Saturday, September 12, 2009

5th Site Visit: Sunderbans Jungle Camp, India.

4th September 2009

The Sunderbans wetlands provide a hostile living environment with its vast tidal eco-system. The villagers have adapted a way of life that allows them to earn a livelihood from the sea and use the land to sustain crops that would otherwise succumb to the saline waters (through an elaborate system of embankments and ponds). Their simple, yet precarious lives are tested by annual monsoons or cyclones. They live among swamps and gather forest products under the vigilance of tigers, snakes and crocodiles. Despite the challenging environment, the people have settled here for at least half a century. Within this context, the Sunderbans Jungle Camp was born – a lodge for tourists to experience the region and to directly support initiatives that improve the village’s quality of life.

There are two “heroes” that help make this jungle camp stand out. The first, a Sunderban local named Anil Krisha Mistry, is a reformed poacher and founder of Bali Nature and Wildlife Conservation Society (BNWCS), who decided to do something to protect the Sunderbans environment. The second is Help Tourism (HT), which provides capacity building and commercial interest to sustain local Community-Based Tourism (CBT) projects. The Sunderban Camp is one of their 29 CBT projects. BNWCS and HT have found a working relationship that is built on trust over time. One of the most impressive aspects of the camp is the consultative approach the owners took to set up the camp through dialogues, workshops and consensus.

There is little distinction between the camp and the village due to the design of the lodge and the way the camp’s facilities are open to the community. You will be amazed by the “traffic” of men, women, children who use the camp’s tube wells or the informal kindergarten set up by HT for the local kids. No doors are locked and in the seven years since the lodge was opened, no theft has been reported because the camp is very much part of the community. The camp also supports other projects like setting up a small clinic, creating mangrove plantations and providing educational outreach to local schools. The camp supports a number of self-help groups: e.g., a group of village ladies who used to harvest baby prawns in a non-sustainable way and were afflicted to skin diseases due to day-long submersion in water. Today, they are working as cleaning ladies at the camp and earning a higher income. They enjoy more time with their families and also manage to have micro-savings which are used for their children’s education. On top of giving out bonuses and incentives to the employees, HT contributes a fixed amount of annual royalties to BNWCS. Ultimately, this HT model ensures that, regardless of profits, there is a long-term commitment to improving the education, health and environment of the locality and its people.

In the words of the society’s founder, “it’s not more money that we need, we need more opportunities for people to earn a good living here in the Sunderbans. What is the point of making more money to buy land in Kolkata and forget about where we came from?”

Watch our video slide show or view the pictures here:

Site Report By: Reza Azmi, Leong Siok Hui and Emran.

Special note: Sunderbans Jungle Camp is one of the finalists for the 2009 Responsible Tourism Awards (Category: Community Based Tourism). For more v-blogs on Responsible Tourism Awards 2009, please visit us on YouTube.

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