What are our major conservation challenges?
Bio-diversity underpins a wide range of ecosystem services that human societies are dependent on for their very survival and development.
Due to its geographic location and climatic conditions, Bangladesh is gifted with a wide variety of ecosystems, plants, and animals. Until now, 5,700 species of angiosperm, more than 3,000 species of lower group plants, 128 species of mammals, 650 species of birds, 154 species of reptiles, 49 species of amphibians, and 742 species of fish (of which 475 species are marine fish) have been recorded in the country.
Although many wild species (eg one-horned rhino, swamp deer, marsh crocodile, etc) have already become extinct from our ecosystem forever, the country still supports a rich agricultural bio-diversity and genetic variability.
The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute and five other crop research centers maintain more than 20,000 accessions of agricultural and horticultural crops. Being a high population density country, the above-mentioned diversity of life forms can be considered as a miracle.
Bio-diversity makes a significant contribution to the country’s economy in terms of agriculture, fishery, livestock, forestry, and nature-based tourism. The combined contribution of these five sectors to the country’s GDP is nearly 25%.
The largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, provides livelihood and employment for half a million households. More than 60 million people depend on aquatic resources every day, and 60% of the country’s protein requirement is met through fish consumption.
The wetland ecosystem (including haors, baors, beels, and floodplain) provides a wide range of economic and non-economic benefits to local people, including fish and rice production; rearing of cattle, buffalo, and ducks; and collection of reeds, grasses, and other plants.
A study on the economic valuation of Hakaluki haor (the largest haor in Bangladesh) reported that more than 80% of local households depend on wetland bio-diversity resources, and that the bulk of income-earning and livelihood opportunities in that area were based on wetlands.
Nature-based tourism is becoming popular in Bangladesh, and the numbers of visitors and tourists are increasing day by day. A considerable number of livelihoods in Cox’s Bazar, St Martin’s Island, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Sundarbans, and other protected areas of the country depend upon nature-based tourism. How much revenue is earned from nature-based tourism is not properly accounted for yet.
Achievement in bio-diversity conservation
Bangladesh has signed or ratified all major bio-diversity-related multilateral environmental agreements, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In fulfillment of obligations of first, Bangladesh has formulated 1st National Bio-diversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) in 2006, and second NBSAP (2016-2021) in 2015 to guide bio-diversity conservation efforts.
The second generation NBSAP included 50 activities under the 20 targets for bio-diversity conservation, in line with global Aichi Bio-diversity Target.
The country has also formulated policies and legal frameworks relating to environment and bio-diversity, notable among them are: National Conservation Strategy (2016-2031), Bangladesh Bio-diversity Act 2017, Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, 2012, Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety 2004, National Bio-safety Framework 2006, National Forest Policy 2016(draft), Ecologically Critical Areas (ECA) Rules 2017, etc.
The Vision 2021, National Sustainable Development Strategy, and the Seventh Five-Year Plan of the country have unambiguously highlighted the bio-diversity conservation concerns. In 2011, government included bio-diversity in the Constitution (Para 18A) as fundamental principles of our state governance.
Beside the above policy measures, the country also translated some of the policy recommendations into actions, especially in the recent decades. Many bio-diversity and ecologically rich areas have been declared as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, ECA, eco-parks, safari parks, fish sanctuaries, and botanical gardens by the laws to give special attention for its protection.
Starting from 1980, Bangladesh has designated a total of 52 such protected sites, including 38 terrestrial protected areas (PAs) and two marine protected areas (MPAs), with the aim to conserve bio-diversity and ecosystem.
These PAs cover 1.80% of land and 2.05% of marine area of the country respectively. 13 more areas have been declared as ECAs as they support significant ecosystems that have become threatened. Hilsa production has considerably increased in the recent time due to declaration of five sanctuaries to protect Hilsa breeding ground, and the ban on Hilsa-catching during breeding season.
Bangladesh has made good progress in some areas by implementing a good number of conservation projects (eg Nishorgo, IPAC, CWBMP, CREL, SEALS, etc). All these projects piloted innovative, people-oriented conservation models and good practices that include co-management approach, community-based natural resource management, co-management guidelines for PAs, ban on harvesting of natural resources in breeding season, restoration of critically degraded ecosystem, declaration of sanctuary and PA in bio-diversity rich areas, promotion of eco-tourism, community-based bio-diversity conservation, etc.
A challenge in conservation
Over the last few decades, bio-diversity of Bangladesh has been experiencing a substantial decline, mainly due to human-induced impacts. A number of initiatives have been taken, including development of a number of enabling plans and policies to address the issues concerning conservation and sustainable use of bio-diversity.
However, the country is yet to make a mentionable progress in halting bio-diversity loss and ecosystem degradation. The country’s achievement on bio-diversity is assessed in the fifth National Report, which has reported overall low to moderate progress towards achieving the Aichi target.
In Bangladesh, major threats to bio-diversity includes rapid, unplanned urbanization and industrialization, conversion of forests and wetlands into agriculture or other form of land use, population pressure over scarce natural resources, unsustainable use and over exploitation of natural resources, changes of land use pattern and fragmentation of habitat, air and water pollution, changes in hydrological regime, over-harvesting of natural resources, growing demand for producing more food crop using HYV with over use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, allocation of bio-diversity rich areas or natural forests for development intervention, uncontrolled tourism in bio-diversity rich areas (eg in CHTs, Cox’s Bazar and St Martin’s Island), climate change, alien invasive species, etc.
