Managed Retreat or Forced Displacement? Conservation and Conflict in the Sundarbans
Author: Sara-Duana Meyer
The world’s largest riverine mangrove forest grows along the border of Southern West Bengal in India and Eastern Bangladesh. The Sundarbans, literally beautiful forest, are of global importance as a natural carbon sink, a vital ecological buffer zone for the river delta in a region prone to cyclones (Chakrabarti, 2009), and home to over seven million people. The unique ecosystem, which features one of the largest remaining populations of wild Royal Bengal tigers, has gained the region publicity as a Tiger Reserve, and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The region is also notorious for being a human-tiger conflict hotspot with the highest human-death-by-tigers toll of all conservation landscapes, according to the IUCN.
Although the various ecosystem products and fish resources of the mangrove forests do not only support the local population but add to the national economies through trade and export (Iftekar et al, 2004), the area is characterized by chronic levels of inequity and poverty. In recent years, the effects of climate change, pollution, urbanization and ecosystem decline have critically endangered the ecoregion and the livelihood of its inhabitants, among them indigenous peoples, environmental migrants and refugees. In 2020, super-cyclone Amphan destroyed crucial parts of the already weakened biosphere and triggered the largest climate migration in Asia.
The volatile development agenda brought forward by the state governments of both India and Bangladesh is met with heavy protests from the local communities who have been living in and off the forest for centuries. Besides natural resources and agricultural land, the Sundarbans provide the grounds for a complex eco-spiritual belief system where otherwise mostly adverse religious groups of Hindus and Muslims successfully created a communal sacred space, informed by environmental stewardship and local customs predating the colonial period (Sen, 2019). As the local population has been increasingly cordoned off from protected areas, governmental conservation efforts have led to major and ongoing conflicts.
In response to increasing environmental threats and calamities, a plan for systematic outmigration and subsequent ecosystem regeneration was proposed in 2016, which remains highly contested.
This paper identifies ecological and other challenges that cause environmental and human conflicts and discusses some of the proposed solutions and interventions. In particular, the paper considers conservation efforts and long-term solutions to imminent ecological and social threats, and critically examines their approach and effectiveness in the framework of Sustainable Development.
Environmental and Human Conflict
The notion of conflict in the Sundarbans usually evokes the human-tiger conflict, following ideologies about human-wildlife conflicts which are to a large extent shaped by bureaucratic provisions of forest conservation (Sen, 2019). However, there is more. Despite their richness in biosphere and culture, and their vital importance as a source of resilience against climate change caused elsewhere, the Sundarbans are considered as one of the most vulnerable regions in the world, both ecologically and economically (Danda et al, 2019; Ghosh, P., 2015). Over the last few years, the region has seen drastic biophysical changes to a point where the already weakened ecosystem is unable to cope with the effects of climate change any longer. Massive losses in biodiversity and forest cover (Iftekar et al, 2004), as well as increasing pollution from traffic and tourism are just some of the issues that placed the Sundarbans on the IUCN’s Red List of ‘endangered‘ Ecosystems (Sievers et al, 2020).
Concerningly low ranks in most development indicators (Ghosh, N. et al, 2016) and depleting ecosystem services add to the more and more hazardous situation. Coastal erosion and sea level rise have not only escalated soil and water salinization and the destruction of agricultural land, thus endangering livelihoods, but the disappearance of several inhabited islands (Panda, 2020), thus triggering waves of environmental and economic refugees. Cyclones have seen an alarming 26% increase in frequency and gravity over the last century (Ghosh, N. et al, 2016), and two successive tropical cyclones in 2019 and 2020 led to an environmental and humanitarian crisis (Sen et al, 2019; Mehtta, 2020).
As property and livelihoods are destroyed, some analysts have called out the population for their alleged tendency “to exploit the ecological resource base rather indiscriminately,” (Ghosh, N. et al, 2016) thus promoting a neo-Malthusian narrative of (over)population pressures and poverty precipitating environmental degradation, and subsequently migration and violent conflict (Hartmann, 2010). Indeed, the Sundarbans themselves have seen a growing influx of migrants from crisis-stricken areas in Bangladesh. An unregulated exodus in search of shelter and employment towards urban centers like Kolkata would most likely entail a slew of humanitarian, economic, and security issues. However, as Hartmann points out, social, economic, and political forces are rarely taken into account when blaming ‘poor peasants’ for their own poverty and environmental degradation.
Notably, the history of the Sundarbans has been one of (external) extraction since colonial times. Considered as a ‘wasteland’ inhabited by mostly ‘uncivilized’ indigenous communities at the time, the delta’s wetlands and mangrove forests underwent historical land clearings and “rapacious destruction” under British colonial rule (Iftekar et al, 2004, p. 127) for the sake of agricultural purposes and timber harvest.
