Anisuzzaman Khan

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Bangladesh
Fellow Since 1990
RUSTIC
This description of Anisuzzaman Khan's work was prepared when Anisuzzaman Khan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990 .

Introduction

Anisuzzaman Khan, a trained and committed wildlife biologist, would far prefer to spend his time on a Bangladeshi riverbank than in the air-conditioned bank office where he has been working. He's building a movement of similarly committed workers (they must spend at least 100 hours a year in the field to stay members), the Nature Conservation Movement to help Bangladesh find a new, sustainable, harmonious equilibrium between its people and all aspects of the natural world.

The New Idea

In Bangladesh, man's dependence on nature is especially immediate and apparent. After decades of environmentally blind and increasingly aggressive development, this naturally beautiful land is suffering the consequences, e.g. flash floods, drought, and the loss of species.
Anisuzzaman feels that the solutions have to be found in the field. He had already started a census of Bangladesh's species, especially those in danger. Armed with this knowledge, he and his colleagues are setting to work both to help villagers learn how to adapt more effectively and to encourage new social and economic policies. He has, for example, demonstrated to the villagers in one area how they can train an endangered species of otter to chase fish into their nets, thereby transforming a pest and competitor into a friend and ally. The villagers are now raising rather than killing the otters, and Anisuzziman's job has become one of spreading the word and technique.
He's also fighting to give the endangered monitor lizard a future by helping villagers learn that it gobbles up rodents and is, in fact, the saviour of the farmers' crops. As this message sinks in, the 10-15 Taka a lizard's skin will bring seems less and less enticing.
Another example: He's spreading the understanding that ducks provide natural fertilizer for fish and don't eat grain as part of a broader effort to stop people from shooting them, especially in the winter months.
Sometimes policy change flows relatively easily from the facts his sort of field work produces. The government is most unlikely to keep a species on its export list when the census shows that only fifteen individuals remain alive in the country (a real case).
Anisuzzaman's idea involves mapping not only species at risk but the whole pattern of interactions of which they, the rest of the local ecosystem, and the local people are interacting parts. This involves skilled natural observation and learning a great deal from the local human residents. Thus armed, he tries to help work the system back to a new, sustainable balance. Doing so requires equally imaginative, sensitive grassroots, educating and policy advocacy.

The Problem

Over the last three decades, Bangledesh's forests and rural ecosystems have experienced unprecedented changes. Many of the forests have all but disappeared; others are turning into rubber plantations or other biologically limited uses. The world's highest population density per hectare presses every ecosystem in a hundred ways. One ill considered infrastructure investment after another has disrupted important balances, usually with destructive consequences for both native species and the people who depend directly on the environmental commons. Changes in water management have been especially damaging.
All this has been done with very little consideration for the consequences in Bangladesh's modest stock of biological resources. Perhaps as discouraging, much of the environmental work that was done was based on such narrow, single component analysis of what are in fact enormously complex, interacting situations that such interventions were almost as likely to hurt as help.Project plans have been developed without proper technical staff and without access to essential data, nor has much expert help been available. The university has focused historically first on laboratory work, while the government's forest department has had only one tenth of one percent of its staff technically trained to do field biology.

The Strategy

Eighty-five percent of all Bangladeshis live outside the few cities and are very much dependent on nature. They know a great deal about the animals, plants, and natural cycles in which they live. Traditionally, they used these natural resources in sensible, steady ways learned through slow trial and error in a stable, little changing world.
Anisuzzaman's strategy starts with this strength. He learns from the local people and then adds his own observations and scientific knowledge, sharing this with them as the work progresses. He sees the local people as far more than informants; they also have compassion for and a vested interest in a restored, stable natural resource base. They are critical allies. They are also key beneficiaries. Anisuzzaman sees serving them as a central objective. They are also the first object of his educational work. Ultimately, it is those who live in these areas who must restructure the human impact into a new sustainable pattern.
Understanding the local people's and the non-human species' needs and patterns, he searches for a stable pattern that will serve the needs of both. Once he has developed prototypes that meet this test, he spreads the new solution in many different ways. He plans a Bengali language journal, posters, pamphlets and manuals chiefly for schools and voluntary organizations. He'll also reach out to the urban population and policy makers. The real champions will, however, probably prove to be the movement's members, typically serious and scientifically trained (but commonly holding an unrelated job) young professionals. They are widely scattered across the country and will provide the necessary follow through locally in all phases of the work.
Anisuzziman sees his work going through several phases. Initially, he'll focus much of the work on developing the census of what flora and fauna exist and of how the current and traditional populations use them. With this information, he and his colleagues will then seek out the most ecologically critical areas that need urgent attention. Once identified, they go to work to find, demonstrate and spread new (or resurrected), sustainable patterns. Finally, as he builds the movement, he hopes it will also become a training center for those working in the area, be they forest guards or civil engineers.

The Person

Anisuzzaman was born in 1956 in Manikganj. His father, a school teacher was entirely committed to his children's education, and both Annisuzziman and his brother went to university.
Anisuzzaman's interest in nature developed early, as did his entrepreneurial drive. In part, inspired by his elder brother's interest in birds, as a student of Devendra College in Manikganj, Khan started to study nature by organizing a Rural Ecosystem Study Club and a Nature Club.
He went on to Rajshahi University, where he completed his B.Sc. (Honours) in Zoology in 1987 and M.Sc. in 1981. Then he enrolled in the M.Phil. program at Dhaka University in 1982. As part of this graduate work, he joined the WWF/IUCN Elephant Project in the Cox's Bazar area and played a role in developing a program that has successfully helped protect these elephant herds. Even then he and his friends were looking for ways that might eventually support the field-based work he is now launching. They pioneered a series of enhanced decorative use of local skills, innovations that were quickly taken up by substantial businesses in the area but that proved hard for them to exploit.
Even while subsequently working in his bank, Anisuzzanan kept his focus. He'd be off to his riverbank developing the ingredients for this program as soon as commercial bankers would allow.