For centuries, multicultural societies in the Sundarban mangrove region maintained the balance of human and ecosystem well-being based on diverse traditional knowledge. However, human dimensions of nature and wildlife including traditional ecological knowledge remain largely neglected if not absent in the dominant narratives of biodiversity conservation in present-day.
In 1997, three wildlife sanctuaries in the south of the forest in Bangladesh with a total area of 139,700 hectors were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site under the ‘natural’ category. The UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bangladesh is adjacent to the border of India’s Sundarbans World Heritage site which was inscribed a decade ago (UNESCO, 1997). In addition to the Bangladeshi part of the forest, combined with the rest of the forests that are located in present-day India, Sundarbans is the largest continues patch of mangrove forest in the world.
On the active delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, the site is intersected by a vast and complex network of tidal rivers and creeks, mudflats and small islands. Salt-tolerant mangrove forests and aquatic species are abundant. During the inscription, UNESCO mentioned that the Sundarbans provides a significant example of on-going ecological processes as it represents the process of delta formation and the subsequent colonization of the newly formed deltaic islands and associated mangrove communities. These processes include monsoon rains, flooding, delta formation, tidal influence, and plant colonization. As part of the world’s largest delta, formed from sediments deposited by three great rivers; the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, and covering the Bengal Basin, the land has been molded by tidal action, resulting in a distinctive physiology. At the same time, UNESCO acknowledged the site’s critical importance in terms of ‘ancient heritage of mythological and historical events’ (UNESCO, 1997).
Diversity of Life
One of the largest remaining areas of mangroves in the world, the World Heritage Site in Bangladesh Sundarban supports an exceptional level of biodiversity in both the terrestrial and marine environments, including significant populations of globally endangered Bengal tigers. Unfortunately due to diverse threats, the population of majestic Bengal tiger is decreasing, the latest official estimate is that a population of 114 remains in the Sundarbans, and overall density of 2.55 tigers per 100 square kilometers (Aziz et al., 2019).
In addition to Bengal tigers, the Heritage Site is the only remaining habitat in the lower Bengal basin for a wide variety of wildlife species. It hosts a wide range of flora; 528 plant species belonging to 356 genera and 111 families, 35 algae and 9 orchid species. It is also rich in fauna with 876 species of fauna which includes; 41 mammals, 339 birds, 57 reptiles, 10 amphibians, 322 fishes, 33 shrimps, 24 crabs, and 50 mollusks species (Habib et al., 2017; Khan et al., 2008; Rahman et al., 2015).
Millions of people rely on the environmental commons of the Sundarban for their livelihood. The diversity of life in the forest, the ecological features and processes provide communities in the south-western districts of Bangladesh and beyond with much-needed opportunities for gathering and sustenance activities. Such gathering and sustenance activities include subsistence and artisanal fishing, honey collection, timber collection, seed collection, brackish water fish farming, and locally guided tourism. The site also provides a buffer zone to extreme weather events like tropical cyclones, storms, and floods.
And, all these happens while there is currently no human settlement in the entire legally protected forest and the UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, why? The answer is twofold. Firstly, for centuries, communities cleared and converted the forestlands into farmland, thus the forest retreated to today’s extreme southern locations on the north-eastern Indian Ocean aka Bay of Bengal. Secondly, for some reason that we are yet to discover, the human settlement in the present-day forest did not survive.
Historical records, archeological sites and artifacts indicate that human settlements existed in the area for nearly two millennia. Historical records can be traced back to 200-300 AD. Historical records indicate that, particularly over the last six to five centuries, human settlements in the Sundarban mangrove region was deeply related to the influence of Muslim mystics, ‘holy men’ and socio-religious leaders. Rainey, 1891 lists Shat Gombuj Masjid aka Sixty Dome Mosque as one of the ruins in the Sundarbans region. It was established by the patron saint of south-western Bengal delta Khan Jahan Ali and was used as both a community meeting place, the center of discharging community matters and a place to pray. Folklore has that, Khan Jahan Ali built more than three hundred such ‘mosque’ across the region where he led the conversion of forestland to farmland (Eaton, 1990).
Khan Jahan Ali and his disciples’ names are intertwined with many folk stories in the greater mangrove region in Bangladesh. Long before the UNESCO inscription, the forests were globally famous as the swampy home of Bengal tigers. Locally, the tigers are both respected and feared, and the Muslim holymen are still remembered enigma and reverence because they ‘tamed’ tigers the beast and made land ‘safe’ for communities. Though the fact of such holymen being a ‘saint’ was secondary to their role as the tamer of the forests and beasts (Eaton, 1990), the conversion of land came with conversion to Islamic faith by the local population. As Eaton, 1990 describe, ‘Khan Jahan’s career exhibits a perfect fusion of the conquest of Nature and the articulation of the Islamic religion.’ This region of Khulna division is now totally deforested and sits on the northern border of forest reserve.
