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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”