Ocean’? Or is it more reasonable that they build the sustainability approach upon this cultural strength? Bengali or Bangla is the seventh most spoken native language in the world by population. And, even in the last century, famous poets like Jibananda Das (pictured here) connected the audience with the notion of the global Ocean without necessarily building a narrative of singularity.

Like that, people in different Oceanscapes around the planet have different worldviews and associated narratives for linking our well-being to that of the Ocean.

So, it’s nearly impossible to have a ‘universal’ narrative or template message for all nations. And that’s not a challenge. That’s an opportunity to build upon local strengths and improvise messages that make sense to communities around the planet.

Besides, the limitations of formal education need to be taken into consideration. We have generations who already have passed through it without exposure to Ocean Literacy, ages who have critical roles as decision-makers in the society and state. Also, there is a massive gap in education and general Literacy among regions. In many regions, Ocean Literacy campaigns or programs will not be able to reach out to most of the people if strategies equally accommodating informal and public education sectors are not prioritized in the roadmap.

I will make some points about what any global or multi-national roadmap on Ocean Literacy should include for avoiding making it another ‘parachuting’ campaign. These issues need to be considered for getting the message across the north-south divide. These considerations are essential for preventing undermining and alienating local communities by telling them ‘Ocean Literacy’ is a new thing they need to learn. And, finally, these considerations are essential for effective use of resources by building on local strengths; the very shortlist will look like this.

  1. The program development process for the campaign and preparation of the contents should be bottom-up.
  2. The main focus should be facilitating local communities and other stakeholders in different Ocean basins to develop their concepts and principles of Ocean Literacy rooted in their society and culture and build the framework according to their institutional requirements. Also, the content should be prepared in the communities, translating from a ‘universal’ one must be avoided.
  3. As the sectoral target of the campaign, informal education sectors, public education, outreach, youth work, for instance, should be given equal importance.

UPDATE 1: With a small group of conservation educators and experts, back in June 2018, I have started contributing to developing a local Ocean Literacy for the Bay of Bengal basin. Now we have many colleagues joining us. Keep an eye on the program’s website for updates http://bayofbengalliteracy.net

UPDATE 2: National Marine Educators Association in the U.S. has awarded me an Expanding Audience Scholarship for 2019. With other members of NMEA, I will prepare a framework to build local Ocean Literacy programs for informal education. The main focus of such a framework should be facilitating local communities and other stakeholders in different Ocean basins (particularly in the underrepresented countries) to come up with their narratives and principles of Ocean Literacy rooted in their society and culture.

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.

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.

‘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

Flying crabs: Notes on Bangladesh’s export oriented mud crab fishery

The A great hunt is underway for the Mudcrabs in the Sundarban, world largest mangrove forest. Once just another scavenger in the forest, but since last decade the Mudcrabs are now known for their ‘export-quality’ flesh down here.

From the mudflats, creeks, canals, and rivulets of Sundarban, Mudcrabs are being exploited on an unprecedented scale, to be exported, alive; much to the delight of crustacean loving South East Asians- mainly the Chinese restaurant goers.

During some of my recent trips to the forest and impact zone, I’ve taken following notes on this;

A. The thriving crab fishery emerged as almost a Hobson’s choice for the local communities hard-hit by shrimp aquaculture and climate change. Sundarban dependent poor communities were already struggling hard to cope with disappearing livelihood options in the face of increased salinity, losing agriculture, declining fish stock and repeated floods and cyclones. So when the south-east Asian demand for seafood delicacy knocked at the door, the local traders took the opportunity.


Fishers sleep on their dinghy in the Sundarban.


Take Munshiganj for example, a Union under Shyamnagar Upazila of Satkhira district. Once a quiet fishing hamlet tucked away on the bank of Kholpetua river of Sundarban, Munshiganj is now one of the busiest crab trade zones in the country.

When I first visited the area in 2008, bazaars around namely Kolbari, Nowabeki, and Harinagar has only six crab buying house operating seasonally. Now, more than thirty depots operate in only Kolbari bazar all year round. Every fine morning of Kolbari will remind you the hustle and bustle of Karwan Bazar fish market.
The scenario is more or less same for villages located in Sundarban Impact Zone of Bagerhat and Khulna districts too. Crab fishing in the mangrove heartland is spreading so rapidly that loan-givers cum buyers from far north are setting their new businesses throughout the coastal zone.

B. This is not a subsistence or artisanal fishery of local fishing families anymore. exploitation of mud crab is  Poor workers from the north-western regions are migrating seasonally to join this force of fishery workers. It’s easy to start now, as the buyers provide boat and gears with a lump sum of the cash. The newly turned fishers just need to go in with a permit from Forest Department and collect literally whatever they can get.


Once a quiet fishing hamlet tucked away on the bank of Kholpetua river of Sundarban, Munshiganj is now one of the busiest crab trade zones in the country.


Satkhira district provides at least thirty percent of total Mudcrab extraction for export. Parulia bazaar is the main crab trade center of the district. On many occasions, I’ve talked to leaders of Parulia Crab Processing Traders Association. According to their account, they process seven to nine tonnes of Mudcrab in Parulia.

In every evening on an average of two truckloads of live Mudcrabs leave for Dhaka, where they wait for maximum two days, then hitch a ride on air cargo to be served as delicious dishes in China, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia.

C. And it does not look like that, policy-makers have any idea about what is going on. Of course, it is not formally recognized as a ‘fishery’. The Forest Department sees it another ‘forest produce’. They just issue ‘permits’ for crab fishing in exchange for very little fees, as many ‘permits’ as the businesses want them to do. The other government agencies related to export promotions are keeping the record on how much foreign currency the crab exporters are earning.


Crab fishers
The fishers get only a third of the end value of the crab, which is less than fair, and in turn, pushes overexploitation to increase.

But reinvesting the revenue to maintain overall ecosystem balance or at least for sustaining the crab population is still unheard of.  Even there are no substantial efforts to know more about the crab populations to enable related agencies for sustainable management of the fishery.


D. Coastal regions of Bangladesh have very bad experience with another 100% export oriented industry; shrimp farming. Ecosystem balance and livelihoods in the coastal zone have been devastated by unsustainable shrimp farming in the last few decades. Thousands of hectares of Mangrove forest was cleared for shrimp farming in the Chakoria Sundarban region. In the western coast, shrimp farming is responsible for loosing for agricultural lands and salinity intrusion. And now, this wild crab fishery is just like the historic Burma-teak rush.

Back in Dhaka, I’ve talked with many government officials and exporters. But none them are planning anything to bring sustainability in the wild crab fishery.


Photos: © Mohammad Arju