Bangladesh: fighting environmental degradation to reduce poverty

21 Jun 2010

The small island of St Martin’s, in the southernmost part of Bangladesh, is home to a composite mosaic of life. On land, the island’s fine sand beaches are a vital nesting place for sea turtles, and the forests that line the shore are home to a myriad of bird species. Below the surface of the water is rich ecosystem coral and marine life for which Bangladesh – the land of water – is famed.

This variety of life is what St Martin’s depends upon.

In many ways St Martin’s serves as a useful microcosm for Bangladesh; the tremendous pressure on natural resources as a result of a large population in limited area are played out on St Martin’s as well as across the whole country. As such, UNDP is working to help St Martin’s and Bangladesh as a whole develop strategies to offset or avoid biodiversity reduction.

On St Martin’s, and elsewhere across Bangladesh, biodiversity is undermined by irreversible species loss, threatening the basic life support systems upon which so much life, both human and otherwise, depends.

Tourist boats, which each year bring thousands of people, eager to explore the Island’s remarkable beauty, also bring many environmental pressures. While an economic pillar for St Martin’s, tourism also means more people, more roads and more construction than the Island’s fragile ecosystem can handle.

In particular, overfishing has greatly reduced fishery stocks. The diminished fish population is increasingly unable to repopulate while fishermen, simultaneously, face more and more demand for their catches. Fishing also pressures the delicate coral and results in often irreversible damage to the unique reefs that lie below the water.

A similar story is playing out inland. As the demand for land increases, trees and vital biodiversity habitats are destroyed to make way for new construction and urban growth.

Added to these challenges is the threat posed by global climate change. Bangladesh – already prone to natural disasters – is also likely to face the effects of climate change more than most, potentially compounding the reduction of biodiversity as freshwater sources are reduced and the ecosystem changes.

To work towards a solution, UNDP is supporting the people and government of Bangladesh to strike the right development balance that conserves biodiversity through positive change in people’s lives. Mamunul H Khan, of UNDP’s Climate Change, Environment and Disaster team explained that the key to combating environmental degradation is poverty reduction.

Through strategies like livelihood diversification, the government and UNDP support people as they make a change to environmentally friendly farming and agricultural practices that better utilize natural resources for long term preservation. Just as important, environmentally sustainable strategies, which preserve and protect biodiversity, are also a critical anti-poverty tool.

According to Mr. Khan, the next step is to start scaling successful diversification programmes on a national level. Doing this requires an in depth understanding, through surveys and studies, of the ecosystem. With sufficient and nuanced understanding, UNDP will work with the Government of Bangladesh to create a long-term plan for national implementation.

For the people living on St Martin’s, successful diversification programmes will allow for the preservation of their lives on this island, in new and sustainable ways. Just as important, it will mean that the biodiversity of this tiny island in the Bay of Bengal is conserved for future generations.