Impact Story

Achieving climate justice in South Asia’s Sundarbans delta

Published on 2 June 2021

An IDS research project in the Sundarbans delta of South Asia is showing how partnerships with local communities can yield new knowledge and ideas for more climate-resilient livelihoods. This year, the TAPESTRY project offered lessons for policymakers, practitioners, researchers and civil society groups on how marginalised communities are forming alliances to respond to uncertainty.

Straddling the border of India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans mangrove forest delta is one of three vulnerable coastal areas (along with Mumbai and Kutch) that are the focus of TAPESTRY. Islanders in the Sundarbans are battling sea-level rise, salinity intrusion and cyclones, including the devastating Amphan supercyclone of May 2020.

Previous state-dominated development pathways did not address the dynamic nature of the delta, or the multi-layered needs of its inhabitants. Like other people living in coastal areas, inhabitants of the Sundarbans face a range of ‘cascading’ uncertainties, including those from climate change, and most recently from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Co-producing ideas for scaling up and out

TAPESTRY’s research on climate uncertainties in marginal environments has demonstrated how initiatives built on partnerships between local communities (farmers, fishers and pastoralists), civil society and researchers can respond to uncertainties, support more reliable livelihoods and living conditions, build collective agency and engage with legal and decision-making processes.

Instead of ‘top-down’ solutions, the alliances involved in the TAPESTRY project are co-producing knowledge and ideas for socially just and ecologically sound alternatives that are based on local people’s understandings of what positive transformation entails. Our focus is on ‘patches of transformation’ – sites where hybrid alliances, and their innovative initiatives, reimagine sustainable development and inspire transformative societal changes that can be scaled up and out.

Residents of Kultoli block (India) and Shyamnagar sub-district (Bangladesh) of the Sundarbans are working on ‘hybrid’ innovations, such as the trialling of salinity resistant indigenous rice varieties. The project is working to show how these can help to enhance food security, livelihood security and local wellbeing. The new initiatives offer hope for livelihoods, which could reduce outward migration.

 Despite the constraints of the pandemic, the work has been shared in webinars, policy fora and academic conferences in order to provide bottom-up perspectives regarding pathways to sustainability in areas that are at the frontline of climate change.

Highlighting challenges for women and young people

As part of previous work in the Sundarbans, 80 women from religious minorities across three areas in the Sundarbans documented the challenges they face using photo stories and advocated for change.

The current project also uses the Photo Voice method to document people’s own visions and stories of the uncertainties, along with artworks produced by young people in schools on the theme of climate change and the pandemic.

To link research with action, the project is holding smaller consultations with local people and agencies on transformative practical action in the Sundarbans. These will feed into a series of round tables in 2021-22 that will focus on the policies and relationships that are needed to sustain local wellbeing, placed-based identities and livelihoods and allow bottom-up transformations to flourish. The events will highlight connections between the different sites of Kutch, Mumbai and the Sundarbans, and how grassroots alliances in these different regions can learn from each other.

Working across both India and Bangladesh also offers a much needed transboundary perspective on the Sundarbans. Given that there are so many cultural and ecological similarities, national boundaries have prevented such cross-border action to ensure sustainable and climate just futures for the delta.

TAPESTRY is run through a transnational and cross-disciplinary consortium funded by the NORFACE and Belmont Forum Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) research programme. The project will run until 2022.

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