By Aashika Ravi
“Before 2009, we had never planted a mangrove before, we were working on wildlife and tigers. Cyclone Aila was an eye-opener for us ﹘ whatever you do in the Sundarbans, it has to be mangrove conservation in essence. If the mangroves are not there, the wildlife won’t be there, the people won’t be there, the delta won’t be there.”
Ajanta Dey, Joint Secretary and Program Director, Nature Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS), a conservation NGO working on ecology, sustainable livelihood and natural resource management in the Sundarbans area of West Bengal had this to say when we finally got through to her, days after the state was ravaged by Cyclone Amphan, one of the worst cyclones, since 1737, some have claimed, plunging many regions into a power blackout.
As heartbreaking images and stories emerge from the devastation wrought by the the first super cyclonic storm to hit the state in 20 years, it is clear that the tragedy has seen and will continue to see an incredibly high human cost.
In times of disaster, Dey tells us, local communities turn to the forest in desperation. “In the aftermath of any calamity, they always depend on natural resources due to poverty. This is what we are dreading now. We are readying a campaign to tell people not to cut the mangroves in badly affected areas.”
Bruguiera seeds planted in the Sundarbans (left) and Bruguiera species at Sagar zone mudflat at an advanced stage. Photo courtesy: Nature Environment & Wildlife Society
The compounded effects of ecological devastation caused by the cyclone and this increased deforestation add to an already bleak picture of mangrove cover in the country.
The Forest Survey of India report 2019 showed a 2% loss of mangrove cover in between 2017 and 2019. Previous reports show that the very dense mangrove cover, which acts as a barrier against cyclones storms, has reduced from 1038 sq km in 2011 to 999 sq km in 2017.
Climate change, habitat degradation, human disturbance, fuel-wood collection and lack of any high elevation spaces for the mangrove species to regenerate and thrive have been highlighted in a World Wildlife Fund report as the biggest reasons for reduced mangrove cover.
Widely recognized as a climate change hotspot, the Sundarbans is extremely vulnerable, with many islands slowly succumbing to rising sea levels. NASA Landsat satellite imagery shows that the sea level has risen in the Sundarbans by an average of 3 cm (1.2 inches) a year over the past two decades, and the area has lost almost 12% of its shoreline in the last four decades. The sea level rise and subsequent salinization of soil has rendered many livelihoods unviable, producing what we can definitively say are some of the world’s first climate refugees.
An infographic on the benefits of a mangrove ecosystem. Picture courtesy: Mangrove Action Project
For generations, mangroves have acted as a crucial barrier between cyclones and coastal areas, while providing livelihoods for communities around it. As Dey and other conservationists have been saying for years, without the mangroves, the ecosystem would simply die out. In the case of the Sundarbans, this includes close to 4.5 million people (as per the 2001 Census), and a large number of rare and globally threatened species.
What we need is a concerted conservation effort, bringing together all stakeholders in this unique ecosystem, and empowering the true inhabitants of the forests to safeguard it.
Stringent legal protections and state interventions for conservation
While the Sundarbans has seen a steady decline of mangrove cover, another Indian state has emerged as a model to emulate in mangrove conservation. The State of Indian Forests report 2019 showed a 72% increase in Maharashtra’s mangrove cover over six years, from 2013 to 2019.
Dr. Virendra Tiwari, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Mangrove Cell) traces the history of mangroves in Maharashtra, and how a proactive judiciary and state government have changed its course.
In 2005, the Bombay High Court intervened in a writ petition filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group, an environmental organization. In 2018, it finally ruled that mangrove destruction was a violation of citizens’ fundamental rights.
In 2012, the state government constituted an independent Mangrove Cell. Subsequently in 2013, it created another unit called the Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit with a specific mandate of conserving and protecting mangroves of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai area. The same year, the state government suo motu declared all mangroves on government land as Reserved Forests, which have more protection than Protected Forests.
While the High Court has the final say in allowing developmental projects that may harm mangroves, the Mangrove Cell has undertaken measures to prevent some of the biggest threats they see to the state’s mangrove cover, including unlawful dumping of construction waste and illegal encroachment.
As of today, they have removed almost 6,000 hutments in the Mumbai region with help from the Revenue authorities and police. They also employ 117 guards from the Maharashtra Security Corporation, a third of whom are armed, to monitor sensitive mangrove areas within the city. To prevent encroachment, they have started building a protective wall, on the landward side, so it does not obstruct the flow of the water.
In addition to this, the Mangrove cell has formed Mangrove Co-Management Committees on the lines of JSM committees, where local communities are provided with alternate livelihood opportunities. One of their success stories is a program with UNDP, under which an all women’s group from Swamini, an SHG, is manning tourist boats in Vengurla, a small coastal town in Sindhudurg district The women have been trained on mangroves, and provided with two boats, 20 lifejackets and a gazebo for their enterprise.
The Clean Mangrove Drive, a three-year joint initiative between citizens and the state mangrove cell has involved NGOs, students and citizen groups in the cleaning up of plastic, which has floated out to sea and returned to choke the mangroves. So far, they have removed about 8,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste from mangroves in the areas of Bandra, Versova, Borivali, Dahisar, Sewri, Gorai, Bhandup and Airoli.
The Mangrove Cell is also funding research to understand changing patterns of mangroves in the state. ISRO will conduct real time satellite-based monitoring of mangroves in the state to “help spot any destruction of mangrove cover or encroachments on mangrove land.”
Most of the funds for these initiatives come from the Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation of Maharashtra, a trust established by the Mangrove Cell. The funds they receive from the destruction of mangroves in developmental projects form their coffers, and the resulting interest is used to restore mangroves in other areas, employ MSC guards, and build the protective wall.
