Lesson Learned: Nature-Based Solutions in a Former British Colony

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Lights piercing through the turbid water of the coastal Bay of Bengal near St. Martin's Island, Bangladesh. Originally known as "Narikel Jinjira" (Coconut Island), the island was renamed by a colonial administrator during the British occupation. Photo: Mohammad Arju

I met Papuan Indigenous leader John Aini in Malaysia in 2018. It took us a few minutes to declare ourselves as brethren. I am no John Aini. He is an Indigenous elder with an outstanding service record to his people. Google John Aini and decolonization of conservation, you will see. But what triggered our brethren ship so quickly was our shared experience about “partnership” with western scientists and big international nature conservation NGOs.


With John Aini, it was a rare opportunity where I could pour my heart out to talk about the challenges of such “partnerships.” I grew up in Bangladesh. If you talk about systematic exploitation, such as colonial environmentalism or fortress conservation in Bangladesh, you will risk losing support from your "partners" from the so-called Global North. Local NGOs, development professionals, or the members of the academia keep mum about it. Almost all these institutions survive as local agents/vendors/contractors for parachute scientists, old-guard institutions from the Global North, and neocolonial science and conservation efforts.


I try not to waste any opportunities to discuss why such unequal “partnerships” must not continue. Here I will share one of the modest examples.


A few years back, an Oxford professor invited us to “partner” with a “nature-based solutions” project that will work in Bangladesh. Back then, I was coordinating a local marine conservation NGO that I founded. We corresponded over email with the professor and met them when they organized a meet-up in Bangladesh. We shared our ideas about how such an effort can be helpful for Bangladesh by considering the local contexts, needs, and priorities.

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Pitchers left at a "drinking-water station" in Sundarbans mangrove region near the India-Bangladesh border. Rising sea levels and shrimp farming-induced salinity have diminished the freshwater sources in the region. In many areas, women need to travel miles to collect drinking water.  Photo: Mohammad Arju

They sought a support letter from us to submit to the donor in the United Kingdom. We provided the support letter. Later, the professor emailed us that the proposal was successfully funded for three years, starting in January 2018. That was the last communication directly from the UK professor.


The project proposal was never shared with us.


When the professor visited Bangladesh, they invited a few leaders from NGOs, civil society organizations, and academia. I went to dinner. In the restaurant, there was no opportunity to discuss the project in depth. The lead person of the proposed project, the Oxford professor, told us about not knowing the contexts in Bangladesh. So naturally, they wanted to listen to us and learn from us. Most of the local stakeholders the professor engaged with, were seemingly uncomfortable about my talking points on local needs and priorities. Many of them were acting as if I was not there.


I often try to understand the challenges of these local professionals/ stakeholders, who still are okay with unequal relationships with western partners. Like the former me, many of these NGOs and civil society organizations have very few alternatives than hoping for an equal partnership. Most of these local professionals are enablers of colonial conservation and development. And, almost all of these local members of the academia are parachute researchers in the local context.  

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A local fisherman sails through the Brahmaputra river. The transboundary river is shared among the autonomous regions of Tibet, China, India and Bangladesh. Photo by Mohammad Arju

The British colonizers in Bangladesh were forced out more than seven decades ago. However, the education system they built still produces people of the managerial class, cultural elites, and the members of the academia who are perfect examples of the struggle of “black skin, white masks.” But with no education about the impacts of colonization, they do not feel any responsibility to decolonize. I am sympathetic to them. Because between such a group of local vendors and the interest of neo-colonial environmentalism, no authentic communication is possible. 

In the northeast Indian Ocean region, the life of the Bay of Bengal communities are forced between a rock and a hard place. It's either unsustainable industrial expansions, mega-infrastructures, or protected areas that strip these communities from basic human rights. In this photo, local women in Chittagong are sun drying rice paddy in a narrow strip of land spared by a newly built coastal road. Photo of Mohammad Arju

My colleagues and I tried to be authentic in our communication with the Oxford professor and unreasonably hoped (because we had to) for a project that responds to local needs. We asked questions and put local priorities forward. And after the project was funded, the professor cut off communications. Later, they implemented the project with a local university-based research unit that works as a vendor/ contractor to such parachute researchers/ projects with no question asked. And what the project did is “training” local NGO/CSO/Academia leaders about nature-based solutions in Bangladesh. I was invited to take part in such events by the local vendor. But I did not feel much inspiration to “learn” about conservation from parachute researchers.


Such projects of parachuting science and conservation have been a total loss for nature and people in countries of the so-called global south. The best outcomes from such projects are a few “peer-reviewed publications” locked in PDFs somewhere online and a list of "lessons learned."

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Children in the Sundarban region process collected mangrove seeds. Shared between India and Bangladesh, Sundarban is the largest continuous mangrove forest on the planet. Photo by  Mohammad Arju

I know there are fears of “professional consequences” of talking about issues like this. But still, I hope more people like me will break the silence and come forward to share such experiences. Because the more we talk about it, the better. 

How to cite this page:

Arju, M. (2021). Lesson Learned: Nature-Based Solutions in a Former British Colony. [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/lesson-learned-nature-based-solutions-in-a-former-british-colony. https://doi.org/10.54823/lp7pjlt3