The Sundarbans — the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem — is shared between India and Bangladesh. With the global mangrove biome increasingly under threat from human exploitation, how India and Bangladesh choose to manage and conserve the Sundarbans could be the difference between preserving these crucial and biodiverse habitats or letting them disappear in 100 years. But the two countries are struggling to manage this resource effectively. A necessary first step is forming a cooperative alliance to collectively manage the resource.
The Sundarbans provide many crucial ecosystem services. They are, for example, the last remaining stronghold for the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger and host several species of mangrove trees that have an intrinsic value of their own. The livelihood of roughly 3.5 million coastal residents depends on the forest. Due to climate change and resulting sea-level rise, the mangroves provide essential flood protection and reduced mortality from floods, tsunamis, and cyclones that are common in the area.
One can, by this point, draw the conclusion that the Sundarbans need to be protected, at all costs. But what are these costs exactly? It is the environmental economist’s duty to quantify the benefits of action and the costs of inaction to inform policy. One simply cannot put “all costs” into one cause.
A cost-benefit analysis is thus called for to make credible policy suggestions to the Indian and Bangladeshi governments in regard to the protection of the Sundarbans. About a quarter of the Indian Sundarbans [pdf] is currently a core protected area – allowing no human activity whatsoever. In the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, 23% of the area is declared protected.
What would the area look like if the entirety of it was protected? This policy appeals to advocates of strong sustainability or preservationists, but there are economic, social, and political consequences to consider.
Take the example of Bengal tiger protection alone. Here, there are economic costs for enforcement and monitoring, social costs because of the tiger-human conflict in the surrounding villages, and political implications of any policy that would effectively be perceived as a prioritisation of the lives of tigers over the lives of people that depend on extractive industries in the Sundarbans or have been hurt or killed by tigers. The intrinsic value of the tiger, or extrinsic value of the ecosystem of which it is a part, are the benefits of this proposed policy. And tigers are only a small part of the Sundarbans. A bigger picture analysis would need to include a host of different factors to consider and monetise.
Bottom line: These costs and benefits are, if at all possible, not easy to monetise. But even a humble attempt at doing so will add to the understanding of the complex nature of the Sundarbans, and the ever more complex consequences of any policy for their conservation.
* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).