However, there were accounts of human settlement (Rainey, 1891) deep inside the present-day forest reserve and Heritage Site. Very recently, one researcher discovered archeological sites in the lower Sundarbans which was later confirmed by Bangladeshi archeologists as dating back from 1200 years. Based on all historical records, archeological findings, and artifacts, local architects now suggest, for centuries, there were permanent villages, towns, trade centers, and ports in the present-day reserved forests and wildlife sanctuaries of Sundarbans (Anadolu News Agency, 2018). Archeologists believe that the discovered site in an inter-tidal part of a forest stream dates back from 1200 to 1000 years. The site might be of a permanent settlement, trade center or a seaport.
Diversity and Tradition Lost to Colonization
Clearing of forest and land conversion in Sundarban was accelerated during the British colonial period. Before colonization, local communities in the mangrove region had well-established norms and customs to interact with wildlife and use the forest ecosystems what they have considered as environmental commons (Mitra, 2000). But during the British colonial empire local customary rights to access environmental commons, land tenures were dismantled and thus cultural practices of conservation as cut off under the revenue seeking colonial administration. As Rainey, 1891 points out, during the British colonial empire, there was no particular effort to conserve the forest ecosystem or biodiversity.
This was the time from when we have reports of the last sighting of a few mega-fauna such as Water Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) (Rookmaaker, 1997), and possibly yet another unconfirmed species – Hornless rhino (Rhinoceros inermis) (Rookmaaker, 2019).
But at the same time, in the later period of colonial administration, the same revenue seeking an approach to natural resources help to avoid the total deforestation of remaining mangrove forests. Gradually, all forest lands were transferred under the jurisdiction of a separate newly established office eventually named as Forest Department.
The Forest Department of the British empire in the Indian sub-continent did little more than securing revenue from forest produce collection. But it was in the department’s interest to ‘effectually obstruct the extension of cultivation in the Sundarban’ and within the administration they always opposed to reducing areas under its jurisdiction that will diminish its revenue income (Rainey, 1891).
Before the colonialists were successful to replace the local state, communities in the mangrove region had well-established norms and customs to interact with wildlife and use the forest ecosystems that they have considered as environmental commons. The traditional management regime had both temporal and spatial measures. There were seasons when gathering and sustenance practices, banned seasons, and also sanctions violating those practices (Mitra, 2000). There were places designated as sacred where no one could go for harvesting resources. Rights of access to common property resources were based upon the right by birth or invitation, also, such systems of access were based upon communal forms of use.
In an otherwise divided sub-continent along the religious lines, in Sundarban region religious-cultural practices blended with the quest to earn a living in a way that transcended religions. For instance, people who earned livelihoods by the felling of trees for timber for planks and posts, and fuel were and still are known as Bawals, no matter they are Muslim or Hindus or from other faiths. All professional woodcutters’ families are hereditarily known as Bawals, similarly, all honey collectors are known as Mowals. Such identities related to the forest are so prominent in the social-psychological experiences of forest people that, they always put other identities such as the religious ones in the lower places in the order of identities. Oftentimes, it is very difficult if not impossible to guess the religious identities from the names of Bawals or Mowals which otherwise very distinct in the other parts of the country among Muslims and Hindus.
Rainey, 1891 tell us stories about mystic holymen cum leader of gatherer who had extensive knowledge about the forest ecosystems and biodiversity. The places within the forest where the gatherers and collectors would set temporary camps were led by such mystics called as Fakirs who are ‘supposed to possess the occult power of charming away tigers, and who has undoubtedly some knowledge of woodcraft.’ In addition to such accounts by travelers, explorers, and government officials from previous periods, there are very few works studying Bangladesh Sundarban from the lenses of social and cultural anthropology.
Overall, much of the work done in Bangladesh is related to what the development practitioners call ‘development anthropology’. While those works are ‘while ethnographic in scope, nonetheless were often directed toward social problems’ (Wallace and Harris, 2016) like inequality rather than more traditional anthropological topics like identities and cultures.
TEK and Ecologically Good Practices
However, though in a very limited scope, there are many practices based on local cultures and traditional ecological knowledge which are still followed by many communities including the original settler ethnic Bengali and Munda people who came during the later part of British colonial period. Ethnic Munda people who live on over two hundred families (Haq, 2003) still totally depends on Sundarbans for their sustenance.
Such practices are largely centered on sacred places or figures in the forest and shared by people of all faith. Though many such traditional practices have routes in one or more specific faith, eventually they have transcended into a universal one. Such traditions include customary practices associated with sacred figures like Bonbibi and Gazi Pir. Many customary conservation practices are associated with Bonbibi and Gazi Pir in both Bangladeshi and Indian part of Sundarban.