Until today, the residents of the Sundarbans are often considered as ‘second class citizens’ (Mehtta, 2020) due to their different value system and lifestyle, and their socio-political and religious demographic (Uddin, 2019). Accordingly, governmental help for victims of natural disasters has been habitually slow, or non-existent (Ghosh, P., 2015; Bhattacharyya et al, 2020a/b). A lack of basic healthcare services and infrastructure adds to the existential challenges which are exacerbated by a geography of inequality: the poorest people often live in the most vulnerable zones (Mehtta, 2020).
Fortress Conservation and ‘Managed Retreat’ as Sustainable Development?
Several attempts were made over the years to implement development solutions. The population had historically relied on embankments to keep saltwater out of agricultural areas and prevent flooding of the islands which mostly reach less than 1m above sea level (Panda, 2020). However, the original structures could not withhold the accumulating challenges anymore, and newer constructions showed major flaws. Apart from the use of inadequate materials and design, maintaining the embankments proves to be increasingly difficult and expensive (Danda et al, 2019).
Attempts geared towards the protection of the unique biosphere led to the establishment of Protected Areas and a Tiger Reserve. In 1987, the Sundarbans were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Ghosh N. et al, 2016). These conservation efforts came with a boost in the tourism industry, promising sustainable development for the region and benefits for both the human and non-human inhabitants. A closer look, however, reveals the difficult dynamics of the “challenging and contested concept” of Sustainable Development (Hopwood et al, 2005), and a neoliberal trend where “ecosystem services are the commodity at the centre of strategies for ‘selling nature to save it.‘“ (McAfee, 2012, p. 27)
Expectations of (eco-)tourism as panacea that would not only foster environmental regeneration but also generate alternative livelihoods for the local population did not come to fruition. Only minor additional occupations were created, while expanding tourism and its traffic took a significant toll on the ecosystem (Ghosh, P. et al, 2019). While the region is still missing a hospital, the ready installment of tourist lodges or cruise ships hints at a lack of political will, and specific economic interests that cater neither to the benefits of the local human population nor the ecosystem (Mehtta, 2020).
In fact, the state conservation methods proved to be more and more exclusionary, “aiming at removing community rights from the forests“ (Sen, 2019, p. 321). Irrevocable conservation laws currently in place neither take into account the needs and realities of different stakeholders, nor do they address how formalized stewardship methods could be complemented by traditional practices. On the contrary, the local population was cut off from their traditional income options, such as fishing activities and honey collection, and prevented from accessing their sacred grounds. In some cases, the state has sanctioned violence in order to keep the local population out of their traditional environment (Sen, 2019), debunking these efforts de facto as Fortress Conservation (McAfee, 2012), and rendering the human population from custodians to trespassers and encroachers.
The often arbitrary top-down approaches are informed by both political and economic incentives, and the neoliberal restructuring of landscapes and resources. The commodification and capitalization of nature, which assigns an economic ‘value’ depending on the marketization of certain areas and elements, not only reduces the complexity of nature but often effectively devalues (indigenous) populations, territorial linkages, and traditions. The ‘neoliberal conservation’ (Sen, 2019), or market-based allocation of environmental assets in the Sundarbans has been steered by the consumability of nature, there to be enjoyed (consumed) by affluent urban dwellers who can afford to pay for the tour guides and tourist facilities in the protected areas (Mehtta, 2020).
Despite these efforts, it is estimated that one million people will need to relocate from the most vulnerable zones of the Indian Sundarbans by 2050 due to increasing environmental and economic pressure and ecological decline (Panda, 2020; Danda et al, 2019). In order to counter growing environmental threats, a highly contested plan titled ‘Delta Vision 2050’ proposes the phased-out migration from vulnerable zones to newly developed areas in nearby stable zones, and subsequent ecosystem regeneration of the mangrove forest (Danda et al, 2019; Ghosh, N. et al, 2016).
While many celebrate the ‘managed retreat’ as a radical fix, the unwillingness of the local population to readily agree to a potentially forced, top-down internal displacement in the name of development is understandable (Mehtta, 2020). As Panda (2020) explains: “In pre-emptive planned relocation, questions such as fairness of compensation, land rights, and loss of original livelihoods are hard ones to settle.“
In the history of the Sundarbans, the eviction and displacement of local communities is indeed nothing new. While the envisioned plan allegedly promotes a solution based on strong sustainability where natural capital is not substitutable (Haughton and Hunter in Hopwood et al, 2005, p. 40), the underlying discourse strongly echoes the assumption that there is no co-existence of humans and non-human nature. Only without humans, so the argument, can the mangrove forest regenerate and the region ecologically recover. Along these lines, the question of how and when the residents would be able to return to their former habitat remains peculiarly absent from the discussion.
