The Sundarbans is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world. Local people call this forest badaban. It spans 10,000 km2, about 6,000 km2 of which are in Bangladesh. The Sundarbans were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and were declared as the first Ramsar site of Bangladesh in 21 May 1992. In fact, the Sundarbans consist of two ecoregions: freshwater swamp forests and mangrove forests. Very rich in floral diversity with about 334 plant species, it is also known for faunal diversity (375 animals, of which 35 reptiles, 41 mammals, 210 fish, 14 crab and 43 molluska species). The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris) and the Sundari tree (Heritiera fomes) are among the significant species here.

Meanwhile, about a million people are dependent on the Sundarbans’ resources. The forest people include mawali (honey collectors), bawali (leaf collectors), jeley (fishers), and crab collectors, as well as the indigenous Munda, Mahato and Bagdi people.

Bonded soil, bonded honey In the early 1980s, the rich and influential started commercial, large scale shrimp culture, affecting the agrarian rhythm of livelihoods in the Sunderbans. The shrimp farms uprooted biological resources, displaced rural people from their cultivable land, and impacted negatively on the heritage of the area. Moreover, national and international development and financial institutions supported the shrimp culture in Southwestern Bangladesh. The agrarian rural population, hoping to gain a livelihood, migrated to towns and cities to become a day laborers or, worse, ended up as jobless outsiders. Simultaneously, a large number of the displaced people started to move into the forest legally or illegally in order to survive. The situation created incredible conflict between traditional forest resource users, new collectors and the Forest Department with regards NTFP collection. The people of the Sundarbans, traditionally involved in forest resource collection with legal permits from the Forest Department, are suffering in various ways. Not only has their once easy access to forest resources been hampered, but their very lives and livelihoods are now under threat. Mawali honey collectors are the main victims. While tourists and buyers visit the Sundarbans and have a unique affection for Sundarbans honey, they are unaware of the unjust honey collection system and the inhuman struggle of the mawali in this livelihood. They lost their forest rights due to unjust forest rules, while most of the poor and resource-marginal mawali used to take out loans from mahajan (traditional money lenders) and micro-credit based NGOs and would give most of their collection without question. Mawali also were not able to sell their honey in the market at anything near to fair prices. And this has been the practice for the past 150 years or so. Mawali are also bound to sell their wax at a very low price compared to national market rates. They sell their raw honey in big plastic containers and wax just as raw material. There used to be no value addition activity at all with forest honey, wax or any other NTFP resources.

Ecological steps The Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK) started to work in the area in 2001. From its inception, BARCIK has strived to understand the biodiversity situation, local knowledge and practices, as well as how local people cope with natural calamities or developmental destruction by their own methods and resources. One key area here is that of livelihood rights. BARCIK has taken an important step through a new project “Advocacy on sustainable resource management and livelihood improvement of Mawalis in Sundarbans”. The project started in September 2008.

Funded by IUCN-NL, it considers the local context and the project aims at a comprehensive community-led programme, focusing on: 1. Ecology and biodiversity conservation,2. NTFP-dependent livelihoods, and3. Ecological markets in the Sundarbans region.

Nine mawali groups in the same boat Traditionally a Mawali group, composed of 7 to 9 persons, is formed during the honey collection season. The group leader, called sajuni, coordinates and operates the whole process. After the harvest, they no longer work together in the same group or in any activities requiring teamwork. However, through BARCIK, NTFP collectors formed 9 groups from 81 families. Mawali named their groups with the nine significant mangrove trees, namely: Sundari, Pashur, Khalisha, Goran, Golgach, Bain, Kakra, Kewra and Dhalchaka.NTINUED NEXT P

Surprisingly these groups continue to work together and even formed the Sundarban sustainable co-management committee, which functions as a co-management system. This committee involves not only mawali but forest dwellers, women, members of local government, teachers, journalists, members of the local market committee and the Forest Department. The committee functions not only during the honey season but during bargaining in the market, assessment of the honey market, and ecological education activities in schools. Even family and social problems are being managed and solved jointly. This process has mobilized and empowered the people to claim access to permitted forest resources.

Suppressed women’s voices, now united In the Sundarbans, women collect various forest resources for their family’s daily needs. Women also face many threats every day: wild animals like the tiger, crocodile, and snake; robbers; unjust forest rules; and the male-dominant system. Until today, women’s forest resource rights in the Sundarban areas remain largely unrecognised. Through BARCIK, the women have organized themselves and formed a group named Sundarban Mahila Samiti. Women are now trying to develop NTFP-based cottage industries including pickled Kewrafruit, golpata handicrafts, as well as, soap and candles made of wax.

Bees and mawali kids – now friends BARCIK has started an ecological education program in different colourful and interesting ways among school students and grassroots youths. Students, both boys and girls, have formed a strong volunteer team known as the Sundarban biodiversity savers group. They organise various ecological activities in their schools and villages, sharing and disseminating ecological knowledge. They have started a campaign: ‘do not kill the bee kids during the collection of honey from the forest’. And they have motivated the locals to save all wildlife in the forest and to stop illegal poaching. Finally the students have organised school debates, art and essay competitions, and street drama.

Make honey garlands with different flowers The long process has brought together many people: forest dwellers, the Forest Department, local government, school teachers, youth, journalists, market committee members, small entrepreneurs, ecologists, local NGOs, and policy makers. Together, they have been promoting ecological development approaches in this sensitive region. BARCIK also publishes a bulletin on Sundarbans’ cultural rights, is compiling a Sundarbans’ resource profile, and undertakes research at the grassroots. BARCIK has become active in various networks. It is already ssociated with Keystone, an NGO based in Tamil Nadu,India which looks at NTFP rights and is co-organiser of Madhu Duniya. Mr. Leo and Mr. Chandran from Keystone have visited the Sundarbans and have conducted honey workshops, helping the mawali to harvest pure honey in a hygienic manner. Mr. Jenne de Beer of NTFP-EP has also visited the area and attended several meetings and workshops with various stakeholders. Sundarbans’ people expect to undertake an activity similar to Madhu Duniya which could help them fight for forest resource rights and gain access to fair trade of NTFPs. The greater involvement of people is slowly improving the life and livelihood of the mawali [and other NTFP-dependent peoples.] This is truly a step towards saving biodiversity and ensuring the ecological harmony of the Sundarbans.

Pavel Partha & Rumaisa Samad, BARCIK

Photo credit: Pavel Partha

Bangladesh Resource Centrefor Indigenous Knowledge (BARCI K)H.N-50, R.N-16 (new), Dhanmondi,Dhaka,1209, BangladeshPhone: 088-02-9132372Email: sukanta88@yahoo.comanimistbangla@gmail.comWebsite :

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