The story and ethos related to Gazi Pir as another one – in folk narratives this is a love story of a Pir or mystic holyman Gazi with the lady Champavati. Gazi had the powers to tame the tigers. Such stories although categorized as ‘sacred’ oftentimes overlook the boundary of sacred and profane and ventures into all realms of earth, heaven, and hell. In many cases, such folk stories are even blended with historical figures and take place in historic time and place. For instance, one version of the story of Gazi-Champavati takes place during 1798-99, and the characters include ‘gods, demons, supernatural spirits, fairies, ghosts, evil spirits, and animals’ (Ahmed, 2003).
Jalais, 2014 presents us with a detail exploration into Bonbibi from the Indian part of the forest. Bonbibi literally means the woman of the forest and the forest people including fishers, wood collectors, and honey collectors all revere the Bonbibi and comply with the ecologically good practices that come with here. Fishers in the forest accept that both they and the tigers are adopted by the Bonbibi, thus effectually they share a brotherhood with the tigers. ‘Bonbibi is the ‘divine power’ sent by Allah to protect those who enter the forest. It will also draw attention to how the forest is seen as the realm of Islam and how there is an obligation to equitably distribute the forest products’ (Jalais, 2014).
In Bangladesh part of the forest during our many trips, we have noticed that how without taking into consideration the top-down law enforcement by the state, subsistence, and artisanal communities are connected with ethos associated with Bonbibi and follow ecologically good practices like customary no-take zone, core protected the area and no fishing days.
But since the days of rent-seeking British colonial administration and later after the initiation of specialized forest resources governance and wildlife conservation, all top-down actors including the state have largely neglected the importance of recognizing, protecting and promoting cultural practices, rights, and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). To our observation, in many cases, the conservation leverages used in the top-down intervention was harmful to local traditional resource user communities. Particularly, conservation efforts in Sundarban excluded the ‘nature’ from the social system and refused to acknowledge the indigenous relationships, knowledge, and practices of communities.
This top-down intervention did not deliver the intended results. We have witnessed, the fall of flagship species – Bengal tiger population and loss of mangrove vegetation cover in the forest’s impact zone. In the early eighties, during the ‘green revolution’ of intensive farming facilitated by development aid from the global North resulted in total deforestation and salinity intrusion in the forest’s impact zone. Such ecological degradation also endangered the rational life and livelihoods of local communities.
Recognizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Conservation of Biodiversity and Genetic Resources
Back in 1997, Bangladesh has started to legislate to protect cultural rights and traditional ecological knowledge related to biodiversity and genetic resources. But that did not successfully enter the implementation phase. As per requirement by the Convention on Biological Diversity (United Nations, 1992), the government of Bangladesh drafted a law to protect traditional ecological knowledge related to biodiversity.
Though the legal instrument was primarily intended to cover plant biodiversity (F. U. Ahmed, 2004), but the final draft dealt with ‘biodiversity’ as a general term. A draft of the law titled ‘Biodiversity and Community Knowledge Protection Act’ was later presented by Bangladesh at a meeting of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva in 2000 (UNCTAD, 2000). The texts of the draft law (NCPGR, 1998) proposed by The National Committee on Plant Genetic Resources (NCPGR) of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) says, the main objective of the law was to ‘protect the sovereign rights of the Communities that have knowledge of biodiversity, and have managed, maintained, conserved, reproduced and enhanced biodiversity, genetic resources and traditional knowledge, culture and various forms of practice related to these resources and which are always held in common.’
But the proposed law finally did not pass through the legislating process. Later, in 2017 a law titled ‘Bangladesh Biodiversity Act’ (GoB, 2017) was passed in parliament which do not cover the protection of traditional ecological knowledge and cultural rights of communities related to biodiversity. This lack of legal instruments and institutional structure to protect TEK should be remedied. For biodiversity hotspot like Sundarban UNESCO World Site it is an imperative that, cultural rights and TEK practiced by local community is upheld and maintained for effective conservation.
We also recommend the incorporation of human dimensions of wildlife into the existing nature conservation governance in the Sundarban UNESCO World Heritage site. To do that, we first need extensive documentation TEK and cultural practices using oral history, ethnographies and other scientific methods of social and cultural anthropology. Only if we have a comprehensive understanding of traditional ecological knowledge and cultural practices of the forest people in Sundarban, we will be able to strategize for rights-based and inclusive nature conservation, and providing these communities with the benefits of genetic biodiversity.
For conservation of biodiversity and promotion of local cultural and traditional ecological knowledge in coastal and marine areas, the Upcoming United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) is of utmost importance. As the inclusion and integration of traditional knowledge in research is part of the decade’s roadmap (UNESCO, 2018), we believe this has significance for the conservation of UNESCO World Heritage Site like Sundarban that sits on the interface of the marine and terrestrial realm. And, we propose a comprehensive ecological, biological, and anthropological exploration of Sundarbans under the auspices of UN Ocean Decade.