Sundarbans: Aware that the only weapon they have to fight climate change are mangrove swamps, villagers in Sundarbans are now gradually rediscovering their love for the trees with some even selling off cattle which damage the plantation.
"Our goats love the taste of mangrove leaves and so they damage the plants. We decided to sell them off as whenever we planted new saplings they used to eat it," says 29-year-old housewife Sushmita Bera of Durga Gobindapur village in Gopalnagar.
Along with members of three self-help groups she is one of the thirty women who have planted about 180000 mangrove saplings in her village with financial aid from international NGO Save the Children.
"After the 2009 cyclonic storm Aila destroyed large parts of Sundarbans we have realised that only mangroves can act as sentinels along the coast to protect us from tidal surges," she says.
The decision to sell goats and other livestockwas a hard one as they are an integral part of the whole farming system with multiple uses like meat, milk, manure and skin.
But the panchayat got into action to save trees and announced fines for owners of cattle found damaging any plant.
"This fine proved a deterrent to keep cattle. We had to take this strict step to regulate cattle and promote trees. We have been spreading awareness on the need to protect the fast depleting mangroves," says Panchayat head Subash Purkayat.
Mangroves protect coastal areas from erosion by stabilising the shorelines with their specialised root system which grow upwards of soil. They also protect the coasts from storms, hurricanes and tsunamis. The big roots help in cutting down the energy contained in large waves and thus slow down the flow of current.
In addition to being soldiers of our coasts, mangroves also improve the livelihoods of fishing communities, provide salt-tolerant genotypes and help in carbon sequestration, points out marine scientist Abhijit Mitra.
Due to rising sea levels as a result of global warming, a report prepared by Jadavpur University and WWF estimates that out of five million people living in the delta, one million will become climate change refugees by 2050.
Another recent study by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) points out that rapid deterioration in mangrove health is causing as much as 200 metres of the vegetation-rich coast to disappear annually in the Sundarbans.
Human population pressure, rising global temperatures, degradation of natural protection from tidal waves and cyclones is inevitably leading to species loss in this richly bio diverse part of the world.
A few hours drive from Kolkata, Sundarbans forms the largest belt of mangroves in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its Royal Bengal Tigers and biodiversity.