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OP-ED: The Sundarbans: Not a tragedy of the 'commons'

  • Published at 06:14 pm December 6th, 2020
An evolving relationship between Man and forest SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Profit-making ventures are destroying the organic relationship between the people and the Sundarbans

The Sundarbans of Bangladesh were inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites on December 7, 1997, on the premise of the possibility of its irreversible loss and the importance of the forest’s unique ecosystem. One may ask: Why does such degradation of natural resources happen? In The Tragedy of the Commons (1968), Garrett Hardin claimed that human beings, with their biological urge and greed, will destroy communities and the environment -- natural resources -- for some extra benefit unless restrained by an authority. 

Hardin’s claim resonates with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s recent consideration of the proposal to label Sundarbans -- the largest mangrove forest on earth -- as “World Heritage in Danger.” Even though, during the 43rd session in 2019, the Word Heritage Committee decided not to keep the Sundarbans on that list, there is an ongoing debate about the diversified uses of the forest sites that damage its overall sustainability. 

The myth of the tragedy of the ‘commons’

The question that appears before us: “To what factors can we relate the tragedy of the Sundarbans?” In answering this question, I will illustrate how the menace that is looming over this world heritage site does not originate from the uses of it as “commons” by the people living in close vicinity, who heavily depend on it for natural resources. Rather, the threats against the Sundarbans are posed by capital investments and profit-seeking undertakings by absentee investors who receive support from a “development”-oriented government.

In 2019, three organizations received permission to set up Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) bottling factories within the Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) of the Sundarbans. Besides, the government allowed five cement factories to operate within the ECA of the Sundarbans. In 2018, the Department of Environment published a list of 190 factories that are built within the 10-kilometre buffer zone of the Sundarbans. 

The more worrying aspect is that these factories are likely to discharge toxic by-products in the surrounding areas. Oil refineries, ship breaking and building yards, salt and cement factories, LPG bottling, brick fields, etc will severely damage the ecology of the mangrove. Meanwhile, construction of the 1,320-megawatt coal-fired Rampal Power Plant near the Sundarbans generated concerns over the possibilities of its total extinction. 

A development-oriented government expects that industrialization will create more employment opportunities and reduce the local population’s dependence on the forest resources. This approach towards achieving sustainability of any natural resource site, eg, the Sundarbans, is similar to Garrett Hardin’s claims about the tragedy of the commons. 

Many critical comments can be made about the expected inclusion of locals in these industries. As very few are directly benefited, many people are forced to forgo customary practices of forest resource use, risking the wellbeing of the Sundarbans.

In contrast to the centralized governance model, Elinor Ostrom, in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990), proved that local communities can use commons sustainably over the long term. Hence, I will not dig much into these practices. Rather, I want to emphasize on the social significance of “places” such as the Sundarbans.

The Sundarbans as a site of socialities

In Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts (2018), Romila Thapar stated, heritages -- “objects, ideas, or practices” -- make our cultures and connect the past to the present. Therefore, a loss of the Sundarbans will incur the extinction of wide-ranging cultural practices beyond the eminent environmental crisis. The essence of my argument is this -- The Sundarbans is a site of human interactions which creates socialities. 

Around 3.5 million people are directly or indirectly depending on the resources of the Sundarbans, including wood collectors, golpata (nypa palm) harvesters, honey collectors, and fisher folk. These forest-dependent people usually follow social conventions and over the years have developed an evolving “ethno-task-scape” centering the Sundarbans -- a reciprocally organic relationship between people and the forest.

The Sundarbans-dependent people follow some common rituals. Their beliefs and practices espouse a folk culture and practice -- a form of forest religion. Local people regard Bonbibi as the guardian spirit of the Sundarbans. Both the Hindu and the Muslim residents of the Sundarbans venerate Her. Bonbibi is also termed as Bondevi and Bondurga.

Given that Bonbibi is a common deity of the Sundarbans-going people, whenever a group enters the forest, regardless of whether they belong to Hindu or Muslim communities, a visit to the shrine of Bonbibi is not an unusual sight -- it is a one of a kind inter-faith socio-ritual practice.

One of the features of Bonbibi worshiping is that it does not require a priest. Moreover, there are no fixed texts/hymns to be recited during the rituals. Above all, there is no auspicious time for performing the rituals. Forest-goers mostly perform rituals as per their convenience. The rituals involve offerings of wildflowers, creepers, weeds, and seeds, which are usually picked from the forest. The offerings mark the forest-dependent people’s commitment towards saving the forest.

While collecting resources, the forest users follow specific rules that in turn ensure sustainable use. For example: Bawalis (wood collectors) usually leave one stem in each clump after cutting (choose which have at least 4-5 stems) and they collect wood from a compartment every alternate year. They do not cut young and straight trees but the trees that have limited possibility of growth. Similarly, Mauals (honey collectors) never put fire on the beehives, thus ensuring the safety of young bees.

Despite the fast depletion of the forest resources and the decreasing number of direct forest-dependent people, the essence of Bonbibi has not yet ebbed in the remote areas of Sundarbans. Yet today, the Sundarbans-dependent people try to pacify the Royal Bengal Tigers and keep them happy by offering roosters and pigeons.

There is an annual celebration of Bonbibi when the tales of Bonbibi are staged for the younger generation. This celebration in January (Magh) every year reaffirms the relation of Bonbibi with the people and the forest. The forest and associated beliefs and rituals -- heritages that the unique nexus of forest and people has generated -- ensure sustainable use and increased inter-faith cohesion over hundreds of years.

The dilemmas to overcome

Burgeoning industries in the Sundarbans zones calculate the material resources of the forest. Capitalist endeavours only become profitable if utilitarian motivations can destroy the social conventions. Thereby, the Sundarbans is under the capitalist seizure -- losing its social character and arguably, the spaces and social relations within are being used for capital accumulation. 

Profit making ventures are altering the ways people have been relating to the Sundarbans and the repertoire of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Therefore, it will be wrong to see the Sundarbans’ depleting resources and risks of existence as an outcome of the “tragedy of the commons.”

One may argue that increased industrialization benefits the people by creating job opportunities and thus reduces their forest dependency. This “politics of hope” juxtaposes different “futures,” facilitating a capitalist fraud. 

Locals losing access to the forest are not better off than before. It is not an exaggeration to claim that capitalistic appropriation of the Sundarbans engenders massive ecological and social loss.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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