The importance of community-based models of conservation
Community governance of forest resources is not a new concept. Indeed this is the principle for the Joint Forest Management system in India. State forest departments are required to support local forest dwelling and forest fringe communities to protect and manage forests and share the costs and benefits from the forests with them.
Jim Enright, Community-based Ecological Mangrove Restoration (CBEMR) trainer and former Asia coordinator, Mangrove Action Project (MAP), an organization working on mangrove restoration, education and advocacy across the globe, explained MAP’s CBEMR model, which involves community buy-in from the inception of the program to better understand their needs and abilities.
“The community is central to the mangroves. They live in the mangroves, they depend on the mangroves, their livelihoods are connected to the mangroves. If they don’t have full ownership, it's never going to work. This is again why we observe many government projects failing, because they never involve the local people in the decision-making process or long-term protection.” he says.
Mangrove restoration in Nai Nang village, Krabi Province, Thailand. Photo courtesy: Mangrove Action Project
Enright is based in Trang, Thailand, where community management has proved to be an exemplary model of mangrove conservation. Shrimp farming had caused large scale destruction, until Yad Fon, a small local organization, stepped in with a solution to achieve “self-sufficient rural populations whose livelihoods and traditional cultures are ensured.”
Community-based management places community needs and interests, and their collective action at the heart of conservation, but these are far from the only requirements. These communities cannot function in silos, and must be provided the right handholding to efficiently undertake community management of resources.
“It's not an easy thing. It takes a lot of capacity building. Governments sometimes don't have the time or resources to build local community capacity, so it's only when NGOs have been able to spend a lot of time with communities that we've seen they're able to build capacity so they can successfully manage areas themselves.” Enright says.
CBEMR training in Myanmar. Photo courtesy: Mangrove Action Project
This is especially true with climate change so closely built into the equation. A Mongabay report quotes Anshu Sharma, a disaster management expert and Co-founder, SEEDS on rebuilding efforts. “A large part of resilience building lies in softer components, in strengthening abilities of local communities and authorities to anticipate risks, institutional capacities to absorb shocks, and learning from events and adapting accordingly. This is truer than anywhere else in remote communities and fragile ecosystems such as those of the Sundarbans.”
It doesn’t end with involving local communities. Community models need to account for gender equity as well. Mangroves for the Future, an initiative co-chaired by IUCN and UNDP runs mangrove restoration projects with “gender integration as a core strategy.”
NEWS, Dey’s organization, has developed a community-based model, for which they received the Earth Care Award in 2016. After five years of women generating nurseries, planting, monitoring and carrying out surveillance, the trees have grown greatly in many areas.
Relocation and restoration
“Back in the day, the forests would provide for them, but now as the storms become more frequent and bigger, the forest is becoming weaker in its ability to provide for them and protect them.” says Leo Thom, Creative Director, MAP. Thom creates interactive content to sensitize the larger public to the importance of mangrove conservation. MAP has just opened submissions for their 6th World Mangrove Day Photography Awards, a global photography contest to celebrate the beauty of mangrove ecosystems across the world.
Mangrove restoration models thus, need to account for a range of alternate livelihoods, so local communities are able to have a sustainable source of income without putting pressure on limited forest resources.
“The communities know mangroves are important and are going to help them, but they have immediate needs. And this is probably more so in India. People have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. That's why we introduced honey production with wild bees in boxes as a supplementary livelihood. They tell us the healthier the mangroves are, the more bees there are, which means more honey, which means more money. It's a very successful intervention.” Enright explains.
Harvesting honey in the mangroves of Nai Nang, Thailand. Photo courtesy: Mangrove Action Project
Establishing alternate means of livelihood gives the forest a breather, a much required opportunity to recover from its unrelenting destruction. Mangroves have been known to show extreme resilience, and natural restorative abilities.
“A lot of times, planting is not necessary. So we always are looking to see that the hydrology of the system is functioning. Mangroves have always regenerated. After the tsunami in Sri Lanka, we visited the country a year later, and we saw lots of mangroves coming up. Even if the trees have been toppled, mangroves are very hearty and resilient in terms of their ability to heal themselves if nothing is blocking hydrology.” Enright says.
He suggests voluntary relocation of communities living in islands worst-hit by cyclones, while the mangrove cover is allowed to recover.
“The best thing may be to move people into safer zones and restore the mangroves on those outer islands so they become a defense. As these storms become more frequent, it takes 2-3 years to recover, and maybe they will operate for a couple of years, and then another cyclone hits. So it's not a safe and economically viable area to live.” he adds.
The way forward
In the wake of Cyclone Amphan, the absence of a vision and management plan are more evident than ever.
“Every time we are hit by a cyclone, there are massive amounts of relief efforts, which is just a band aid. We provide rice, oil, and food sources and people patch their houses back together, but their income is lost for the long-term.” Enright says.
Dey suggests that the administrative structure of the Sundarbans, currently under two different districts, the North 24 Parganas, and South 24 Parganas, needs to change. A few years ago, there was a push to unite the Sundarbans under a single district, but it has not yet seen the light of day.
She also stresses on the need to re-imagine community governance to empower and support them in forest management.
“We have to think in a totally different way to make use of systems like Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) that are coming up to benefit marginalized people who are protecting the forest.”
Thailand’s community forest management models and Maharashtra’s interventions can provide valuable building blocks in the formulation of a comprehensive conservation plan for the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem. We just cannot afford to withstand another cyclone to put it in motion.