Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Conservation and Conflicts in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, India

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Conservation and Conflicts in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, India

Article excerpt

The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR)--part of the world's largest mangrove forest--is currently facing a number of environmental and socioeconomic problems including global climate change, rising sea level, coastal erosion, (Bandyopadhyay 1997), loss of mangroves, lack of fresh water, and an enormous population pressure on a shrinking habitat of Bengal tigers. The primary focus of this essay is to demonstrate the local people's struggles in earning a subsistence living in the villages located on the edge of the buffer area of the SBR. The essay is the product of a field research conducted in the SBR, West Bengal, India.

In the SBR, a resident's socioeconomic status is determined by possession of land (Jalais 2010). Broadly, there are two groups: people who possess large amount of agricultural land and people who possess a meager amount of land --including their homestead--and therefore work in the forest, rivers, and creeks for their livelihood (Jalais 2010). Earning a livelihood is difficult for the landless villagers, especially for those who live on the edge of the forest and rely on forest-based fishing, honey, crabs, and prawn-seed collection. Both legal and illegal fishing and honey collection are prevalent among the residents of the forest fringe villages.

The problem of earning an adequate subsistence was clearly in evidence when I interviewed fishermen living in several villages of Gosaba Block, one of the community development blocks located in the eastern part of the SBR. Furthermore, my field research in the Sundarbans illuminated the tension between the managers of the protected area and the local landless residents living in the fringe villages of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR). Gosaba was selected as the research site, as the forested areas of this block are part of the STR and, therefore, fishermen have better access to fishing the estuaries of the Sundarbans. Semistructured interviews with thirty-five fishermen of Gosaba Block thoroughly illustrated their everyday struggle to make a living in the tidal rivers and creeks.

Fishermen in the Sundarbans usually belong to the Paundra Kshatriya, Namasudra, and Jele castes, and all of these castes are considered as "scheduled" castes by the government of India. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Paundras and Namasudras migrated in the SBR from the present-day Bangladesh when the British government transformed the vast mangrove forest into the productive agricultural land (Chakrabarty 2007). Eighty percent of the interviewees belonged to the Paundra Kshatriya caste. According to Hunter Paundras were "cultivators, fishermen, and woodcutters" (1875; 1998, 36). Most of the interviewees had a low level of education, and 20 percent of them were illiterate. In addition to interviewing, field observations and frequently captured digital photographs have enriched the data.


In the lower Bengal deltaic plain, at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Hugh rivers in West Bengal, India, the SBR holds one of the largest mangrove forest ecosystems in the world, along with numerous crisscrossed rivers, creeks, canals, and estuaries. The mangrove forests of the SBR are the last abode of the majestic and endangered Bengal tiger. The SBR is part of the entire Sundarbans region, which spreads across India and Bangladesh. The SBR is coterminous with the Indian Sundarbans, so this paper uses Sundarbans and SBR interchangeably.

The SBR is comprised of nineteen community development blocks among which six are located in the district of North 24-Parganas, and the remaining thirteen are located in the district of South 24-Parganas (Mandal 2003). The total area of the SBR is 9,630 sq km and is divided into core, buffer, and transition zones (Figures 1 and 2). The core area is where the state Forest Department does not allow any anthropogenic activities (except research) to preserve the major habitats of diverse flora and fauna of the Sundarbans (STR Management Plan 2000-01-2009-10). …

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