Sundarbans means ‘The Beautiful Forest’. It is a beautiful forest indeed, forming the world’s largest stand-alone mangrove forest, with more than 6,017 km2 in Bangladesh and more than 4,260 km2 in India, protected under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, as well as by the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
Naturally, mangroves occur mostly in the tropics and sub-tropics, along coastal shores that are well protected from high wave activities, as well as in deltas, lagoons, and estuaries. These restrictions leave just a narrow fringe of suitable geomorphology where mangroves can naturally grow. Mangroves are so-called ‘Blue Carbon Ecosystems’, since they have the capacity to lock away large quantities of atmospheric and oceanic carbon for a very long time.
Bangladesh and India both have very high ratio of mangrove forests when compared to other countries, with extensive mangrove ecosystems along their vast coastlines with multiple deltas, estuaries, and islands. The Sundarbans’ 37 mangrove tree species are widely used by people for a wide range of purposes: timber, construction, firewood, livestock grazing, honey production, medicines. The ecosystem services provided by the mangroves include habitat for a rich and diverse fauna, including the Bengal Tiger. Despite the protection from UNESCO and the preservation commitments from both governments, the Sundarbans are exposed to adverse environmental impacts leading to habitat loss and fragmentation that have already occurred due to land reclamation, conversion to agri- and aquaculture, as well as urban encroachment, and over-exploitation. Starting in the 1990s, this decline has been stabilized. Many of the remaining mangroves are now managed as forest reserves with sustainable harvesting cycles, with some showing significant increases in mangrove coverage due to ecosystem restoration and natural regeneration. However, more needs to be done to keep the ecological carrying capacity intact.
The 3rd of November is the ‘The International Day for Biosphere Reserves’, celebrated first in 2022. The World Network of BR was born in 1971, as a backbone for biodiversity conservation, ecosystem restoration, and living in harmony with nature. Currently there are 738 properties in 134 countries, with 12 in India. Bangladesh does not yet have Biosphere Reserves, but parts of the Bangladesh mangroves are protected under the World Heritage Convention.
The WNBR is an amazing network of sites of excellence. It is a unique tool to test and apply socio-ecological solutions to reduce and minimize existing problems, via cooperation through sharing knowledge, exchanging experiences, building capacity and promoting best practices. The members of the WNBR stand always ready to support each other. This kind of help extended through the network is if great importance, because the ecological carrying capacity of Planet Earth has been exceeded. We have to revert to living in harmony with nature, so that everyone can soon breathe clean air again, has access to enough good water, and eat nutritious and affordable food, to benefit living in dignity. Healthy habitats are essential to keep nature’s balance intact.
BRs have all developed science-based management plans, where local solutions for sustainable human living and nature conservation are being tested and best practices applied. Issues of concern include biodiversity, clean-energy, climate, environmental education, water and waste-management, supported by scientific research and monitoring.
All Biosphere Reserves are internationally recognized sites on land, at the coast, or in the oceans. Governments alone decide which areas to nominate. Before approval by UNESCO, the sites are externally examined. If approved, they will be managed based on a plan, reinforced by credibility checks, while remaining under the sovereignty of their national government.
Dr. Benno Böer is the Chief of the
Natural Sciences Unit of the UNESCO New Delhi Office, which covers Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka.
Dr. Neha Midha is the National
Programme Officer of the Natural
Sciences Unit at the UNESCO Office
in New Delhi.
Dr. Miguel Clüsener-Godt is the
former Director of the UNESCO
Division of Ecological and Earth
Sciences, and Secretary of the MaB
Programme, and currently professor at the Yokohama National University in Japan.
Dr. Günter Köck is Member of
Austrian MaB National Committee at the Austria Academy of Sciences, and the
Austrian delegate to the MAB International Coordinating Council (MAB-ICC)