The interns go to the tiger forest

This past week, Jess and I traveled to the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest and preserve for man-eating tigers in the far east of India.

location of the Sundarbans

aerial image of the Sundarbans - courtesy NASA

aerial image of the Sundarbans – courtesy NASA

The Sundarbans are named for the Sundari tree, a species which provides many uses for humans, most notably strong wood. Sundarbans also means “beautiful forest” in Bengali. The forest is split between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal and as of 1997 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to being an area of such rich biodiversity. The Sundarbans, we learned, is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world (140,000 ha – per UNESCO). Halophytic just means a plant that is adapted to living in a saline (more salty) environment, like fast food lovers or pirates. Part of the reason why this is a region of such high biodiversity is that the forest is located at a delta where freshwater meets saltwater, with the Bay of Bengal meeting the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers, the confluence resulting in homes for species which populate both habitats. Mangroves are a type of tree and shrub, most well known for their impressive root systems which filter water, anchor soil, act as a buffer zone between land and sea, and provide homes for fish and other aquatic species.  The tops of mangrove trees are equally important, and are sort of like the high rise apartments of the forest as they are popular homes for many species of birds.

the Sundari tree

the Sundari tree

mangrove root systems

mangrove root systems







We visited the Sundarbans because it is the focus community of ASED’s Solar Lamps project and many of the children there have gone through ASED’s Green Rhinos program as well. We were accompanied by Promit, our boss, Diti’s, son who was our translator, and spent three days there to get footage of some of the villages that have been part of these projects, to interview students who have been given solar lamps and who have gone through the Green Rhinos program, and generally to see what life is like for the communities with which ASED partners. While the section of the Sundarbans that is in India comprises a National Park, a Tiger Reserve and a Biosphere Reserve, we were actually not in the part that houses the man-eating tigers – that area’s for the tourists – and we visited the residential area instead. The village in which we spent most of our time is home to about 700 families.

Our first stop was to visit one of the schools which ASED has partnered with to provide Green Rhinos training for the students (Ambikanagae Haripriya High School) where we got to talk to a teacher there who has been very involved in encouraging environmental education for the children, driven by his passion for the environment. There are no environmental studies-type classes at the school but he incorporates environmental education for the children in other ways, including attendance and advocacy at local rallies about different environmental issues and a garden in front of the school. On our tour of the garden he pointed out one particular plant which he said, among other things, cured stomach pains and smiled as he talked about how doctors he’d consulted through the years couldn’t find the right medicines to help his stomach, but then he started taking this plant and they were amazed it made everything good as new.

this plant has incredible properties for curing stomach pain

this plant has incredible properties for curing stomach pain

a girl waving from the girl's hostel at Deevipur school - ASED has outfitted the hostel with solar panels and solar lights

a girl waving from the girl’s hostel at Deevipur school – ASED has outfitted the hostel with solar panels and solar lights

Shefalimaiti, my new hero

Shefalimaiti, my new hero

We also interviewed Shefali, a girl in Grade VII who has both received a Solar Lamp and gone through Green Rhinos training earlier this year and who is going to join Jane Goodall and Wangari Maathai on my list of strong, female environmental leaders who inspire me. She had this really incredible energy that bounded out of her smile and was so animated throughout the interview. We all left saying “Wow, she’s going to be something.” Through the program she worked to help the school plant 2500 trees, the students gathering all the materials, seeds, and saplings themselves, helped clean the surrounding wetlands, and was involved in educating others in the village about environmental problems in the area.

Later that evening, we were also lucky enough to be in town to catch a play that a local organization, Baikanthapur Tarun Sangha (BTS) was putting on to educate farmers about the consequences of using pesticides and encourage them to return to traditional farming practices. A group of villagers along with members of BTS had written this play themselves, and we sat down around a tarp with at least fifty locals and their children to watch the production in the open air.

the pesticide salesman is greeted as he enters the village

the pesticide salesman is greeted as he enters the village

The play opened to original music and a scene of the villagers going about a regular morning, and followed a storyline roughly thus: after a pesticide salesman comes into their town and the villagers begin using his products they notice the bees, the butterflies and the plants slowly dying. Then the farmer gets sick from the pesticides, his wife leaves and he is caught in crushing debt, heckled by a loan shark because his yields have decreased and he can’t sell as much crop as he used to. The story ends with a plea from the performers that the farmers practice organic farming, that if they go on doing what they’re doing with pesticides, there won’t be anything left. One line in their play was fascinating: “all that will be left for our children will be poison… Even though it is morning, it will be silent,” echoing almost exactly the ethos of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that is often lauded as the beginning of the American environmental movement. Overall, the message they sang was that if Mother Nature can’t survive then human beings won’t survive.

