After a few days and stopovers in places that do not need a description, we arrived in Munshigonge, on the border between India and Bangladesh. Here in the southwest of Bangladesh, India and Bangladesh share the Sundarban, the mangrove forest that lies off the inhabited coasts and is under special protection. The NGO Barcik (Bangladesh research centre for indigenous knowledge) had taken care of us today and guided us through the area for the next days. The focus here was on communities that live from the forest as their basic income (forest dependent people). We visited a Mawali village, a community of landless storm victims, the seed bank of Arjuna Khanum, the head office of Barcik, and a Hindu community of mat-weaving women. Each time we drove over the area that the storm Ayla left shaved bare in 2009 and which is now populated almost exclusively by shrimp farms.
Mawali is the name of a population group who use the forest as their main source of income. They mainly collect honey in the Sundarban, which they can sell at quite high prices to the population in the cities. To enter the Sundarban, they have to obtain special permits. They are granted a total of 2 months per year. When they enter the area, they stay in there for about 15 days. They go into the forests in groups of up to 11 men, sleep on their boats and walk the spots where they know they can find good honey. They use masks and gloves to collect honey. They collect whole combs and press them out to separate the honey from the wax.
On their trips into the forest, Bengal tigers used to be a big problem. They also attacked the father of our interlocutor when he was a boy of eleven. Today, he is an old man, has grandchildren and talks about changes in recent years. The biggest problem are robbers and pirates who hide in the Sundarban all year round and extort protection money from the Mawali. Monstrous sums of 4000 rupees per man (about 40 euros) are reported – sometimes more than one group of pirates come and rob the mawali. They cannot defend themselves, the pirates are too well equipped for that. Tigers are no longer perceived as a problem. Today they are much more pirates. The women and children of the mawali stay at home. Of the boys, the first go on collecting trips when they are 12. It depends on the family whether they send their children to school or let them go into the forest. Of our interlocutor’s family, who have two boys, one child went to school and the other went with them to the Sundarban.
When the men are away, the women pray for their husbands. To increase the effect of their prayers, they abstain from eating, do not wash or comb their hair, refrain from all other personal hygiene and do not go out in the evening. If one of the men does not return from a tour, the woman suffers. She loses her support and hardly finds a new one in the extended family. Even more, sometimes she is driven away from her land because she no longer enjoys protection. Often the women then become poor landless day labourers who are even called by the name of Opoja (culprit) because they are blamed for the misfortune of their husbands.
In the past, women whose husbands travelled in the forests did not have their own gainful employment. Today, the women have an additional income in NGO-sponsored work. This consists of manual labour, which is then marketed at markets at stalls provided by the NGOs. These can be found as far away as Dhaka on various occasions, Women’s Day for example, and various other festive days. On offer here are mainly paper flowers in recycled vases (plastic bottles), papier-mâché and knitted children’s toys. As we are leaving the hut that the women have converted into their NGO centre, we find sacks full of plastic boxes for shrimp cultivation. Not a single word about this work was heard in the interview. So those who want to demonise shrimp cultivation forget how widely interwoven this activity is in the Munshigong population. Even among the poorest of the poor.
A community of landless victims of storm
In 2009, a storm swept through the Munshigonge area, leaving behind a picture of devastation. No tree, no hut, no shrub remained in its place. Desolations of this kind can still be seen in the area today, but there is another reason for this.
With the storm, salt water from the ocean came onto the agricultural land and made it infertile. When salt water reaches fertile soil, it usually takes two rainy seasons for the soil to rid itself of its salt water. This is replenished on the flood plains without special channels, unsalted clay helps the soil to regenerate.
The community we visited lost everything and was provided with shelters in a kind of courtyard compound. These were made of corrugated iron. Today, the corrugated iron sheets are badly eaten away by the salt water that keeps coming in, and they hardly offer any protection from the animals that are scurrying on the ground. But what the NGO Barcik did most of all was to help desalinate the soil. They installed a rainwater treatment plant and gave everyone a small plot of land for horticulture. Here they experiment with new vegetables on small plots and even keep a pig for fattening in a small cage. Since the community is made up of Hindus, keeping pigs is not a problem here. In some rituals, pigs are sacrificial animals. The community has been living on the land given to them for ownership for ten years now. Earlier they lived in remote corners of the flood land. They were only united here by their landlessness in this measure. Barcik thus prevented the Munda from leaving the country in search of a better life.
