A Fellow Success Story: Saving Wetlands and Returning Land to the Landless

Source: Uttaran

A tidal wetland conservation movement in Bangladesh is creating fundamental change in government policy that challenges the country’s very powerful construction interests and associated corruption. Uttaran, a Bangladesh citizen sector organization founded by Ashoka Fellow Shahidul Islam, has engaged the local and national civil society to create pressure on the government to stop projects that cause water logging of tidal wetlands solution and to conserve wetlands in southwest coastal Bangladesh.

At the same time, Uttaran has won a fight to return fallow government-owned lands to the rightful owners – landless farmers and fishermen. Islam’s successes show “clarity about what’s important, persistence, courage, and—ultimately—social entrepreneurship,” said Bill Drayton, Ashoka’s founder and CEO

“My organization Uttaran has always stood for the local people and created a popular movement for taking the indigenous knowledge of sediment management into consideration for removing water logging from an area completely,” said Uttaran founder Shahidul Islam, an Ashoka Fellow since 1994.

Islam reports: “The tidal wetland conservation movement was about establishing local knowledge about tidal rivers and wetlands to ensure effective management of sediments and to remove water logging from the tidal wetlands of southwest coastal Bangladesh. In that part of the country, the government and people were in conflict for a long time over sustainable water management.

“Government engineers and water experts have always preferred structural measures over natural solutions, which have led to water logging in southwest coastal Bangladesh and thus have threatened the tidal wetlands. But the locals were in favor of very natural processes to remove water logging from the area and to conserve the tidal wetlands.;

“The government had a project called the Khulna Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project, commonly known as the KJDRP. The project planned to de-link the tidal wetlands and rivers from any tidal actions. Uttaran understood what destruction the project was about to bring to the tidal wetlands, and that the project activities would not be able to solve the water logging crisis either. In fact, if the project was implemented, water logging problems would only increase, creating a new ecological crisis in the area. Together with the local people, Uttaran strongly protested against the project.

“The KJDRP project was funded by Asian Development Bank (ADB). During this time, it was not necessary to conduct any Environmental Impact Assessment or Social Impact Assessment for ADB financed projects. But Uttaran engaged ADB to conduct a separate EIA and SIA for the KJDRP project.

“At the same time, to demonstrate the concept of sediment management, the local people cut open the embankments to reconnect the tidal rivers with the tidal wetlands. This process allowed tidal water to come inside the tidal wetlands so that the sediment that was brought in by the tidal water during high tide is deposited within the tidal wetland and not on the river bed.

“Since the tidal wetlands were disconnected from the river beds after the 1960 Coastal Embankment Project, many of the rivers in the southwest coastal region have died due silt deposition. This caused a drainage shortage in the area that resulting in water logging. But by re-linking the tidal wetlands and the tidal rivers, the problem can be solved.

"ADB engaged the Center for Environment and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) to conduct an EIA and SIA on KJDR project. The EIA report suggested that KJDRP will bring new destruction to the southwest coastal region. During this time, CEGIS also conducted an EIA for the indigenous sediment management concept that the local people had proposed and found that this process would be best for removing water logging in southwest coastal Bangladesh.

“CEGIS termed the process Tidal River Management (TRM), noting that “the tidal river management is environment friendly, cost effective, economically viable, and acceptable to the people.” After that, the government of Bangladesh adopted the concept and since then the government has scaled-up the TRM concept to two different tidal rivers in southwest Bangladesh.

“At present, Uttaran is assisting the government to ensure there is effective implementation of the TRM process. In addition, Uttaran has released several documents on the subject. Our book titled: “People’s Plan of Action for the Management of Rivers” was accepted by the government. In it, we identified 11 river basin areas across southwest Bangladesh in which TRM needs to be applied in order to ensure complete removal of water logging from the area. Uttaran is continuing its advocacy program to ensure that TRM is implemented in the 11 river basin areas in the southwest coastal districts.

“In addition to the Tidal Wetland Conservation Movement, I have been involved with my organization in transfer of Khasland (government-owned fallow land) for the landless movement. A huge amount of state-owned agricultural and water bodies in Bangladesh belong to the landless farmers and fishermen, according to the law. According to government policy, people who own less than 10 decimals of land can get access to Khasland.

“But the Khasland is often controlled by political goons, local muscle men, and vested groups. So the landless people cannot get access to it. In the late 1990s, Uttaran started a movement to ensure that the landless people of Debhata Upazila in the Satkhira district can get their Khasland.

“However, at one point in the movement, in 1998, members of the police and local administration were bribed by an illegal occupant of the khasland, and they opened fired at unarmed landless people. That day, one person died and another 229 were injured.

“After that, the movement became stronger and it forced the Bangladesh prime minister to come down to the Satkhira district where she announced that these lands, and every other khasland, will belong to the landless farmers. Since 2004, Uttaran has been assisting the government in the process of distributing the Khasland. We are identifying landless farmers, filing applications for them, running cases for the government to reclaim land from illegal occupants, and many other activities.

“Uttaran is working to transfer khasland to the landless people in the Satkhira, Jessore, and Khulna districts. Because of Uttaran’s advocacy initiatives, the government has recovered 17,461.818 acres of khasland from illegal occupants and has handed over land to 41,762 landless families."