Major challenges for bio-diversity conservation are limited awareness of policy-makers on the value of bio-diversity in national economy, non-compliance or minimum compliance of environmental safeguards in development projects, revenue-driven land use practices, limited success in ensuring good environmental governance, limited inter-sector coordination in sectoral policies, absence of market-based tools (eg polluter pay principles, green tax, etc) for destruction and degradation of ecosystems, underutilization of local government capacity, limited private sector participation, low level of knowledge, capacities and awareness, inadequate financing, etc.
Huge population pressure with an increasing demand of natural resources is one of the main driving forces for most of the above stated threats.
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With the challenges at hand, there are several policy recommendations that can be considered.
Balancing development and conservation
There should be a delicate balance between development and conservation. In many cases, our development gain has been eroded by the negative impacts of ecosystem degradation and bio-diversity loss.
Adequate coastal forest areas have already been allocated for the construction of an exclusive economic zone in Mirsharai at Chittagong, the reserved forest is destined for LNG terminal in Sonadia at Cox’s Bazar, and the nearly 5,800 hectare of reserved forests allocated for Rohingya settlement in Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf forest lands.
Nearly 190 industries are operating within the 10km wide peripheral area of the Sundarbans, which has also been declared as an ECA.
Many of these industries have been issued governmental clearance and 24 of the industries are of red category. We should be a bit cautious about this type of development intervention.
A robust environmental impact assessment (with adequate environmental safeguard mechanism) is required for such a development decision to ensure sustainable development. Development should not be allowed at the cost of degrading ecosystems.
Assessment of expenditure on bio-diversity
We do not know the economic and non-economic values of all the protected sites in the country -- apart from some sporadic assessment of the value of some protected sites (eg Hakaluki Haor, Sundarbans, etc).
Therefore, a valuation of the goods and services of all ecosystems will be required to reflect it in a national environmental accounting system and assess its contribution to the national GDP.
It is urgently required to analyze public and private expenditures on bio-diversity conservation. It is essential to estimate the investment required to implement national bio-diversity plans and achieve national bio-diversity targets and results. Many countries have taken such initiatives in recent times by participating in the global BIOFIN project.
Bio-diversity conservation or ecosystem restoration takes a longer time, and hence it requires long-term and sustainable finance to see impacts.
Mainstreaming bio-diversity into sectoral policies, strategies, and action plans are crucial for ensuring conservation of bio-diversity.
Mainstreaming of NBSAP requires coordinated efforts and actions from all relevant stakeholders to achieve the common goals of bio-diversity conservation.
Long-term ecological monitoring
The Department of Environment (DoE) is responsible for the management of ECA. On the other hand, the Forest Department is responsible for PA management.
There is no unified monitoring framework for proper management of these protected sites. A targeted management strategy and long term ecological monitoring framework for both ECAs and PAs are missing.
If we assume that the DoE and FD will monitor the change of the ecological health and vitality of the ECAs/PAs receiving targeted management interventions over time, DoE/FD must establish a “benchmark” without any delay and develop a strong ecological evaluation system to track the health status of the ECA and PAs.
Only a declaration of designated areas into ECA or PA will not resolve the challenge of degradation. A clear vision, methodology, and robust ecological monitoring system needs to be developed for restoring the ECA from the current perilous condition into an ecologically sound, productive, and sustainable natural system.
Inadequate resource allocation and development support
It is widely recognized that government allocation for the ADP for the conservation is very low compared with other development sectors.
The country’s investment plan (CIP: 2017-2021) for the environment, forestry, and climate change estimated that an amount of $2.46 billion will be required for sustainable natural resource management and bio-diversity conservation.
The current support is about $642.3 million, and there is a substantial financing gap of $1.8bn. However, it is encouraging news that the government is currently formulating two big investment projects -- one is Sustainable Forest and Livelihood (SUFAL) project with a budget of $175m, and another is Protection of Sundarbans Mangrove Forests (SURAKSHA) project with a budget of about $95m.
Development partners should also come forward to support investment in bio-diversity conservation.
Private sector involvement
Bio-diversity conservation in Bangladesh is still at its infancy. The main barriers to private sector participation in bio-diversity conservation are low levels of awareness, government support, and motivation.
Moreover, the limited capacity of business community and inadequate incentives do not help the case.
Most of the commercial banks in Bangladesh depend on short-term deposits, and an asset liability mismatch limits their ability and willingness to structure financial products with the longer tenure typically required for investment in ecosystem restoration or conservation.
By adopting the “polluter pays principle” or levying a “green tax” on polluting industries, the government can generate funds that can be used for conservation. Revenue earned from eco-tourism services (eg visits to the protected sites) could be used to manage protected areas.
Corporate sectors can also come forward with bio-diversity-friendly and environmentally responsible businesses.
Public-private partnership models could also be explored for bio-diversity conservation.
As the country is heading towards middle income status, ODA and grants support are gradually shrinking.
In such scenario, the private sector can be a source of conservation finance.
In addition to applying the “polluters pay” principle, there should be an effort to turn bio-diversity conservation into a business to attract the private sector.
Climate smart conservation
Being one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, climate change is expected to have a substantial effect on our bio-diversity and ecosystems. However, we do not have clear knowledge of climate risks and vulnerability of our ecosystems or how the ecosystems may be modified in the future in a changing climate.
Therefore, we need to assess climate risks and vulnerability of all the ecosystems and PAs to make adaptive intervention.
Thus, our conservation efforts are not yet climate-change informed, and the current day conservation investments may turn out to be fruitless in the future, if we do not adopt climate compatible conservation efforts (eg ecosystem based adaptation).
Strong political commitment
To build our country as a conservation responsive nation, a strong political commitment, adequate budget, and passion are all required to conserve our valuable bio-diversity -- before it is too late and many valuable species face extinction from our realm forever.
Arif M Faisal currently works for UNDP Bangladesh.