Volume 2 Issue 77| February 27, 2010 |


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Cover Story
From Sunamganj

Tanguar Haor: On the Brink of a Better Future

Tanguar haor is an area of about 100km2 that is responsible for the livelihood of more than 40,000 people. Located in Dharmapasha and Tahirpur upazilas of the Sunamganj District, Tanguar haor is a unique wetland supporting 150 varieties of fishes, more than 100 resident birds and around 200 species of wetland flora. It is one of the major breeding grounds for fish in Bangladesh, and has been declared as an Ecologically Critical Area by the Government of Bangladesh in 1999. However, over-fishing and uncontrolled exploitation of the area's resources by the water-lords and their minions is threatening the haor's very sustainability, and the livelihoods of the thousands that are dependent on it. For this issue's cover story, Zahidul Naim Zakaria visits Tangoar haor for some insights into how the local communities taking back control of Tanguar haor and their future.

In the bowels of a wetland where mother fishes of Bangladesh seek refuge, an immense challenge to replace the existing rules of engagement between man and nature is brewing. A 'paradigm shift' just might be on the cards.

Tanguar Hoar, a two and a half hour motorcycle ride away from Sunamganj district in north-eastern Bangladesh, is a wetland comprising of 52 large water bodies and covers an area of approximately 10,000 hectares. More than 56,000 people are located in 88 villages around its periphery and rely on the local natural resources for survival. The demography is composed of indigenous and a large number of re-settlers from all over rural Bangladesh. It needs to be stressed that Tanguar Haor is Bangladesh's second Ramsar site, the first being the Sundarbans.

Ramsar sites are natural resources of ecological importance, protected by the Ramsar Convention - an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands recognising the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands and their economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value. It is named after the town of Ramsar in Iran where participating nations met in February 1971, and at present there are 1,886 Ramsar sites globally. A wetland's soil is saturated with moisture either permanently or seasonally and may also be covered partially or completely by shallow pools of water. Most importantly, wetlands are considered to be the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems, bringing together a unique blend of plant, insect, bird, fish and waterfowl ecosystems together into one ecological arena.

Based on a baseline report of 2008 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the total open water fish production of Sunamganj in one year is 45,173 mt and the estimated fish production from Tanguar Haor is about 6,500 tons. The proportion of Tanguar Haor's output compared to the output of Sunamganj district is 14% and compared to the whole of Bangladesh, it is 0.67%. The wetland serves not only as a collection of fishing grounds, but also as a safe haven for migratory birds and as a hotbed of thriving biodiversity.

Leaseholders (commonly known as 'Waterlords') have maximized fish yields rather than optimizing and as a result of over fishing, the fish population has slowly diminished and the ecological balance of the Haor has deteriorated. Such open-access resources are characterized with the perennial problem of free-riding, where no individual party (fisherman) has an incentive to reduce the amount of fish caught since someone else would benefit from the potential catch. Individual effort to protect such a resource, therefore, is futile and conservation has to be community-driven.

Only when the overall resource can be managed and the total amount of fish caught can be restricted can the resource be used in a sustainable fashion. The eventual motive is to ensure that the total amount of fish caught is not beyond the maximum sustainable yield, allowing the fish population and other parts of the food chain to survive in such a way that allows similar fish yield for years on end.

Fishing at Tangua Haor. Inset- Rui (Grass Carp) & Kaykla catches from the haor

To mother nature's relief, the established norm of leasing beels of the Haor out to rich, influential 'lords' has been challenged and the local community have been empowered to take control of the Haor. This includes the establishment of 'no-fishing' zones where fish can breed in peace and breaking up of the year into fishing and non-fishing seasons for commercial and subsistence fishing individually. A local administration has been created with a power structure convened through voting to empower local community leaders. Moreover, rules have been framed regarding types of fishing equipment used, a security team has been set up with people of the local vicinity to attempt to ensure that the rules are adhered to, and most importantly, a licensing mechanism (in two separate categories, for 'subsistence' and 'commercial' fishing) for fishermen has been created and is being implemented.

For instance, January 2010 marked the opening of a 'no-fishing' season for commercial fishermen. This is the third year of the pilot project for this community-based management style at Tanguar Haor which was once governed by a harmful leasing system. Since 2008, the regulation of fishing activity by the community itself has allowed local community members to fish following 'wise-use' principles ensuring sustainability of fish output, supporting livelihoods and conserving the environment. But the security forces are scant at the moment, given the scarcity of resources, and in light of the enormity of the Haor there exists room for theft.

And the community has woken up with eyes wide open. Recently, after a local village watch group was alerted about a group of poachers who had breached the fishing ban in a 'no-fishing' area, a local community team organized a raid and removed illegal nets worth more than Taka 2 lakh. At the moment, only a limited number of beels out of 52 beels of Tanguar Haor are following the community based model and the rest are still being leased out. There is strong antagonism brewing between previous leaseholders and the community, since the current pilot project prioritizes benefits of the local community at the sacrifice of deepening the pockets of a selected few. Working to protect the environment and the Haor's resources in the face of organized (sometimes armed) resistance is the biggest bottleneck of the community-based management model being implemented at Tanguar. Policy and administrative support is needed to back-up the critical mass locales that are gathering to oppose the 'Waterlords'. Some say that a best practice model is in the works that will be replicable in every other similar context in Bangladesh, other ponder upon the challenges and the vastness of the Haor and breathe a sigh of disbelief. The bottle is still spinning, and on whose side it stops depends on the united will of the local community and their courage to stand against the 'Waterlords'.

"Now every year during the fishing season, people gather under the community organizations that they have formed and, under close supervision of the district administration, engage in open water fishing with dignity and pride" says AFM Rezaul Karim, the team leader of the community-based project. Livelihood of the local fishermen have been augmented as well, with fish being sold at more than double the prices in 2009 compared to 2008 due to better distribution and export channels.

IUCN, an international organization concerned with the protection and sustainable use of the Earth's resources, is currently implementing the second phase of the 'Community Based Sustainable Management of Tanguar Haor Program' on behalf of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) with financial support from Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). The Government of Bangladesh joined IUCN as a State Member in 1972.

A day at the Tanguar Haor






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