Sunday, February 10, 2013

Living and dying in the Sunderbans

This is a well established wikipedia fact the the Sunderbans are the world's largest single block of Mangrove forests. It is difficult to grasp the scale and density of it unless you are drifting around in the countless rivers cris-crossing it for an entire day. A couple of days ago, I did just that. Nothing as dangerous as what the locals do - strolling into the deep forest with a pass bought for AUD50 or so and spending days at end collecting fish and honey. Occasionally falling prey to tigers or crocodiles. At least they get to see the elusive tiger briefly. They keep doing it since profit margins are huge, some AUD4000 per month, better than sitting exams and waiting for a government job.

Public river transport
On the same day we saw human footprints heading into the jungle and after drifting around a bit more tiger footprints crossing the river. Crocodiles were everywhere, sunning themselves. We even saw a juvenile croc, looked rather harmless. One of the anecdotes we picked up was about a tiger losing his back legs to a croc while crossing the rivers.
The khal and kumir 
Those who don't earn their living from the forest have taken to clearing it and planting rice. The conservation efforts are ongoing to protect the forest and reduce land clearing. The big cyclone in 2009 - Aila, caused stormsurges and deposited salt on most of the rice fields. This has sent people back to the forests, until the salt tolerant rice comes along. The other noticeable thing was the profusion of solar panels, since most of this area is off the grid. Often there were separate panels supplying separate rooms and one clearly identified for the TV, attached to a satellite dish.
The musicians
The television is a rarity only afforded by the rich. The local live music and theatre scene seems to be pretty active. You can often spot musicians on the ferry heading to a gig on a pushbike with a dhol strapped to their back. Tourism is catching up to provide some more support and even more exposure for the area. It provides an alternative to "jungling", our cook lost her husband to a tiger. However local tourism can be quite destructive, since the locals tend to dump rubbish everywhere and get drunk and drown themselves in the river. Not much different from stories I read about Australians in Laos.

Sunset boat ride
It is a beautiful place, but in the danger of disappearing under the pressure of people. The great economic importance the forests have in their non-destructive use is keeping them from destruction. Things may go slightly awry if urbanisation finally catches up, being off the grid is actually good for this place.

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