Although the authors of the plan emphasize the development of adequate infrastructure in the zone of relocation, including the re-skilling of migrants for IT and industrial sectors (Ghosh, N. et al, 2016; Danda et al, 2019), it stands to reason that many Sundarban residents will turn into environmental refugees in urban settings around Kolkata and Dhaka, scraping by as construction workers in an environment alien to their habits and customs (Mehtta, 2020). Even in the case of successful re-skilling, the specific choice of industry seems baffling. Rather than empowering the relocated residents in their abilities as stewards of the Sundarbans by way of relevant trainings, or by including them in the regeneration tasks on site, the enforced separation of humans and land is fortified by the Status Quo idea that technology and the industrial sector are the path towards economic growth, and the latter the way out of current environmental and economic problems (Hopwood et al, 2005).
While the ‘Delta Vision 2050’ plan of managed retreat emphasizes human security and is seen by many as a radical but unavoidable step, it largely follows conventional ideologies of decoupling as a viable option (Ward et al, 2016). The common perception of nature as capital is exemplified in the expectation that ecosystem services from the regenerated mangroves after 2050 will buffer the high short-term costs (Ghosh, N. et al, 2016; Danda et al, 2019), and asserting a trend which attempts to make capitalism more ‘sustainable’ with the help of technology (Hopwood et al, 2005).
This summarizes to a large extent the dilemma of ‘catching up,’ as argued by Ehrlich et al (2013), who identify the quest of the Global South to repeat the West’s ‘success’ with all its flaws, as well as the desires for consumerism in a growing global middle class, as a severe challenge for effectively countering Climate Change, and warn to remain “apprehensive about the enormous and possibly lethal environmental and social costs that may eventually result.” (Ehrlich, 2013, p. 6).
While neo-Malthusian narratives which blame the poor for exacerbating environmental and social crises are obviously flawed, the connection between poverty, environmental degradation and conflict remains valid. The Sundarbans are a prime example for the inequality and discrepancies related to the impacts and responsibilities of Climate Change. The case of the Sundarbans epitomizes an ‘environmental conflict’ which has been turned into a placeholder to depoliticize underlying issues of neoliberal commodification of natural landscape resources, classicism and sectarianism, and a history of exploitation, amplified by the contemporary political maze of governmental apathy and endemic corruption in the area.
The imminent calamity threatening the survival of the eco-cultural system in the Sundarbans calls for more drastic development measures to ensure that future generations of both the human and non-human population will still be able to subsist in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. However, at this point, none of the proposed solutions manage to serve both the wellbeing of the human population and the ecosystem at large. Opponents of the implemented and proposed solution emphasize their lack of alignment with the specific socio-ecological characteristics of the region, and heavily criticize their reformist rather than transformative attitude which doesn’t deem system change necessary. This is reflected in the enforced separation and alienation of the forest communities from their habitats through scientific and governmental conservation methods, and in the envisioned development plan of managed retreat and its proposal to ‘wean people off their forest dependencies’ rather than training them in best environmental practices for their return. The possibility that this return might not even be part of the plan becomes more likely given the innate dogma that for the region to ecologically recover, the removal of people is necessary.
Consequently, critics call for transformation and a system overhaul in the form of participatory, consultative processes of regeneration at a local, decentralized level which thinks governance as a community asset and includes solutions tailored in ways to bring about the best collaboration from all stakeholders. These models of community-based conservation which see local communities as co-beneficiaries and allies rather than adversaries of conservation require an alignment of development goals with social and cultural aspects and the diverse realities of the people affected. Incorporating both expert and research insights as well as local knowledge into the design and decision-making processes, and allowing for self-management and collective ownership while providing necessary infrastructure, might lead to more wholesome and efficient solutions, and allow for truly sustainable development to face challenges far beyond the rising waters.
 Due to the scope of this paper, a distinction between the Indian and the Bangladesh Sundarbans did not seem necessary. However, the ongoing socio-political conflicts between the two neighboring countries certainly play a role in the socio-environmental crises, and consequently in the solution-finding and decision-making processes.
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Author’s Short Bio
Sara-Duana Meyer is a specialized generalist at the intersection of society, nature, and culture. Drawing from a diverse background, she works across the domains of sustainable development, urbanism, art, fiction, and conservation. In her capacity as a political ecologist, cultural producer, and consultant, Sara-Duana employs transdisciplinary collaboration to drive systemic change and foster resilience through regenerative practices. She is also a writer and editor, and regularly teaches on and off academia.
As a cultural producer, she spearheaded and supported socio-cultural and educational projects with an emphasis on social justice across Europe, the MENA region, and South Asia for over a decade.
Recently, Sara-Duana has redirected her career to focus exclusively on social-ecological and regenerative projects. As a political ecologist specialized in sustainable resources management, Sara-Duana is particularly interested in the socio-cultural aspects of ecosystem restoration and conservation, and keen to foster intersectional and holistic approaches to advance social-ecological change.
Her professional interest spans across various fields in the context of social-ecological systems, including futures literacy and futures thinking, urban sustainability, regenerative agriculture & food systems, forest communities, and circular economy.