Case studies

Growing Back to the Roots

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Pranabesh Maiti has a Masters in Linguistics from Kolkata University but it was a passion for the environment that brought Pranabesh back to his village of Kamalpur on the Sagar Islands of the Sunderbans in West Bengal. Pranabesh is one of the 100 young leaders on our Changelooms programme. He has been working to protect and promote the fragile natural mangrove ecosystem and livelihoods that depend on it.

Pranabesh Maiti

The changing pattern of cultivation

“I was certain that I wanted to do something for my village involving agriculture, which is our background,” says Pranabesh.

He explored different opportunities and worked with several organisations before finding his calling.

“I was always concerned about the changing patterns of cultivation, which were adversely affecting the biodiversity of the area,” explains Pranabesh who has a profound knowledge of the subject.

The Sunderbans area has a fragile mangrove eco-system. There are 159 islands on the Indian side – 54 have human settlements and 105 are uninhabited.

The majority of people living in the area belong to Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. They face extreme exclusion, deprived of their basic rights such as electricity, roads, transport, medical and educational facilities.

The importance of mangroves

For years, these people have relied on local resources that grow naturally in the mangroves for their livelihoods, such as honey, fish, watermelon, rice and kewra (a spice with a strong fragrance that is used in cooking).

In an initial exploratory study Pranabesh found that mangrove forests had been destroyed on many of the populated islands and people had started the cultivation of other cash crops such as betel leaf.

However, the high requirement of harmful fertilisers and pesticides in betel leaf production had adversely affected the aquatic flora and fauna.

The absence of mangroves also makes these islands vulnerable to cyclonic activities. In 2009, Cyclone Aila caused maximum devastation to areas where mangrove forests had been ruined.

“I had the desire to educate people about the utilities of the mangroves and turn around the situation,” says Pranabesh.

Becoming a Changeloomer

A former Changeloomer and old friend, Sutapa Patra, introduced Pranabesh to Changelooms – a year-long fellowship providing training, mentoring and financial support to 100 young leaders wanting to address social exclusion within their communities.

Pranabesh submitted a project proposal and it was accepted for Changelooms support. His project aims to plant 20,000 mangroves in 9 months alongside re-generating livelihood activities surrounding the mangroves.

“People called me crazy when, with a few friends, I visited villages to collect the seeds for mangroves,” says Pranabesh as he recalls the challenges he faced. “They did not cooperate, rather they dissuaded me.”

Unphased, Pranabesh formed his organisation - Sunderbans Green Environment Association.

Working together with the community

Closely linked to the community, Pranabesh soon had 75 youths working with him. They visited 5 schools in Gosaba block targeting 6-18-year-old children, raising their awareness on mangroves.

So far, over 15000 mangroves have been planted by these youths and children. To encourage and recognise individual efforts in mangrove plantation, and to inspire others, Pranabesh has even introduced a Sunderbans Award. 

When planning his project, Pranabesh chose the variery of mangrove that is worshipped by local people. He hoped that by using this variety it would dissuade people from destroying it.

Indeed, his plan has worked and the community elders’ have taken on the responsibility to protect the plants.

“The ownership has been amazing  - everyone has got involved in the programme, even those who were against it in the beginning,” says Pranabesh.

Recently, one person from the community even offered Pranabesh a place in his house for setting up his office.

Involving the government

Pranabesh has succeeded in involving the local politicians as well.

“We came to know that the Irrigation Department was constructing new dams,” elaborates Pranabesh. “We explained to the politicians that mangroves were doing exactly the same job naturally and hence they should support our efforts.”

Pranabesh even helped to organise a debate in a local school on the topic of ‘Concrete versus Soil Dams’.  The debate concluded that soil dams are better, raising the awareness of local leaders and administration authorities on the subject.

Linking up with livelihoods

An unassuming person with a high energy level, Pranabesh believes his achievements have been possible only due to Changelooms: “We had been working on many avenues, but the project helped us in focusing our activities.”

“Now we are trying to link the mangrove plantations to livelihood activities, such as goat or sheep rearing, fisheries, and the sale of kewra and honey,” he says.

All these livelihood activities work in harmony with the mangrove forests: the famous local breed of goat - the Black Bengal – gets its fodder from mangroves, bees come to the mangrove forests for the pollen of the pandanus or kewra flowers, and fish get natural food in the water surrounding the mangroves.

Using the financial support received under the Changelooms project, Pranabesh will buy 10 goats and will distribute them to 10 tribal women.

“After the cyclone 75-80% of people migrated to big cities in search of work and only women are left,” Pranabesh explains. “The goat rearing will give these women a source of income.”

Once these goats multiply, more goats will be given to another 10 women.

Pranabesh is networking with private and government veterinary practitioners to ensure the vaccination and healthcare of the livestock.

His organisation has also introduced saline resistant paddy on 11 acres of land in their work areas.

“This is not a high yielding variety but it is tastier and more nutritious,” avers Pranabesh. “More importantly it does not require fertilisers and pesticides. Also, this variety does not get damaged due to the high tide, so at least it will ensure food security to the community.”

A personal change

On his Changelooms journey, Pranabesh has observed a shift in his personality. He finds clarity on issues now and feels confident in motivating the community for its involvement.

“I have learnt to streamline my ideas,” says Pranabesh, who now observes everything with a methodical and analytical thinking.

“My vision is to create a generation that will understand the value of the mangroves forests in ecology,” says the dreamer, who carries mangrove seeds in his pocket. “Anywhere I meet children I hand over these seeds to them so that every child in the area gets involved in mangrove plantation.”

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