Crowded House: Bangladesh's Agonizing Human Problems Are Caused, in Part, by Its Incredible Population Density

E Magazine, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview

Crowded House: Bangladesh's Agonizing Human Problems Are Caused, in Part, by Its Incredible Population Density


The most densely populated nation on Earth is not Japan or China, it's Bangladesh, a country the size of Wisconsin but with half the population of the U.S. As the world's population increases geometrically, from 1.3 billion 80 years ago to 5.6 billion now and a projected 13 billion by 2040, Bangladesh makes for a sobering case study.

In the Bangladeshi village of Dhangmari, men check their nets in the Pusur River. Dhangmari is a small coastal fishing community at the edge of the greatest remaining stand of mangrove forests in the world, the Sundarbans. The men gather in bucketfuls of finger-sized fish. They will keep every one. The women cook in their bamboo shelters and the children splash in the river. The fertile, wet land is only a few feet above sea level and there is not a hill to be seen.

Some men use poles to push a large boat upstream. They have loaded it with sundari trees. According to a local guide, this wood was cut illegally, but there is no one to enforce the ban. The guide adds that this is not new: They have been cutting the Sundarbans for 75 years and the remaining Bengal tigers are being pushed out to the sea.

Dhangmari appears to be like many indigenous coastal fishing villages in other countries, but there is a strange consistency in the residents' personal histories. No one has lived here for more than four years. How can this be? These are indigenous peoples, living for the most part off the land and outside the cash economy. How can they be such recent arrivals when all around are recently built dikes, man-made fish ponds and cleared land?

People cheer any visitors from the United States, offer their hands and say, "Thank you for the shelter." U.S. Aid for International Development (USAID) has just finished with the construction of a typhoon shelter in nearby Mongla. The next time a typhoon comes, they will be notified and they will have time to flee to it. Not like last time.

On April 30, 1991, a typhoon crashed into Bangladesh, killing 125,000 people in one day, and leaving many millions more homeless. The village of Dhangmari was hard hit. Twenty-foot seas and 90-mile-an-hour winds killed nearly everyone. Those people were living on tidal coast lands where previously no one had ever lived. And now, a whole new group of people has recolonized the marshlands, just like the new coconut trees that sprout up where old ones were blown over. They know that the typhoons will come. They know how dangerous it is. So why are they here? Because there is no room for them anyplace else.

A Hindu activist, who cannot give his name for fear of reprisals, charges that the Islamic government of Bangladesh is encouraging and even leading in the seizure of Hindu lands. He documents case after case, of many tens of thousands of acres of farmland being seized from Hindus, and of Hindus forced to sell at extremely cheap prices under physical threat from the local Islamic governments.

Later, joined by a Hindu attorney, the activist talks of the "Enemy Property Laws in Bangladesh" Statute. …

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