30 January 2012

What am I doing?

Some of you have asked what I'm doing here. I'll try to explain it.

There is a forest in northeastern Bangladesh, a small nub of a forest that’s nearly all that’s left of a huge semi tropical jungle that used to cover thousands of square kilometers. That forest has been declared a reserve, which limits the kinds of activities you can do within its borders. The 20 Asian elephants who live in that reserve need it; they’ve got no place else to go.

Asian elephants are a keystone species, which means that a forest that can support elephants is a healthy forest. Elephants need a lot of space and a lot of variety – banana groves, scrub, patches of old growth forest, water – and an ecosystem that has that variety and abundance is going to be healthy. The tricky thing, though, is that elephants help to make a healthy forest – they maintain the ecosystem by clearing underbrush and keeping some plant growth in check. Their presence means it’s healthy, their presence makes it healthy. They can only do that if there’s enough forest there to sustain them, though. It’s a delicate balance.

Around that forest reserve are thousands of people. Literally thousands, in villages all around, and in some cases within, the boundaries of that reserve. Most (estimates are more than 80%) of those thousands of people are at subsistence levels. They are living off the land, or if they are in the market economy (selling forest products or fish at the market), they are living on less than 80 taka (80 BDT = about US $1) a day.

Once that forest was declared a reserve, many of them were in danger of losing their livelihoods. For many, if they can’t collect timber or non-timber resources from that forest – honey, medicinal plants to sell at the market, fruit, banana and bamboo for food, fuelwood, and fibers for clothes - they will starve to death. When you’re living at subsistence level, your margin of error is very, very small. That’s what subsistence means.

The national government of Bangladesh declared that forest a reserve, in an effort to protect the habitat of an endangered species. The national government of Bangladesh is seated in Dhaka, only 300 km away from this forest reserve, but the condition of infrastructure is so bad that it is, at best, a 10 hour journey by road to get here. The local forest department officials maybe do their best. Maybe they don’t. Maybe on their salary of a couple hundred taka a day, there are opportunities to be had if they look the other way if some harvesting of forest products is going on. Maybe the local government official is in the same position.

The elephants need the forests, or they’ll die. The people need the forests, or they’ll starve. The government is remote, corrupt, and ineffective, and can’t protect the irreplaceable resource of the forest. If the forest isn’t protected, the villagers' children and grandchildren will have no way to make a living. It’s in everyone’s long term interest to protect the resource, but no one has the short term capacity to protect the resource – there’s too much immediate pressure on it.

How do you solve this?

I don’t know.

But I know what hasn’t worked: unilateral decisions, declared top-down by a weak central state with no capacity to enforce its laws. That’s not the solution.

People a lot smarter than me with a lot more experience than me have spent their lives on finding answers to these kinds of issues. I’m just here in Dhaka at this month long writing workshop to help those people rigorously evaluate what’s already been done and what’s being done now to maximize the chances of resource management, for all of the stakeholders – the villagers, current and future; the forests; and the elephants. There are practitioners from all over Bangladesh here (I just used the elephant example because it’s the sexiest; there are people here who have worked in wetlands and other natural resource preservation). The attendees are the people who will be conducting research and making forest and fishery policy in Bangladesh for the next 35 years.

Why a writing workshop? What does that yield? First, it gives people from across the country and across sectors a chance to learn what is working and what isn’t, and to adjust policy accordingly. Second, it’s building the capacity of resource managers by honing their skills (research design, publication standards) to analyze their and others’ work in the field in a rigorous, peer reviewable way, which will allow them to apply for grants and NGO support in future. Third, many past participants in the workshop have used the experience here – and their finished papers from here – to apply successfully for PhDs, further building capacity in Bangladesh as they come home to work in resource management.

And the cool thing is that there looks to be some solutions.

When I got my master's in Urban Planning, this is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about - protecting resources while finding ways for the maximum number of people to live sustainably as was possible. Finding win-win solutions because that's really all that we can do in situations like this. We have to find solutions. What are the options besides that? There are none. I'm not deluded into thinking that I am making a huge hell of a difference, but we've got to try on some of these things.

This is a USAID funded project. ( More information here: http://www.usaid.gov/bd/programs/environ_response.html )

It is an honor to be here on behalf of the American people. It's in America's best interest, of course - a stable, democratic, secularly governed, majority Muslim Bangladesh is absolutely in America's best interest, and a Bangladesh with an impoverished landless class would be a humanitarian tragedy and a geopolitical nightmare (remember, Bangladesh has more people than Russia or Japan; it's the 7th most populous nation in the world, and they live in a space slightly smaller than the state of Iowa) - but far more than that, a healthy planet with healthy people is in all of our best interests.

The people I'm working with and learning from are officials who are doing the right thing, despite an enervated and corrupt government and long odds, and who are trying to find the best solutions there are. I'm privileged to support them.

I'm lucky to be here.

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