Sundarbans means “the beautiful forest.” It is a beautiful forest indeed, forming the world’s largest stand-alone mangrove forest, with more than 6,017sq-km in Bangladesh and more than 4,260sq-km 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. 

Climate change and rising seawater levels will certainly change many of the coastal areas of the world and affect the living conditions of local populations. This change can go along with an increase or decrease of precipitation, which can considerably change the ecology of these systems, consequentially having a heavy impact on coastal zone management, shore protection, carbon sequestration and accumulation of organic matter in the soil.

The production of food, feed, fibre, fuel, and other economic purposes can change irreversibly. Therefore, it is necessary to study possible impacts by observing ongoing processes and to collect scientific information on blue carbon ecosystems. It is an absolutely important need to compile comprehensive scientific information through international conferences and seminars in order to anticipate possible changes and its consequences for the well-being of humanity.

Bangladesh and India both have a 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. Since 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.

November 3 is 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 part of the Bangladesh mangroves are protected under the World Heritage Convention. 

The WNBR is an amazing network of sites specializing in 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 of 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, have 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.

UNESCO is ready to assist advancing mangrove conservation and restoration in the Sundarbans, and a mission is currently planned to take place in February 2023. Celebrating the first International Day for Biosphere Reserves is a welcome opportunity for Bangladesh to establish its first BRs and participate in the world network, including the scientific exchanges between Bangladesh and India. Biosphere reserves are places where we will truly live in harmony with nature. 

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 Program 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 Program, 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).

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