Theme: Rural Development and Tourism
by Ms. Reema Islam
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Dhaka, Bangladesh
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. in Heritage Management, Kent University (UK) and Athens University of Economics and Business
Bangladesh is not a well-known as a tourism attraction while there is few people who rank it and encourage others to visit . Tourists don’t expect what they see. This former statement helps them forming a more pleasant view of their experience. Bangladesh is considered one of the largest delta worldwide and home to an intricate network of rivers and water-based ecosystems. Therefore, an article will look at how ecotourism or sustainable tourism that has been developed in UNESCO WHS “Sundarbans Mangrove Forest”. The surrounding communities are more than three million. The villages lie in the direct impact zone of the forest. The Sundarbans spans across both India and Bangladesh, with around 60% lying in Bangladesh.
Conservation efforts have been gone on for a long time and the public-private partnerships have also been flourished. Along with the ecological concerns, the need to find alternate income development strategies for the local people has also been of utmost importance for these projects and organizations. USAID, IUCN, and Relief International have worked on the issues of helping the communities to find other ways generating an income rather than to be dependent on the natural resources . Honey collecting, and fishing activities still continue but under the watchful eye of the Forest Department, a part of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, while a quota system is allocated to each licensed fisherman/honey collector (Mawalis) or individual.
The forest covers an area of 10000 KM2 and hosts the famed and elusive man-eater, Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigris)  while housing about 260 species of birds, Estuarine crocodile and Indian python. It is situated on the junction between the rivers – Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna – and the Bay of Bengal. In 1997, it was inscribed at UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests. The forest was probably called after the resident Sundari (Heritiera Fomes) species of trees, which consist of Pneumataphores or aerial roots that stick out of the soft mud for respiration exhaling the excessive salt in the water. Thus, the forest floor presents a unique environment and equally exceptional visual experience for visitors. Hikes are arranged through certain parts of the forest and here one can cross paths with a group of deer but almost never, the Bengal Tiger! The Gangetic Dolphin (locally known as Shushuk) frequents these waters also as does the Irrawady Dolphin.
Moreover, the forest hosts some ethnic minority groups like the Munda Community, but more importantly, a unique set of beliefs and cultural norms only to the Sundarbans. A local deity Bonbibi is traditionally revered by the resident as the protector of the forest. Looked upon as a motherly figure, Bonbibi  is taken very seriously in these parts but other cultural norms also exist making this an ecologically, as well as culturally rich area.
Munda community is a part of the ethnic minority groups that have their own language and eclectic customs. They have their own exclusive cuisine with a locally produced drink (Haria) and a colorful array of song and dances in their Mundari language and costumes. The food is prepared using local ingredients but there are some off beat dishes which they personally savor e.g. the barbecued rats. However, this isn’t a dish they would serve for guests, this gives the visitor an idea about thier hardship of daily life routine in this salty region. Other communities are not known to consume rats. Nonetheless, this community was trained under the aegis of a project with the Sundarbans Adivasi Munda Sangstha (SAMS), EU funded project under the Relief International  that promoted the Sundarbans ecotourism – “Promotion of Local Culture in the Sundarbans Impact Zone in Bangladesh through Cultural Eco-tourism and Entrepreneurship”. This project aims at financing the Sundarbans local entrepreneurs, into building cottages made with eco-friendly material, locally sourced and ideal for the saline conditions, while training them as guides, hosts and also in hospitality services.
Munda community members were among the beneficiaries of this project and ten cottages were built in the Kalinchi area of their vicinity. The project provides funding to streamline the local livelihood by assigning jobs of boatmen, guides and other jobs which the locals were already participating in or got a special training. Their overall capacity, to earn a living through an alternate means, was encouraged while sourcing products locally for the food and other services was a part of the plan. The project continued for three years when the community members felt independent enough to run the eco-cottages by themselves and have a string of visitors during the winter season (November to March) and also the honey collecting seasons (March and April) .
The project, was a continuation to a result of a previous implemented project which now operates under the aegis of USAID-Winrock. This was one of the pioneering ones that included ecotourism as part of its broader framework of alternative income generating activities. Currently, the Winrock project has estimated an average of $53 million per year , of tourism and cultural services. This includes the annual visitors, foreign and local; the day trips, the overnight hauls on the tourist boats and the treks and hikes within the forest. A tiny portion would also go to ecotourism initiatives, but these would undoubtedly be small in proportion. The availability of such ventures is few that the most visitors take tours of a few days around the waters to watch out for wildlife while only a handful would stay in the villages’ facilities on the fringes of the forest amongst the locals. Therefore, the ecotourism is already presented in Sundarbans but not highly effect in the certain situation.
The Pros and Cons of Ecotourism
The villages in the Sundarbans’ impact zone are remote and not easily accessible from urban areas. Their distance means that the locals in the rural areas will be deprived of many amenities. Basic utilities, e.g. electricity (only 30-40% receive it) , natural gas for cooking or medical facilities and schools, are far and wide, while there is around 90% of the population who still using fuel wood to burn their stoves. These numbers have changed little over the last few years and additionally, climate change impacts wreak their havoc intermittently. These issues make it hard to effectively develop an area like Sundarbans where would be an ideal , including basic amenities like electricity, access to potable water, education and health facilities. Yet, it simultaneously offers the tourist a pristine setting which is ideal for ecotourism. The characteristics provide it with all the requirements of a community-based tourism facility.
According to one of the eco-cottage owners , “it is quite easy to run an ecotourism facility that arriving tourists already have low expectations. The coined term of ecotourism itself spells a lack of certain facilities and an easy acceptance of a range of conditions. Guests are ready to eat in the candle light, get wet as they access their cottage in the rain, all because it helps them associate closer with the locals; they feel like they are truly experiencing something different from the norm.” This feeling is easily experienced in a remote area like Sundarbans. However, this is also posing a threat to the locals, as they would obviously want further development, while maintaining their traditions and culture.
Mawalis have a unique way of extracting honey by smoking them out, using masks tied to the backsides of their heads to scare away predators. Yet, this particular livelihood is under severe threat due to the regional climate change effects, which is affecting the honey collecting season and dwindling the number of bees and subsequently, their honey . Honey is of course one of many local products which is used and presented as part of the Sundarbans culinary heritage. A bowl of honey adds a lot of impact on the table for a tourist who relishes the unique taste of the flowers’ honey. Also, there are other products that to be under threat from the climate change impacts like the fisheries, other fruits and vegetables. Normally, vegetables are grown in the homestead gardens by the locals and fruits also from nearby trees. But, the fish are caught from the fringing river and each fisherman has a licensed permit. Due to a change in salinity, the variety of these fish is getting affected and so is their availability.
There is a great threat, that to be imposed on this mangrove forest in the shape of the Rampal Coal project , a factory sets up only 14 KM from Sundarbans forest and is condemned by environmentalists, as the worst man-made threat. This comes at a time when it is already hard to battle the climate change impacts, where lives of less than four million people are under threat, in a scenario where ecotourism, seems to offer an easier solution to earn a living for the locals.
As their traditional means of earning a living are beginning to dwindle, given that natural resources are finite, the locals need to find alternative ways to live in this saline region. Rural development is one of the catch phrases being used to sell the local coal project nationally and internationally but the impacts will be far worse upon the local flora and fauna, which were always the most attractive feature of visiting this remote region.
The delicate fabric of the local culture is also shaky at this point as infiltration of foreign workers or staff members to the regions will have its added impact on the local way of living. It is a cultural chock for most Bangladeshis even to see a local deity being worshiped and scores of other cultural norms could be seeing a dip in their normal practice. Food on the other hand will be highly affected as the coal residue will affect fisheries and normal fruits and vegetables. The Nypa palm or Golpata is a mangrove specialty and its fruit has a unique taste. Each product is a marker of the rich culinary heritage in this region and rampant degradation of the natural and cultural environment, in the name of development should be looked at considered more diligently by the government. Sundarbans tourism framework relies on its natural and cultural uniqueness; it needs a generation of people that value it worth, more now than ever before.
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- Winrock International (2016). Pioneering Mangrove Valuation Research. www.winrock.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/CREL-Bangladesh-Mangrove-Team-Summary-5-9-16.pdf
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- The Daily Star (2019). UNESCO labels Sundarbans ‘World Heritage in Danger’. www.thedailystar.net/country/news/unesco-labels-sundarbans-world-heritage-danger-1756996