"If mother nature can't survive then human beings won't survive"

“If mother nature can’t survive then human beings won’t survive”

This event was one of my favorites of the entire trip. As an environmental studies major, I’ve studied that most environmental change comes about through political or economic means, with talk of laws, taxes, rallies and protests. Rarely do you hear art mentioned or advocated as a strategy, it’s usually supplementary or a side attraction, but this was a group of people using art to communicate their concerns with their neighbors.  At the beginning of the play they told the audience that even though this was a play they hoped the principles out of it would come through. It was beautiful – the time it took, the ache in their hearts poured into a medium by which they could show their concerns to the people who live next to them and say “this matters to all of us, this is why this is important.” I’m also concentrating my major on Sustainable Development and time and again have run into case studies where sustainable growth and development projects have been less successful or even downright failures because of outside “solutions.” However, this was self-generated, circulating through the area, people-powered and based on real concerns.


One main consensus that kept emerging from the trip was how difficult life was here and yet how happy everyone seemed. Of course, not everything is peaceful and easy in the secluded forest. Several of the kids, when we asked what they were dreaming about, said they were hoping to get jobs that could bring themselves and their families a more comfortable life, and to continue doing projects to improve the beautiful environment in which they live. But Promit made a good observation, “The people here have nothing, but they are so happy. It’s something that’s hard for people like us to understand, when we have so much but are often still unhappy.”

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Getting to know the neighborhood

“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” 
― Franz Kafka

As Promit led us around the corner to the stretch of tents along the sidewalk, a wave of anxiety washed over me and settled as a pit in the bottom of my stomach. My mouth went dry, hands unsteady as I began to turn the video camera on, slowly raising the lens up to begin recording. As I attempted to calm myself, a fleet of thoughts raced through my head.


“Will they let me videotape?”

“What if they get angry?”

“What if the police make us stop?”

And, worst of all, “What if they think I’m making a spectacle of them?”


This was the second day of work for Claire and I as interns for the Association for Social and Environmental Development. ASED, as we describe here, is a non-profit organization that promotes biodiversity and nature conservation through youth empowerment and education. The first day on the job we met with Diti, who spoke with us for over an hour about her goals and objectives for our time here, trying our best to get as accurate an idea as possible of her and ASED’s mission. We came away from that meeting with a hefty assignment list for these next five weeks. At the end of our stay, we plan to have filmed, edited, and finalized three short videos promoting ASED programs. One video would be for the Solar Lamps program, one for Green Rhinos, and a third, at our urging, of the general environmental concerns occurring in Kolkata and what is being done to combat them. Individually, Claire is also looking to research the Kolkata government and how sustainable development is being implemented into city planning. I will be looking further into the solar technology being used in the solar lights program, with the intent to contact the solar department back at school about possible recommendations about improving or changing the technology currently being used.

Diti also let us know that we would be traveling to the Sundarbans next week for four days to begin gathering footage to be used in all three of those videos. That gave us merely one week to learn the complete ins and outs (as best we could) of being a documentarian. From timelapse shots to lighting to interviewing to editing to not making my footage a shaky mess (God help me), Claire and I have been nonstop researching and seeking advice on all fronts to prepare ourselves as best we can for the Sundarbans adventure. For those of you who don’t know, since I didn’t until a couple weeks ago, the Sundarbans National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site on the bordering lands of India and Bangladesh. It is both a tiger preserve and biosphere preserve, home to the endangered Bengal tiger and “the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world” per it’s UNESCO page. Since the park also happens to be a meeting site for salt and freshwater, beasts of both realms exist throughout, as in sharks and crocodiles and sea snakes Oh my!  Needless to say, we’re more than a little nervous about making the journey. 

