This month’s journey into the Ocean Decade’s ECOP Programme brings us to the state of West Bengal on the eastern border of India, where the Prameya Foundation is based. Established in 2016, this non-profit environmental conservation organization fosters environmental sustainability through community empowerment.
Prameya Foundation was founded by a group of young travelers from different professional backgrounds, all of whom have come to acknowledge the plight of the local communities in places that are most vulnerable to climate change. Mukut Biswas, Founder, Managing Trustee and Executive Director, and Arunava Ghosh, Co-Founder, Mass Communication and Social Media, share their experience and aspirations with us.
- What is the current situation with the mangrove ecosystem of the Sundarbans in India? Can you tell us more about the significance of these ecosystems?
The Sundarbans mangroves are a highly protected ecosystem and classified as a Ramsar Site. Additionally, the Sundarban Tiger Reserve located within this Site is part of the “critical tiger habitat” protected by national laws and also a “Tiger Conservation Landscape” of global importance. The Sundarbans are the only mangrove habitat that supports a significant population of tigers, and they have unique aquatic hunting skills. The mangrove forests protect the hinterland from storms, cyclones, tidal surges, and the seepage and intrusion of saltwater inland and into waterways. They serve as nurseries to shellfish and finfish and sustain the fisheries of the entire eastern coast. All these factors together make the Sundarbans an ecologically and economically important landmass.
- What are the most salient pressures perceived by the local communities you closely work with?
Firstly, the frequency of cyclones and erratic rainfall patterns have caused disruptions in the life and livelihood of the communities surviving in the Sundarbans region, adding to gross agricultural losses. Such unprecedented patterns have left a very small window for these communities to recover from former storms until another one hits. This has led to mass migration of the community to nearby towns and cities.
Secondly, with the change in the salinity of the river water, which has been experienced over the last four years as communicated by the local fishermen, there has been a massive loss in the catch of fish, resulting in further economic losses within this already vulnerable community.
- From your experience, how can we facilitate a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature? How does this fundamental relationship play out in your region?
We believe that humans and nature need to harmoniously coexist, which forms the basic principle of sustainable development. But this relationship is being eroded given the pace at which natural resources are being depleted, the reluctance in implementing Multilateral International Environmental Agreements, and the dilution of domestic environmental laws.
The Prameya Foundation aims to conserve traditional knowledge and transmit it to the present generation. This, in turn, will automatically facilitate a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature, emphasizing wildlife conservation, modern sustainable techniques of fisheries, apiculture, ecotourism, forest extension, employment diversification, and women’s empowerment and livelihood, to name a few.
- What is the importance of community empowerment in ecosystem restoration projections? How do you apply it in your work at the Prameya Foundation? Any advice to share?
We have all realized that there is an ardent need to conserve the world’s biodiversity areas more than ever, and the world’s indigenous communities have a vital role to play. For millennia these communities around the world have been maintaining a judicious balance between their needs and the corresponding needs of nature and have lived in “harmony with nature”. These communities contribute the least to global climate change but are the worst affected by its consequences. Their vital role in protecting nature is often undervalued, and many of these communities also lack access to basic services like education, health, proper housing, and employment opportunities. Without adequate protection and improvement in their standards of living, no conservation goal can ever succeed.
As such, Prameya Foundation‘s conservation efforts are community-based, focusing on improved access to basic services and self-sufficiency through community education and empowerment projects, such as the creation of self-sufficient eco-villages, thus conserving nature and its resources.
- Inclusive participation of youth, women, and indigenous local communities is at the core of your activities. Why is it so important to you and what initiatives are you the proudest of?
We believe that youth, women, and indigenous local communities are nature’s strongest allies. Their relation to the mud, mangroves, and fauna makes them an important aspect of our conservation activities. Without their support or inclusion, conserving the mangrove region would be a Herculean task.
One initiative we are particularly proud of is the Prameya Mangrove Nursery – which is a community-based initiative of collection of mangrove propagules and their subsequent storage and plantation. It began as a small-scale mangrove nursery with the help of schoolchildren, which has now shaped into a mass movement in the village of Tridipnagar, Jharkhali in the Sundarbans. We were able to successfully conserve and restore the mangroves over an area of 5 acres, which is still expanding. The said movement has also been recognized and appreciated by the Government and Quasi-Government bodies. At present, the entire village has joined hands to establish a nursery in every household. This has in turn protected the lives of the villagers from unprecedented cyclones which hit the southern coast of Bengal in recent years.
- What do you think local coastal communities can bring to marine policy processes and how can we engage them within the UN Ocean Decade?
The voices of the local communities have been long ignored and left unheard. Now, the time has come to empower these communities – both through the provision of resources and legal power – to create an environment where people and nature can thrive together. The UN Ocean Decade will stand out to be an ideal opportunity to engage local coastal communities in monitoring and managing the natural resources by providing them with the requisite training, modern scientific knowledge, technological support, and funds.
- What are the biggest challenges for you as a young non-profit organization?
As a young non-profit organization, the challenges are varied. To begin with, we lacked the requisite exposure and identity, making it difficult for us to gain the trust of the statutory authorities operating in the region. Secondly, and most importantly, we lack the proper channelized access to funds which in turn would facilitate the organization of various capacity building programs, seminars, workshops and knowledge sharing exchanges with the coastal marine community.
- If you were an early career representative at the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, what would you propose to achieve the ocean we want by 2030?
Grabbing the opportunity of being an early career representative, we would like to propose the enactment of an international treaty and/or Multilateral International Environmental Agreement that would specifically deal with the larger problems of plastic wastes generated from fishing gears or ghost nets, as well as the devastating effects of bycatch, illegal fishing practices and exploitation of workers in fishing vessels. At the same time, we should also implement effective sustainable fishing practices.
- What are some opportunities available to ECOPs who would like to be involved in your activities at the Prameya Foundation?
The Prameya Foundation works closely with the local coastal communities to provide a first-hand experience in understanding and addressing the problems they face, especially regarding the devastation caused by unprecedented cyclonic storms. The ongoing programs of mangrove propagule collection and expansion of mangrove nursery will allow ECOPs to know about the species of mangrove found and conserved in the region.
The Foundation is also involved in organizing several workshops aimed at educating the community on sustainable fishing techniques, which in turn can provide the ECOPs with a better understanding of emerging problems of illicit fishing practices, which the Foundation is dealing with in the region.
We also have a large reach throughout the Indian Sundarbans, which can encourage ECOPs to meet various people from different professions and understand their lives and livelihood.