Some went across the border to India, others settled in another area by buying land. Those who remained were those who had nothing. Among them, single women who lost their husbands in the storm.
The seed bank of Arjuna Khanum
Three years after Ayla swept across the island, Arjuna formed an association of rural women in 2013 to improve their livelihoods. The main aim was to improve horticulture. With nine different seeds, she started building a seed bank. Through her persuasion, she quickly found fellow women who joined the association and contributed seeds of their own. Soon there were 40, then 60 and now over 100 different seeds that are used in horticulture and home medicine. Seed plants are propagated in small trial plots and entered into the seed bank. The members of the association have free access to the seeds and can exchange them. Seed propagation is not limited to personal use, as it is in Germany, but is also offered as seed on the markets.
She has now been running her seed bank for ten years and was thus honoured in 2018 as a laureate by the President of the country for her commitment.
Head Office of Barcik
Barcik is an organisation that makes a very good impression. It is concerned with the reclamation of salinated land, buying it up so that it is not given over to shrimp cultivation, but to desalinate this land and enable a livelihood in agribusiness and horticulture for the local people. Other important concerns are the provision of water purifiers, rainwater harvesting systems and the distribution of land for horticulture. To this end, they run seed banks, create herbaria for indigenous crops and try to persuade the population for small-scale horticulture and agriculture. In a very pleasant residential building in the capital of Upozilla is their headquarters, here they provide books and pamphlets in large numbers.
Hindu community and mat-weaving women
We made a small detour to the home of one of Barcik’s employees. He lives on a farm belonging to a Hindu community, all of whom live in traditional huts made of mud straw.
The walls of these mud houses are based on bamboo frameworks, which are filled with bamboo meshes that ensure internal strength. Clay is thrown onto the meshwork, which is enriched with cow dung and the husks of rice. If you want to leave a wind hole, you simply cut out a window area in the wall. This then has its natural wind and sun protection.
and sun protection. The women who weave date palm mats first make a scarf from a date palm, which, due to the length of the date palm leaves, reaches a natural width of about 20 centimetres. This date palm scarf can then be made infinitely long. Usually, however, no more than 2 metres in length are woven. These shawls are then placed one inside the other, so that a date palm mat has several shawls as its basic parts and thus several seams as its basic division. A wide variety of patterns are woven into the shawls. This is achieved by applying different leaf tops and bottoms.
When cyclone Ayla hit the Sundarban and reached the mainland in March 2009, not much was left. Decades-old trees were knocked down, rural people lost their huts and a huge area was covered with salt water. These salt water areas had become unusable for many and some resourceful businessmen quickly found ways to buy the salinated land from the destitute population. It is not uncommon for the press reporting on this phenomenon outside Bangladesh to celebrate shrimp farming as a grassroots movement, a way to counterbalance the evils of storm and climate change damage. (The term shrimp farming is used here as a container word for a wide variety of shrimp and crab species, some of them freshwater some saltwater).
The area that Ayla left behind in 2009 is now populated almost exclusively by shrimp farms. And this is not without problems, as certain shrimp species, but especially crabs, require saltwater. This was available in sufficient quantities in 2009 and 2010, but two rainy seasons are enough to convert the land back into suitable agricultural land. So sluices were built into the dams so that salt water would continue to reach the farmland through the tidal currents. As you can see from this example, shrimp farming is not cheap. It takes a lot of investment to set up a shrimp farm like this. You need cold storage to preserve the shrimp and ship it to all parts of the country. You need breeding boxes made of black plastic that float on plastic racks to grow the shrimp, and you need to filter the shrimp as breeding cultures from the saltwater-bearing rivers with nets. These “embryos” are sold by the fishermen for a few cents each at the markets in plastic bags and thus end up in the saltwater ponds. The whole business is not for impoverished farmers who could simply convert their land to shrimp farming. Nevertheless, it can be seen that many in the delta are involved in shrimp farming and that many interdependencies have formed here. How can this be? The driving factor is the law of capitalism, according to which only growth ensures prosperity. This growth needs areas that absorb salt water. But this salt water is harmful to almost all agricultural plants. Also for other trees and shrubs. Only the palm, date, coconut and jackfruit palms can tolerate the salt water and can even (as with coconut milk) convert it into sweet water.
