By Peter Schwartzstein, Research Fellow
In the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, pirate gangs are king. They commandeer small ships, and smuggle contraband to and from nearby India. They kidnap local fishermen for ransom – though they give foreigners and scientists a wide berth for fear of attracting too much attention. And they sometimes poach rare Bengal Tigers. Here, in the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest, they move through the dense jungle thicket like it’s their own personal fiefdom.
Many of these bandit crews are fugitive criminals, seeking sanctuary – and big loot – beyond the state’s reach. No matter how hard security forces try, they’ve struggled to police this sprawling labyrinth of isolated waterways. But as with seemingly everything else in Bangladesh, there’s a climate change angle, too. With worsening conditions in many coastal communities, in large part because of stronger and more frequent climate-induced disasters, farmers and fishermen are upping sticks and trying their luck elsewhere. As tales of the pirates’ riches waft through the villages, a particularly desperate – and unprincipled – subset among them appear to have succumbed to the promise of easy pickings on the high seas.
In interviews conducted throughout the Sundarbans, former bandits and some of their recent victims told a tale of new pirate recruits trickling in from some of the most hard-hit villages, particularly around Morrelganj and in the Satkhira range. Unable to make much of a living in places where increasingly saline water is wrecking crops, a small – but rising– number are falling in with the Jaladoshyu, the water pirates. Fishermen are also struggling as decreasing water quality and mounting competition shrink their catch. “They can’t find work like they used to in the fields, and that’s all there is to do in these places,” said one ex-pirate, who’d returned to his home district after accepting a government amnesty last year. “So some are going into the jungle.”
The IPCC projects that by 2100 up to 15-20 million largely coastal Bangladeshis risk displacement or serious distress as the sea rises. But climate change and existing environmental and resource stresses are already exacting a heavy toll. Rice yields have dropped from 30-50 muns per farmer to around 10 muns (a mun is 40kg) in south Satkhira since 1990, locals say, prompting a largescale conversion to shrimp cultivation. The World Bank projects a possible 15 percent fall in rice yields across the entire coastal region. And over a million people have been uprooted from coastal areas in recent years, according to the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, a Dhaka-based environmental think tank. With everything from soil and water salinity, to cyclone strength and temperature extremes seemingly set to worsen, conditions look ripe for a pirate recruiting bonanza in the years to come.
That, however, is not the only – or perhaps even the most important – pirate climate hook. Because there’s a reason why the Jaladoshyu are willing to stomach jungle life, which includes frequent encounters with rival gangs, poisonous snakes, and myriad diseases. For several decades now, the government has restricted access to the Sundarbans in order to protect the mangroves. (In addition to blunting cyclones and absorbing storm surges, they’re also a globally important carbon sink). But as conditions among the villages on the wetlands’ periphery have deteriorated, many local fishermen, honey collectors, and crab gatherers have felt powerless to resist the lure of the Sundarbans’ richer resource grounds, despite the dangers. They’re practically sailing, in ever greater numbers, straight into the pirates’ carefully laid ambushes. In some villages, families try whenever possible to keep several hundred dollars ready in potential ransom payments. Climate change, it seems, is great for bandit business.
The authorities insist they’re getting to grips with piracy, but locals believe otherwise. The fresh climate-fueled recruits are merely reinforcing their ranks, they say, as has the government’s much-publicized amnesty campaign. Some of these men are accepting pardons and cash, laying low for a little while, and then returning to crime, the ex-pirates suggest. And the security forces – notably the Navy, Coast Guard, and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) commandos – appear to be hamstringing their own crackdown through poor coordination and perhaps a preoccupation with the Rohingya crisis further south, which has so far seen around a million refugees spill over the border from Myanmar. Though usually sufficiently well-resourced, these rival forces often quibble over jurisdiction. In at least two instances last year, suspected pirates went free because the Forest Department and local police in Satkhira range couldn’t agree over who would be responsible for feeding and transporting the men to prison, forest officers said.
For as long as the pirates, who’ve thus far been savvy enough to prey only on villagers and small vessels, content themselves with low-profile targets, the state might continue to regard them as a tolerable nuisance. “Of course, no one cares about us,” said one fisherman in Munshiganj sub-district, near the Indian frontier. “We have no voice.”