Field exposure trip at the Indian Sundarbans: Insights and Observations
Organized by the West Bengal Research Team (IIT Kharagpur), India
Team Members: Jenia Mukherjee (PI), Amrita Sen (Co-PI), Anuradha Choudry (Co-PI), Raktima Ghosh (Emerging V2V Researcher, Project Fellow), Shreyashi Ghosh (PhD Scholar, IIT KGP), Souradip Pathak (PhD Scholar, EqUIP)
Situated at the southern tip of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, the Indian Sundarbans are made up of an intricate web of tidal channels and mangrove islands which foster a unique human-nature alliance. This symbiotic entanglement is further demonstrated by the traditional practices and survival methods of the “settlers” who have learned to live sustainably near the tidal forests. Currently, various stressors emerging from multi-layered resource governance, global environmental changes and market-based interests have posed serious challenges to the local fisher folk who depend on forest-based fishing, crab and prawn-seed collection to earn their livelihoods.
Map 1. Gosaba block in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, India
Map produced by: Raktima Ghosh
The West Bengal Research Team of IIT Kharagpur in collaboration with the Kolkata-based NGO partner EnGIO, conducted a field exposure trip at Gosaba Community Development Block of Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR, South 24 Parganas district) during the last week of January (29th-31st, 2021) (Map 1). The team visited six villages under Lahiripur, Kumirmari and Chhota Mollakhali panchayats respectively within Satjelia, Kumirmari and Chhota Mollakhali islands. These border the forested stretch of the SBR core zone. In-depth individual discussions and six focus groups with local fishers and heads of the village panchayats were conducted in order to expand understanding of small-scale fisheries (SSF) dimensions in the case study region. Notably, there was an overwhelming response of women who are engaged in fishing activities alongside their household works. Major objectives of the field visit were to:
Develop baseline information on fishing and fish cultivation in relation to prevalent social ecological complications and challenges
Build relatedness with the elders and experts of the traditional fisher folk with regard to their knowledge, worldview and values, and
Strengthen connection and partnership prospects with multi-stakeholders to map potentials on policy linkages and outreach plans
Through interactions with fisher communities, two different scenarios of SSF unfolded. The first being forest based fish and crab collection in Satjelia and the second being inland freshwater fish cultivation in Kumirmari and Chhota Mollakhali. In order to conserve the Royal Bengal Tiger, State Forest Department (Govt. of West Bengal) have imposed sudden rules on the forest-dependent fishers who catch fish and crabs from the mangrove creeks in a less-productive buffer area, locally known as khola bada. Locals venture into the forest twice a day using non-mechanized country boats, facing continuous risks of being attacked by the Royal Bengal Tiger, and depend on their own inherited knowledge and tools. Apart from their conflicts with the forest department officials, locals mentioned several other challenges which include decline in fish stocks, frequent occurrences of cyclones, piracies, and transportation problems.
In comparison to this a distinctive SSF scenario was observed in the villages of Kumirmari and Chhota Mollakhali islands where co-operative based intensive fish cultivation is practiced at the inland freshwater ponds. The fishers mentioned various functionalities and hierarchies within the co-operatives. They also mentioned the different complexities surrounding tenders from village panchayat, poor freshwater quality of the unreformed ponds, insufficient and unhealthy fish-seeds, as well as distant markets.
Indeed, this field visit facilitated the development of insights on both overt and covert issues with regard to SSF. Various thematic avenues such as labour, gender, migration, ecosystem, policy and governance, were brought to light. These were made aware thanks to the narratives of everyday livelihood generation processes, negotiations and apparent social environmental contours of the Sundarbans.
Fig 1. a) Mangrove based fish and crab collection at the buffer areas of SBR; b) Inland freshwater ponds for co-operative fish cultivation; c) Participation of women in focus group discussion forum; d) Focus group discussion with the fisher folk at Kumirmari local market.