92-day closure of Sundarbans: Local communities worried over livelihoods

Boats remain anchored in Shakbaria river in Koyra, Khulna on30 May 2023.
Prothom Alo

Local communities including fishermen, Bawals (leaves collectors) and Mowals (honey collectors) are worried over livelihoods during the 92-day closure of Sundarbans.

They have started returning to localities from the mangrove forest as the restrictions are set to begin on 1 June.

The forest dwellers have demanded increasing assistance as allocation from the government is insufficient compared to their needs.

Movements of people and tourists and fishing in rivers and canals across the Sundarbans will remain suspended during the period, ending on 31 August, in order to ensure safe breeding of most of the species the forest owns.

According to the forest department, a ban on fishing in all rivers and canals is banned in the Sundarbans from 1 June to 31 August every year since 2019 in order to protect the fisheries resources of the forest. The area of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh part is 6,017 sq km, and of which the aquatic area is 1,874.1 sq km or 31 per cent of entire forest. There are 251 species of fishes, 24 species of shrimps and 14 species of crabs in the aquatic area of the forest. Since most species of fishes release eggs in June-August in the forest’s rivers and canals, the forest department banned all type of entry to the Sundarbans for 92 days from 1 June.

Visiting Kopotakkho and Shakbaria rivers in Khulna’s Koyra upazila on Tuesday, more than a hundred fishing boats were seen returning from the Sundarbans with fishermen busy in collecting fishes and nets. Several boats were also seen on the embankment for repairing.

Akram Hossain, from 4 No. Koyra village adjacent to the Sundarbans, said he returned to the localities on Tuesday morning after fishing in the forest’s rivers and canals for six straight days. He couldn't catch adequate fish and he is worried since he has no savings to run his family during this 92-ban on fishing.

According to the Riyasad Ali, the secretary general of the Sundarbans Zone Co-Management Committee, more than 1,000 people returned with boats from the forest until Tuesday morning. The remaining boats are likely to return by Wednesday evening. No body including fishermen, bawals and mowals can go to the Sundarbans since entry into the forest is suspended for three months, he said urging the government to provide assistance to the local communities including fishermen and bawals.

According to the forest department sources, 2,900 boats have boat license certificates to enter the Sundarbans under the Khulna range including Baniadikhali, Kashiabad and Kobadok forest station of Koyra.

According to the office of the upazila fisheries officer, there are 13,526 registered fishermen and they received 86 kg of rice in three months under the VGF (vulnerable group feeding) programme during the period.

Locals, however, said there are more fishermen in Koyra than the estimation of the government. At least 50,000 families, who hereditarily depend on the Sundarbans, live in a part of Koyra Sadar, Moharajpur, Moheshwaripur, Uttor Bedkashi, Dakkhin Bedkashi and they live on fishing in the rivers in the Sundarbans throughout the year.

Fisherman Mohammad Abul Hossain, from Gobra village, said he had to return home several days ago as water increased in rivers and canals of the Sundarbans following the cyclone Mocha. With prices of essentials rising, a 92-day fishing ban from 1 June comes along. Assistance provided by the government during the restriction period is not enough, so they will pass days ahead in hardship, he lamented.

Locals alleged influential fishermen and lenders take over the fish sanctuary during the 92-day ban during the past years and they also poached deer and caught fish using poison in the forest’s rivers and canals by taking advantage of the absence of other fishermen and bawals, and also by managing corrupt forest officials. Local communities urged the forest department to go tough on them during this season to stop these illegal activities.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Abdul Hakim, in-charge of the Sundarbans’ Kalabagi Ecotourism Centre, said the main goal of banning entry to the Sundarbans for three months is to increase the breeding of fishes. So, movement of visitors will remain suspended at all tourist spots of the forest because movement of water vehicles carrying tourists will hamper fish breeding, he added.

Kashiabad forest station in-charge Shyama Prashad Roy said a ban has been imposed on tourists’ entry to the Sudarbans along with fishing in all rivers and canals. Issuance of all passes and permits remains suspended, he said adding, the forest department would maintain a stern stance against the poaching of wild animals and the fishing with poison.

“If law enforcement agencies detain criminals catching fish and crabs during the ban, forest officials of that jurisdiction concerned will face departmental action over showing negligence to duty,” Shyama Prashad Roy added.

*This report appeared in the online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna