Western-Southern part of Bangladesh, it is called coastal zone as well. The area is prone to natural disaster due to its geographical location. However, people living in this area inherently possess both firmness character and knowledge to adapt to and combat the climate change induced disasters. I went there almost two months ago with two persons from the Netherlands, as an interpreter! Most of the people in this area depend on the non-timber forest products for their livelihood. Few of them are wealthiest and are involved in trade and business. Shrimp farming which has snatched the attention of all due to its negative impact on agriculture as well as due to its high rate remittance return to boost the economy of Bangladesh is mainly the main business of these wealthiest people in the area. And obviously the poor are the sufferers of this so called development initiative defined by the state! Remi Kempers and Marije Rosing, staffs of BothEnds, an organization from the Netherlands, mainly visited the area to measure the impact of the project they have previously facilitated jointly with BARCIK and to identify some areas that could be considered to address in future! As an interpreter, I found difficulty to articulate things and got them translated into other languages! But the learning, the experiences I gained and the bravery of the people I found to fight with lots of difficulties, severities to uphold their existence and make their livelihoods survived has encouraged me to write their stories!

It was in the morning! We were scheduled to sit with the villagers at Datinkhali. It’s not far way from where we reside but took hours to arrive there! Poor physical communication and narrow earthen road perhaps was responsible for that! Datinakhali is totally different from other villages of Bangladesh I have ever visited! I did not find the green-look shape that I used to see at other villages. I found lands were laying idly; no crops, no tree, and no vegetable on the heart of those lands! It seemed it was such as a ‘no man’s land’ area where I did not find any farmers sowing, weeding, or harvesting and becoming busy! I did not find any livestock at houses and grazing in the fields when I was on the way to the village. Lack of pasture land and salinity perhaps has discouraged these people to rear livestock! The things that surprised me was that I found many signboards on the middle of those lands telling the story of shrimp and crab commercial cultivation instead of agriculture! And NGOs are working to promote such commercial works involving one or two people only! It seemed that they are there just to improve the socio-economic and livelihood standard of few people and to earn profit! It also seems that the marginalized and poor people are not in their planning and activities! Except providing one time relief during disasters and running credit program one could hardly find these NGOs to work for creating changes and difference in the life and livelihood of these poor people! Anyway, the villagers were waiting for us at a small house without fence around. The villagers use this house for meeting and gathering. Majority of the participants in the meeting was women and though a small number of male was found but they were almost passive in the meeting. Remi and Marije were pleased to hear the story of their project, the success of their project that reflected in the active participation and voice of the women in the meeting, who in the past could hardly make any sound in the presence of their husbands! The visitors were also impressed by the way their project had made significant impact on the social and economic life of the villagers resulting in reduced rate of early marriage, dowry system and in involving in alternative income generating activities such as preparing pickles from Kewra fruits, making candle, soups, gels from wax etc. Hearing this story from the women encouraged me a lot to learn more from them!
The story of our visit was going fine until we had close interaction with the tiger widows (women whose husbands died due to attack of tigers). What a pity, what a hardship, and what a helpless life-story I heard from them! I won’t give their real names here; I dare not doing that but I must share their stories of living as human being with all. The story really touched my heart! A tiger widow lost her husband when she was only 20 years old but decided not to get remarried just to let her only daughter gets education and brought up well! She said, “Many of my relatives insisted me of getting remarried but I still stay firm to my decision. I want to provide everything to my daughter so that she could be brought up properly and make her own position in the society. I do not want her to lead a curse life which I have right now”. “I know that in this age, I could have an ‘eat, drink and be merry’ type of life but I will sacrifice all my happiness and joy for the sake of my daughter”. She added. What a social teaching I learnt from the young tiger widow! She didn’t have enough education and social teaching but she articulated things of life really well. We, the so called educated people rarely have time to think and decide to sacrifice our own interest, happiness and benefits for the welfare of society and others. But the young tiger widow had. Other tiger widows in the village told us their stories of lack of right, lack of recognition in the society they live. They also told us the way society and state neglect, deprive and assault them mentally, physically and economically!

Rahima lost her husband four years ago due to attack of tiger. She found difficulty to ensure food and other needs of her 4 children after the death of her husbands. It was usual for her to struggle and work hard for her children in the absence of her husband. She takes all these hard works and efforts easily but she gets pain deep inside her heart when she found that people in the society blamed her for the death of her husband! She becomes helpless when she found that she is almost detached from the society and society people do not treat with her and children as they treat with others. She gets bled when she found that administration, state and other service delivery organizations sideline her, erase her name in the list of the allowances, services and facilities she could ever avail as widow! She cries silently everyday when she found that she is not treated as human being and she is deprived from the properties of her husband and father. Rahima also gets angry when she was denied to get health treatment of her children or proper education of them! Alike Rahima there are many tiger widows in the coastal areas who have been leading life with immense hardship and deep pain. They experience humiliation, deprivation, lack of recognition, negligence and assault in every sphere of their life! However, despite of being neglected, these women did not become disheartened. Looking at the faces of their kids they still toil day and night to make them (kids) smile; they still hope of a better life and livelihood, a better place of living. They dream of a better and prosperous society and state where every human being is treated equally, everyone has access to all civic services and facilities and all enjoy equal rights!

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The following day we went to Gabura Union. We were very excited to go there to visit the most aila and sidr affected area! Gabura Union has a look of islands shape; surrounded by water in almost all its sides! Sidr and Aila cyclones took away many lives and damaged lot of resources! I wonder when I learnt that people of this union have to fetch drinking water from a long distance. Sometimes, they have even to cross a river which is almost 8/7 Kilometers away from their residence to get a drop of drinking water! People use dirty water of ponds for cooking and bathing. There is water everywhere but it is saline water! The villagers of 9 no Sora villager told me that there are almost 600 tiger widows in this union! Could you believe it? The number of the tiger widows in the union tells us the number of people died being attacked by tiger and the intensity of their dependency on the Sunderbans! But in spite of being attacked by tiger; people of this union still go to the Sunderbans for extracting resources to uphold their existence. They have to fight with tigers, water bandits and dacoits to ensure that their family members are not starving! The scenario of health service is not good as well. The villagers told that many people died after the attack of tiger due to insufficient treatment from the hospital and lack of medicines. One has to go to Satkhira district for good treatment which is almost 50 kilometers away from their villages. It is really shocking to hear that people have to pose their life to risk for ensuring food for their families! However, according to me, if the available vast lands, where now shrimp farming is done, are made suitable for agriculture and shrimp farming is restricted I think some people might get involved in agriculture and won’t go to Sunderbans for extracting resources. The pressure on the Sunderbans will be also at ease! No lives would be posed to risk as well!

During the visit we found almost all marginal and poor people whereever we choose to visit and interact with people! This interaction confirmed us that the number of deprived and marginal people is huge in the coastal area. Losing all resources and being displaced from their ancestral lands due to cyclone sidr and aila, I found some people took shelter in the government rehabilitated centre which is locally called BARAK. They are well known as “Climate Refugee” or displaced people to us! However, among them I found Munda ingenous people, fisher folk and other communities who now earn their livelihood working as day laborers and sometimes extract resources from the Sunderbans posing themselves to death! The fisher folk community has lost their traditional occupation due to lack of government initiative to protect their rights on wetland. Over again, the Munda community who has been living in the Sunderban areas for a long time is now facing various problems to maintain their livelihood. Many said that the introduction shrimp farming in the area has intensified the problems of these people. These communities could extract resource from the Sunderbans as well as work in the paddy fields of others which helped them running families before shrimp farming! But the so called development initiative in stead of ensuring employment curtails the number of employed people! Thus along with the Munda other people also extract resources from the Sunderbans posing threat, danger both to them and the Sunderbans itself. It is to be noted that shrimp farming requires small workforce compared to agriculture. So, when shrimp cultivation replaced the agriculture automatically numbers of unemployed people increased. The residents of the BARAK said that due to lack of work sometimes they could not even ensure meal for their children twice a day! Thus the male member from the BARAK migrate to other areas, towns for searching of work and staying over there for years depriving themselves from the close touch of their wives, children and relatives! Nonetheless, some women are found making proper use of their homestead lands in the BARAK and farm diverse vegetable with the facilitation of BARCIK. They mentioned that farming vegetable has enabled them to ensure vegetable for their families and even they could accumulate some cash selling the surplus in the markets! Hearing the story of these displaced people one thing really disturbed me. I couldn’t understand what the activities of the NGOs in the area are! Hundreds of NGOs are working there but still thousands of people are starving!

In the midst of this helplessness and worried situation I did see, nevertheless, the ray of hope when visiting the house of Farida Parveen, a woman farmer at Haibatpur village! She does not depend on others for her livelihood; she is quite unlike to other women and farmers in the area. She initiates such a farm at her house where she could collect all necessities needed for her family! Seeing her success, people come to her for solution of their problems associated with agriculture; people consult her when they want to farm vegetable, paddy and other crops! Farida Parveen is aware about the environment and loss of biodiversity being attached with BARCIK. Thus to encourage people adopting sustainable agriculture, she distributes her conserved local varieties of crop seeds with them and discourages them using chemicals and pesticides. There are diverse vegetable, spinaches, both in her field and bamboo made dais! Lots of local varieties of fishes in her small ponds located just in her house yard! She conducted varietals trial with local rice varieties and succeeded to select local suitable and adaptable local varieties. She shares her invention with other farmers as well. I even found a floating plot on the middle of her ponds where she farms vegetable. She is making proper use of her resources. Her house is known as “Farida Parveen Krihsi Bari” means agriculture farm of Farida Parveen to others. Her husband is a traditional healer and knows the use of various medicinal plants. There are many unknown medicinal plants in her house yard as well. Farida Parveen has already become the role model for other women in the area. She still inspires other women to be united resulted in the formation of women farmer’s organization in her village. The members of the organization are very much aware about their rights, about environment and biodiversity! Farida Parveen said, “We could ensure our food security as well as environmental sustainability by practicing sustainable agriculture, making proper use of our lands.” “I initiated this farm to let others know that if we wish we could surely produce crops to ensure food security of our family with our lands and with the indigenous knowledge, techniques and skills we have”. She added.

The poor and marginal people of the western-southern coastal area might have learned from the case of Farida Parveen to take initiative making the proper use of their lands in stead of being dependent on NGOs for their livelihood. However, the state needs to ensure that farmers make proper use of their lands by restricting shrimp farming! The state also should come forward to ensure that all of its citizens enjoy all services and facilities! It is to be noted that the fundamental rights of the people we visted in some villages are still to be ensured, their issues still need to be addressed and their right and access to resources still need to be established. If these initiatives are not taken either by the state and NGOs, both the Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, and people of this area will be posed to risk and dangers. In a democratic country, we surely would not want to see people who still lack rights and recognition. Let us hope that some day the state will take concrete steps to wipe out the hardship of these people!

By Silvanus Lamin