The reason for our travel to the Sundarbans is that on the outskirts of the park are villages of people that make their living from the surrounding wildlife. The children in these villages attend school, but have difficulty studying at night because of the lack of electricity in that area. Their only choice is to use expensive kerosene lamps that give off poor light and cut into their family’s already minimal income, or to not study at all. Thankfully, ASED is working to solve this issue through the solar lights distribution program. This program has distributed over 700 lamps to families in need throughout the Sundarban villages, as well as outfitted a girl’s school with solar light technology. Our job as ASED interns will be to travel to the Sundarbans to take footage of the area, as well as undergo a series of interviews of children affected by the solar lamps distribution.

So here we were, on our second day of work, being led out to the sidewalk by Diti’s son, Promit, to test out the video and camera equipment in preparation for our trip to the Sundarbans. To practice shooting, and to get footage for our video about life and the environment in Kolkata, we decided to visit the line of tents covering the sidewalk around the corner from the office. These sidewalks are home to Kolkata’s poor, where they have set up tarps and blankets which we walked past our very first day, unaware that people were living and sleeping on the concrete next to us. Claire and I were hesitant, not wanting to violate the privacy of the people inhabiting the space. For these people the sidewalk was everything, from earning a living to preparing meals to giving birth and everything in between. As we began to film, the people whose lives we were attempting to capture looked up, making eye contact through the lens. I held my breath as one of the men walked over to me. While his English was poor, I got the jist of his concerns, wanting to know what we were doing. My words were awkward and jumbled, with small snippets like university students and making video and wanting to help coming through to try and convey my message. Eventually, he smiled, and pulled his son over, then pointed at the camera. It took me a second, but then I realized he wanted me to film him. I began to record him, as children and parents all down the road started flooding out into the street, coming over to Claire and I with brimming curiosity painted on their faces. The small children began leaping to the front of Claire’s camera, posing and giggling with delight as she began to take pictures, then bringing the camera down to show them their images.

Claire india pic

claire still

As I tried my best to get it all on film, an elderly woman approached me with a baby in arms, starting to speak about their life and how they came to live on the sidewalk. Promit assisted by translating her story, talking of how their family used to live in the slums behind the wall of this sidewalk before getting evicted last year. To make money for her family, the woman sorts through trash on the daily separating out paper to sell back. One of the men next to her is a rickshaw driver, and together they provide most of the earnings for the dozen or so people living in these tents. When asked about life during the summer months when the monsoon rains occur, she said that whenever the rains come and flood the sidewalk, they have no place to sleep as well as no means of bringing in income, since the paper they sort and turn in for recycling gets soggy, leaving no choice but to go hungry for days until the roads dry up again.

Amidst the heartbreak of their situation, one would think that it would be impossible to still experience the positive aspects of life, such as hope and joy and love. But looking out at the children, playfully pulling Claire and me by the hand to show us their home, their pets (one boy pulled me over to film him riding his goat!), and their overall livelihood, the happiness that emanated from their play was infectious, causing us to laugh and smile right along with them. Through them we were able to seek out the beauty present within their lives, the hope and potential for a better life that always stems from the boundless possibilities of youth. We learned that there was a program in Kolkata that sends teachers to these regions, educating the children in everything from English to Bengali to sums in an effort to empower them through knowledge. Even as we were filming a teacher stepped off a bus and walked over to the sidewalk, gathering all of the children for their daily lesson. While there’s still a long way to go in improving the lives of these sidewalk citizens, it’s comforting to know that there are people out there attempting to reach out and assist in bettering their situation.

The teacher gathering her students for class that day

In one day, from talking to Promit and speaking to these people, I learned more about Indian culture than I ever thought I would through this entire summer. While still moderately nervous about staying in the Sundarbans, I relish the opportunity to interview these students impacted by the solar light distribution and the Green Rhinos program, as well as explore one of the most beautiful and well-preserved biospheres in the world.

Thanks for reading! Happy Friday!


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