In 2009, the nucleus for this saline water was born in the freshwater-dominated cultivation area of Munshigonge by storm Ayla. Dams were built to keep the saltwater where it is, and additional tributaries were created to bring in new saltwater. To gain more land, unscrupulous businessmen sent out thugs to wrest land from farmers unwilling to sell. If they still did not want to sell, their land was flooded by breaking dams in the saline ponds. A huge area of monoculture was created, similar to the huge monoculture agricultural areas known in Post Soviet Europe. The shrimp market continues to grow. Bengali food has now become very accustomed to shrimp and demands more and more of these relatively expensive sea creatures. No food we have had on the table in the last few days has been without shrimp. It has now displaced the usually very popular chicken from the number one spot of Bengal’s favourite food.
Shrimping has also led to a drastic change in the landscape. Whereas almost all parts of Bangladesh are green with lush vegetation and thriving small-scale agriculture, here in Munshigong the colour of salt and depleted soil dominates the landscape. This change in the landscape due to salt water has hardly ever been perceived by me as drastically as it is here in Munshigonge. How do you reproduce such landscape changes in a picture? A barren landscape only appears barren because the human eye has become accustomed to lush green. This repression of the lush green by the white salt creates an emptiness that is almost impossible to reproduce. Claudius tries his hand at this contrasting landscape in colour and pictorial studies. Painterly as well as humanly, it remains a challenge.
The Sundarban are actually nothing more than a forest area of mangroves and many other trees protected from human access. The originality of the territory only comes from the Bengali perspective of having completely turned the delta into an agricultural product-producing territory in the last 200 years. Not a square inch of the entire land is beyond the control of the Bangladeshi people. Even if it looks as if there are (para) individual free wild landscapes between the individual settlements, these are also controlled forest and woodland areas. The Sundarban fulfils the promise of the original.
To do so, it must be protected from human encroachment. But the people it must be protected from are the weakest members of society, the Munda, who used to be Bawali – rangers who cut firewood, the Mawali, who now go to the Sundarban for two months a year to look for wild honey. The people who can afford it charter boats, get helpers and police protection and go to the Sundarban in several boats to have palm leaves collected to sell later at the construction market as roofing or fencing material.
They protect themselves with their own weapons and sometimes by paying protection money against the pirates marauding everywhere in the Sundarban. They attack rangers and honey gatherers to extort protection money from them, rob them and often kill them. They raid fishermen and squeeze food and money from them, and they are booked by local potentates to raid or blackmail their adversaries.
Munda Community — Bawali of the Sundarban
Cyclone Ayla also hit many members of an indigenous community, who were later given free land which they now use for gardening. They are actually forest dependent people who lived in the Sundarban until a few years ago. They are so-called Bawali, forest runners. They lived from the forest as suppliers of firewood for the Bengali population. Since the forest has been protected, however, they are no longer allowed to take firewood. Unlike the honey gatherers (Mawali), they no longer get a concession from the state to visit the forest. That the Munda are forest people is still noticeable today. They collect their firewood from between the bushes planted in the dams, sweep up the leaves and sell them in large sacks as fodder for the farmers. But they also collect crabs in the ponds and shrimps in the accompanying salt water pools. Some men drive rickshaws or work as gardeners, construction workers or day labourers in the area. What is unusual is the strong role of women in their community. They were present in all our conversations. They carried on the conversation, even if one of the men was the so-called spokesperson for us.
The Munda are a group with their own language (Shantri), actually come from Raji India and have a faith based on Hinduism. Unlike the Hindus, however, who need a Brahmin as a ritualist, the Munda perform their rituals themselves. They worship Hindu gods; in their temples are Monosha, Bonbibi, Sarasati (white goose), Kattik (peacock) and Ganesh (rat). However, the rituals remain in their families, with the eldest men in the family taking on the role of priest. Most Munda marry in their communities, with marriages being arranged. If a marriage is arranged, both families (bride and groom) buy a white cock and a red one. The roosters play the role of guardians, and their colour is also reflected in the bracelets of the married women. They wear white bracelets made of shells (snails), and a red bracelet made of plastic to protect the white bracelet. A priest, Father Luigi has taken up their mission in Munshigonge and teaches them their own culture as a development aid. He sends various members of the group to India to meet their Munda tribal comrades. When asked about relations between their Indian neighbours and their own groups, they do not give any information. They have relations mainly with the nearest Munda groups in the area.