The people of South Asia’s Sundarbans mangrove forest have spent centuries fishing its rivers, harvesting its plants and trees, and relying on its bounty to sustain them. But how to protect the forest — and their livelihoods — at the same time?
By linking incomes to the forest’s preservation.
“We thought that an ecotourism project would create employment opportunities,” said Nazrul Islam, RI’s country director in Bangladesh. “It would also promote local culture.”
Ecotourism refers to travel that creates minimum impact on fragile environments. It generally preserves delicate natural areas and improves the well-being of the population. The world’s largest continuous mangrove forest and the biggest remaining habitat of the Bengal tiger, the Sundarbans was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The portion of the refuge in Bangladesh was designated in 1997.
In 2013, Relief International teamed with communities who rely on the forest to design and implement locally driven ecotourism solutions. With funding from the European Union, the community received training and built eight distinct ecotourism sites. Amenities include cottages and tree houses to stay in, entertainment pagodas to enjoy dance and theater performances, and organic meals prepared in the traditional style. Some sites offer river tours and bird watching hikes. The Karam Mura site offers home stays with Munda families. The Munda are an indigenous group originally from India who claim to be the first settlers of the region, and who create their homes from the forest’s wood and thatch.
“We consulted with the community and found people who had entrepreneurial interests or skills,” Islam said. “We then got them engaged in training and exposure visits to similar facilities.” In 2015, several local entrepreneurs, cultural representatives, eco-guides and university professors visited Nepal to meet with and learn from sustainable tourism experts.
The eco-sites are located on land owned by communities who rely on the Sundarbans. Ownership is shared, and the revenue is distributed among community members.
Islam is quick to point out that the cottages and other amenities are the most tangible elements of the project, but that promotion of the local culture is perhaps even more important. The community maintains organic farms and uses them to feed visitors traditional meals of crab, shrimp and fish. Performance troupes offer song and dance, often about Bon Bibi, the guardian spirit of the forest who is said to protect the woodcutters, honey collectors and fishermen of the Sunderbans from tiger attacks and other dangers as they go about their work. Bon Bibi is venerated by Hindu, Muslim and Christian residents alike. A handicrafts center in each site offers jute wall hangings, hand-stitched cushion covers and other locally crafted items for tourists to take home. The purchases, Islam said, help support the local economy.
Islam says the sites are fully booked much of the time. In addition to driving revenue to the local population, he says, RI’s Sundarbans project also empowers the community to preserve and protect their environment. He attributes the program’s success to the community members and their site management.
“Over a few short months, community members have trained to manage these eco-sites themselves,” Islam said. “The success of this program has made a lot of people interested in this model and it has the real potential to be replicated.”