In the context of Building with Nature, leadership goes beyond heading a group, organization, or process. It means thinking beyond the boundaries of traditional practice, working across disciplines and organizations to bring people together and achieve innovation, often through long-term planning and persistence. Such leadership is vital for the realization of unprecedented, multifunctional projects at the intersection of infrastructure development and nature restoration.
Many EcoShape projects attest to the value of strong and visionary leadership. In the Netherlands, these projects include
the Sand Motor, the projects for the Dutch Flood Protection Programme (HWBP) and Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier (HHNK), and projects around Delfzijl such as the Marconi waterfront development and Eems-Dollard 2050 program initiatives. In each case, the projects had remarkable leaders: Rijkswaterstaat department heads, the water board director, and the mayor of the local municipality, respectively. In Demak, Indonesia, Building with Nature leadership came from both the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries at the national level and local champions in the village communities. These interviews consider the role of leaders in the local contexts of Bangladesh and Indonesia, where the realization of Nature-based Solutions offers great promise for both nature conservation and economic development.
Much of your work has been at the intersection of climate change and local development. How has that shaped your thinking and led to advocacy for Nature-based Solutions?
For many years now, my work has been to study the impacts of climate change on very poor, vulnerable communities in developing countries. The focus has lately been on preparing for future climate change, but in 2020, that is no longer the future—it is the present. I have done this in my country, Bangladesh, but also in the so-called least developed countries. The name does not mean that we are helpless. It means that people have a lot of resilience, indigenous knowledge, and social capital that we can build on. Very often, poor people get blamed for destroying nature. Yet we find that they are much better at living with nature than people in developed countries. For example, our work at the community level has often been in collaboration with fishermen. They have a sense for preserving nature because their livelihoods depend on it. Together, we work on community-based adaptation.
How is this reflected in Bangladesh?
While Bangladesh has done relatively well in terms of economic development, GDP, industrialization, food production, and addressing malnutrition, it has unfortunately done so at the expense of our natural environment, ecosystems, and habitats. We are a country rich in natural resources, such as the Sundarbans mangrove forest, which is the world’s largest mangrove forest. Shared with India, it is a World Heritage Site that we are responsible for conserving and preserving. Every Bangladeshi is extremely proud of the Sundarbans and the Royal Bengal tiger. Our culture is based on a strong, innate empathy for nature. On the other hand, there is Dhaka, our capital. It is the fastest-growing megacity in the world. All the wetlands have been paved over to facilitate that growth. We cannot continue to do this. At a popular as well as a policy level, there is now increasing recognition that we cannot have economic growth by destroying our environment.
For example, the Ministry of Planning is asking about Nature-based Solutions to see how they can incorporate them into their plans. I see this as a window of opportunity to engage with national planning institutions, engineers, architects, and planners about how to take forward a win-win development option, both socially and economically. We need an alternative to the conservation approach, which has not been very successful. Partly because we were told by our government: “We have to develop, so do not tell us about conservation.” But if we can ensure that the next developmentplanning pathways are more cognizant of environmental issues and Nature-based Solutions, then we can follow a more harmonious course that does not destroy nature and indeed uses the benefits of Nature-based Solutions going forward.
What do you think has contributed to planners, policy-makers, and decision-makers recognizing this as a viable way forward?
First, the destruction is visible. There is a strong consciousness among the public that loves and wants to preserve nature. In the Chakaria Sundarbans, another mangrove forest, the government allowed shrimp farming, and people cut trees to create farms. For a number of years, the farms were very lucrative, but after a while, the shrimp farms could not remain viable. They decayed, they did not have good management, and they were lost. The effects of unimpeded destruction of nature were evident to policy-makers—that was the major breakthrough. Even the prime minister says this should not happen, and that we should look at ways to live with nature.
Second, we are a disaster-prone country with the history and capacity to deal with them. We cannot stop catastrophic events, but we are able to manage them reasonably effectively. With climate change it is harder because the impact of disasters will be more severe. The realization and acceptance of our vulnerability to climate change in Bangladesh came quite early, more than a decade ago. All the national ministries must have a climate change program included to receive allocated resources. I attribute the level of climate awareness and its impacts as a major factor in moving policy-makers and planners out of their traditional comfort zone that emphasizes economic development and infrastructure. They recognize that stopping nature or controlling it through engineering has limits, which is moving us away from the old paradigm.
One of the challenges with economic development is the range
it encompasses. How do you bring partners on board for Nature-based Solutions that require longer-term stewardship?
We are in the early stages of trying to link stewardship with development. We cannot live with the conservation paradigm anymore, to protect and not allow anything in. We need to manage living with nature and allowing some development at the local and national scale. The Nature-based Solutions network that we have created brings together different scales, examples, and ecosystems. Different ecosystems require distinct solutions, so we must bring stakeholders together to identify and discuss the ways forward.
Bangladesh’s is the first parliament to declare a planetary emergency, which has as its two pillars climate and biodiversity protection. The Standing Committee on Environment is studying plans for implementation. We also have something called the Delta Plan, a long-term plan modeled on the Dutch Delta Plan.
Next, we look for windows of opportunity. We are constructing a bridge over the Ganges River to connect Dhaka city with the southwestern part of Bangladesh, where the Sundarbans are located. The bridge will open up economic development in the region, and so we are trying to identify a set of industries, including ecotourism, with commercial activity that is profitable yet does not destroy nature. In fact, these activities benefit from nature.
Earlier, you commented about utilizing indigenous knowledge to address natural systems. You also said local people, in general, can be great advocates for these solutions.
Indeed. We have three major rivers—the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna—and in these regions, flooding is normal. During the monsoon season, it is all under water. In the dry season, there is a lot of land, which is a huge difference in terms of the ecosystems. Local livelihoods and culture have
adapted. People grow and harvest rice before the monsoon starts. As soon as the water rises, people build their houses on little hills. These villages of little hills are like islands in the sea. You can no longer see the edges of the river. People take out their boats and their nets; they go fishing.
Yet, over time, we have become a more urbanized society, and our kids do not have that diverse experience anymore. Even in rural areas, year-round agriculture production was made possible by building flood protection. That worked for a while but has begun to fail. Now we recommend the polders revert to a mix of agriculture and fisheries and are not only protecting them to grow rice.
Unlike the Dutch, we cannot embank the entire delta. In Bangladesh, we need to readapt to the notion of living with the rivers. We now recognize that we went in the wrong direction for too long and must make course corrections. There is a social dimension as well. As I mentioned, poor people are much better at preserving and conserving nature, although they have been marginalized. We cannot expect that the older generation, which is trained to solve problems in a certain way, will fully embrace the new paradigm of Nature-based Solutions. In that respect, I have high hopes for the younger generation, and I can see that they are more open to innovative approaches. I think they will solve the problems we created and that we fail to solve.