Plant 50 million mangroves in the Sundarbans? Improbable, say experts

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee had decided on the plantation to compensate for plants lost during Cyclone Amphan

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Friday 26 June 2020
A Bengal tiger within a forested island of the Sundarbans which hardly has mangroves inside it due to salinity. Photo: Biswajit Roy Choudhury

The Sundarbans would need an area nearly half the size of Kolkata to plant 50 million mangrove trees as decided by the West Bengal government recently, which is improbable, experts have said.

They cited a lack of space as the primary reason along with a number of other factors.

On World Environment Day (June 5, 2020) this year, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that 50 million mangroves would be planted in the Sundarbans in the near future.

The reason was to compensate for the plants’ loss during the recent Cyclone Amphan, that made landfall near Sagar island in the Sundarbans.

A healthy mangrove population in the Sundarbans is considered critically important as it works as a barrier to high-intensity cyclones that impact the islands of the delta as well as its hinterland including Kolkata.        

Banerjee said about 28 per cent of the Sundarbans had been damaged by the cyclone and pointed out 1,200 square kilometres of the 4,260 sq km forest had been ‘destroyed’ severely, affecting its mangrove population.

The Indian Sundarbans are spread over 9,630 sq km, of which, nearly 5,400 sq km is inhabited by humans while the rest is forest area.

“The figures are not matching up. It is a fact that about 4,260 sq km in the Sundarbans is forest area. But close to 50 per cent of that is water,” an expert on the Sundarbans, said on the condition of anonymity.

“Does the government want to say that within 2,200 sq km of forest land area in the Sundarbans, about 1,200 sq km has been damaged? In that case, the damage is more than 50 per cent of the forest area, not one-third as is being claimed,” the expert added.

The expert pointed out that even within the forest islands, the mangroves remained limited to the outer periphery, as excessive saline inundation normally turned the inner areas almost arid and plant-less, further squeezing the actual plantation space.

No more space

Biswajit Roy Choudhury, Sundarbans expert and head of the non-profit Nature Environment Wildlife Society (NEWS), also underlined the difficulty of achieving the target.

NEWS has been planting mangroves in the Sundarbans since 2011 under various international projects within the ambit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“One can plant 5,000 mangroves on a hectare (ha) of land at the most. At that rate, about 10,000 ha or 100 sq km will be required (to plant 50 million plants),” Roy Choudhury, said.

“We have so far planted mangroves within almost 6,000 hectares in about a decade, about 90 per cent of which are still surviving,” he claimed.

Roy Choudhury said his organisation was not keen to undertake any more mangrove plantation at the moment for want of space.

“Apart from space, factors like salinity, wind pattern or river bathymetry need to be considered while planting particular mangrove species,” he said.         

“The proposal is on the borderline of improbability. Where is the land to plant so many mangroves? A certain amount of maturity is required before mangroves can be planted on even new chars (silted area),” Anurag Danda, a Sundarbans expert associated with think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), said.

Danda also expressed apprehension over the mangrove damage figure being touted due to damage by Amphan.

“I feel many mangrove trees have shed leaves after being affected by excessive saline surge with air or water. They will be automatically restored with time,” he said.   

‘Will try to achieve target’

“We will try to achieve the target given to us,” Ravi Kant Sinha, principal chief conservator of forest and head of forest forces in West Bengal, said in response to a question by this reporter.

“We are now in the process of identifying land for mangrove plantations, creating adequate nurseries and plans to start planting from next October,” he added. Sinha said his team would also try to plant mangroves beyond the forest area.  

However, experts were sceptical on the availability of land even in non-forest areas.

“Since 2011, we have planted mangrove trees over 6,000 ha of non-forest area in the Sunderbans under various projects. Now, we refuse such projects because there is no more space left,” Roy Choudhury said.      

Pradeep Vyas, a retired Sundarbans official, pointed out that though there might be space near embankment or char land, mangroves near embankments often get disturbed by human activity.

Subhas Acharya, a retired official of the Sundarbans Affairs department, said mangroves would not survive inside any island area.

“A few years ago, the Sundarbans Affairs department had given seedlings to people at large for planting mangroves. But none of them survived,” Acharya said.

A senior official of the state forest department tried to shift the onus onto the government without being named.

“We have not fixed up the target. It has been imposed on us … there are some Sundarbans experts who feel mangroves can be planted anywhere. We will make our effort to achieve the target of 50 million, but do not know how much will be achieved at the end,” the official said.

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