On a warm November afternoon, Parul Haldar balanced precariously on the bow of a small wooden canoe, pulling in a long net speckled with fish from the swirling Brown River.
Immediately behind it stood the dense forest of the Sundarbans, where some 10,000 square km (6,213 square miles) of tidal mangroves straddle the northeast coast of India and western Bangladesh and open into the Gulf. from Bengal.
Four years ago, her husband disappeared on a fishing trip deep in the forest. Two fishermen with him saw his body dragged through the undergrowth – one of many humans killed by tigers as they ventured into the wild.
The fact that Haldar, a single mother of four, takes such risks is a testament to the growing economic and ecological pressures on more than 14 million people living on the Indian and Bangladeshi sides of the Sundarbans lowlands.
They have led to less dependence on agriculture, an increasing number of migrant workers and, for those like Haldar who cannot leave the delta to work elsewhere, to rely on forests and rivers for to survive.
“When I walk into a dense forest, I feel like I am holding my life in my hands,” said the 39-year-old, sitting outside her dilapidated three-room house on the Indian island of Satjelia after her visit. returning from a fishing expedition. .
In the small yard, his father and some friends were smoking wood to use it to build a new boat.
Haldar fishes in the river almost every day. Twice a month, she travels deeper into the forests to catch crabs, rowing six hours on a rickety boat with her mother and staying in the undergrowth for several days.
Almost all of the 2,000 rupees ($ 27) she earns each month to run her house and send her youngest daughter, Papri, to school, comes from fishing and crabbing. Her elderly father and other relatives look after the daughter while she is away.
“If I don’t go to the jungle, I won’t have enough to eat,” Haldar told Reuters news agency.
It’s Papri, 11, who keeps Haldar on the Sundarbans rather than looking for work elsewhere. If she leaves, there is no one to look after the child, she said.
“No matter how hard it is, I want to educate him.”
Life is more and more difficult in the Sundarbans. Many islands are located below high tide level, which means houses and farms are often protected by frequently drilled earthen embankments.
With each break, rivers swallow up more land and flood fields with salt water, withering crops and making plots infertile for months.
As climate change pushes up sea surface temperatures, the cyclonic storms that enter the Bay of Bengal have become more violent and more frequent, especially in the past 10 years, researchers say.
An analysis of data from 1891-2010 showed that the Indian Sundarbans experienced a 26% increase in tropical storms, with a peak frequency over the past decade, according to a 2020 article in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability. by researchers from Jamia Millia Islamia University. in New Delhi.
These more powerful cyclones cause larger storm surges that can smash or rise on the embankments, causing widespread damage, a phenomenon not limited to the Sundarbans.
“I think the various environmental stresses we see in the Sundarbans are also occurring in many coastal wetlands around the world,” said William Laurance, a distinguished research professor at James Cook University in Australia.
“These ecosystems seem to be caught in a vicious vice – between rising sea levels and intensifying storms on the one hand and rapid land use change and intensification of human uses on the other. .
In May, Cyclone Amphan crashed into the Sundarbans, causing winds of 133 km / hour (83 miles / hour), killing dozens of people, razing thousands of homes and destroying landfills. More damaging weather conditions followed.
Walking over broken dikes on a southern corner of Kumirmari Island, Nagin Munda gazed at his half-acre paddy field which had been flooded with saline water in October.
“I have no more fish in my pond, no vegetables in my garden and half of my rice crop is gone,” said the 50-year-old farmer.
Across Kumirmari, some 250 acres (101 hectares) of farmland were inundated last year, affecting more than 1,500 families, local government official Debashis Mandal said.
In recent decades, around 1,000 acres (405 hectares) – more than 15 percent of Kumirmari’s total land area – have been eroded, Mandal said, making farmland even more scarce.
“We can’t stop it,” he said, “The river is eating away at our land.”
According to the director of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve, Tapas Das, five people have been killed by tigers in the Sundarbans in India since April.
Local media, which closely follow these attacks, reported as many as 21 deaths last year, up from 13 each in 2018 and 2019. Many attacks go unrecorded as families are reluctant to report them as it is illegal to go far into the forests. .
“The number of reported cases of human-wildlife conflict and death is certainly alarming,” said Anamitra Anurag Danda, senior researcher at the Observer Research Foundation think tank.
A new factor driving the rise has been the coronavirus pandemic, which trapped tens of thousands of people like the Mondal family on the Sundarbans when they would normally make money as workers elsewhere in India.
At the end of September, a group of more than 30 men left Kumirmari late in the morning and headed for the forest. Their mission was to recover the body of Haripada Mondal, 31, who had been attacked by a tiger during a fishing expedition.
Guided by the fishermen who had accompanied Mondal on his fateful journey, the men first spotted a pair of red shorts caught in the mangroves, two members of the group said.
After trail marks in the soft mud, the group went deeper into the woods, wielding sticks and burst firecrackers to scare the tigers away, they added.
“I found his head first,” Mondal’s older brother Sunil said. The rest of the body was lying a few yards away.
The youngest of the three brothers, Haripada Mondal, like others in his area, dropped out of school early to find work.
Most years he left the Sundarbans to work as a farm laborer in southern India and on construction sites near the eastern city of Kolkata, his brother-in-law Kamalesh Mondal said.
He cultivated a paddy crop on rented land behind his small dirt house, where he lived with his wife Ashtami and a nine year old son.
“Life was going well,” said Ashtami, 29. “We made ends meet.
Mondal, the sole breadwinner, returned home after construction work in mid-March, his family said, days before the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The lockdown has shut down much of the country’s economy, blocking the informal sector that supports most migrant workers and sending millions back home, including to the Sundarbans.
For months Mondal was at home without a job as savings dwindled until, desperate for money, he decided to go fishing in the rivers surrounding Kumirmari, Ashtami said.
“He said he would go nearby to fish and earn 50 to 100 rupees to help with household expenses,” she said. He left home before dawn, rowed in the forests, and was killed.
“If there had been no lockdown or no coronavirus, he would have left here to work.”