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February 2 is celebrated every year as World Wetlands Day. It was on this day, in 1971, that the Convention on Wetlands was adopted, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea. 'Wetlands for our Future: Sustainable Livelihoods' is this year's theme.

More than a billion people make a living from wetlands; fishing, rice farming, travel, tourism, and water provision all depend on wetlands. Wetlands are vital to us in many others ways. They host a huge variety of life, protect our coastlines, provide natural sponges against river flooding, and store carbon dioxide to regulate climate change. Hence, wetlands are called ‘Nature’s Kidneys’.

Unfortunately, wetlands are often viewed as wastelands, and destroyed all over the world. Estimates suggest that 64% of the world’s ‘natural kidneys’ have been damaged during the last few decades, and Asia in particular is believed to be suffering heavy losses on this count.

In his message, Minister of State of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, said the government will continue to accord high priority to conservation and wise use of wetlands in the country. The ministry, in collaboration with the West Bengal government, is celebrating the day at Sunderbans, one of the largest single block of estuarine mangrove forests in the world, which provides habitat to numerous plant and animal species, including the Royal Bengal Tiger.

The same day, representatives of human dwellers of the Sundarbans addressed the media at the Press Club in Kolkata, asserting that it was not a place where ONLY tigers exist. Around three million out of the four million island dwellers are ‘forest dependent’; subsistence peasants, fisher folk and forest produce collectors. Their voices have been ignored and left unheard over the past several decades, if not centuries, the women and men said at a public hearing held on January 31.

Organised by Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Manch (SJSM) and All India Union of Forest, Working People (AIUFWP), the public hearing highlighted the continuing ‘historical injustice’ and the harassment faced by the people, the denial of livelihood, the repeated attacks on their culture and identity, and the atrocities they face from the forest, revenue and police departments.

One of the core issues relating to the access to the forest is the Boat License Certificate that impacts these people’s lives more than anything else. Without it, they are illegally detained, charged with false cases and their collection of forest produce confiscated. Additionally, they are required to pay fines arbitrarily. On the other hand, the authorities do not register complaints raised by the community people.

The traditional forest dwellers are made to live in constant fear of vindictive repression by the government. Fact is there is a deliberate ignorance among authorities on the relationship that communities have with nature. Hopefully, they draw some enlightenment from this year’s theme.

Enabling people to make a decent living, and at the same time ensuring that wetlands can still provide their essential benefits, do not have to be conflicting goals!

-- Editor