The Sari Squad and CLA
My four years in Bangladesh with USAID’s Integrated Protected Area Co-Management Project (IPAC) and its successor Climate Resilient Eco-Systems and Livelihood project, taught me many things. But as I look back, I think the most important lesson of them all was my strengthened faith in the power of community, especially a community that collaborates and believes in learning from each other.
The above mentioned projects were and are working with collaborative management of natural resources, through shared platforms which consist of nature dependent individuals and the government (specifically the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock and the the Ministry of Land). The projects empower the forest and wetland dependent communities who live in the protected areas and wetlands of Bangladesh. Often these folks are ultra-poor, and many times the first victims of natural disasters. These USAID projects work with the communities to induce behavior change, empowerment, introduce alternative livelihoods (to lessen the pressure on the natural resources), and include the population in preserving the 17% of green that is left to protect in Bangladesh’s forestland.
Among the many field trips I took to these beautiful areas along the coast or up north where monsoon went beyond its allocated season, I met some extra-ordinary individuals - those who were born in nature, and did everything in their power to protect their homes. Among them was Khurshida Begum, a 30 year old widow and mother of two, who lived near the Teknaf forests in Kerontali. She had been living in the area all her life and she came from a conservative background. Her father and brothers were part of the community patrolling groups (CPG), a group formed by the USAID projects to patrol the forests and protect it from poaching and illegal logging. Khurshida wanted to join as well, but there were no women who were part of the mix, at least not then.
After thinking about it for a few days and then discussing with the USAID project members, Khurshida went around her neighborhood to speak to other women. She found that her thoughts resonated with a good few. She found women who like her wanted to go patrol the forests, preserve it against ill-intentions and help it grow for their children.
In 2006 Khurshid formed the first female patrolling group with the help of USAID’s Nishorgo project. It was an outstanding achievement as most women in the Teknaf region were extremely conservative and took the hijab. Khushida and her group did not take off the veils from their heads, they simply picked up walking sticks, and adorned themselves in green sari uniforms. And that is how they started their journey as protectors of the environment they were raised in.
Within a couple of years, the news traveled of Khurshida’s group. Our project arranged collaborative management conferences where Khurshida met others like her living in different parts of the country. After the conference, when these women from Sylhet and Chittagong went home they also started their own patrolling groups. Today, all of Bangladesh’s forests and wetlands, women have joined forces with men in all the CPGs around the country. While I served in the IPAC project in Bangladesh (2010-2013), the news reached the international media, and we had the opportunity to show Khurshida and her group’s work to CNN who produced a great piece called the Sari Squad. In 2012, Khursida also won the Wangari Mathai award and traveled to Italy to receive this honor.
Now back in DC, and getting into the deeper works of USAID and its collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) framework, I see the footprints of CLA all over the work of Khurshida and the others around the country who learned what worked in one region and adopted it for their own. The men also changed their previous style of operating and adjusted their orientation to incorporate their female colleagues in the group. It was not an easy journey for Khurshida or the other brave CPG female members, but through yearly gatherings they shared their experiences, learned from each other, took the lessons back home and adapted the new styles which worked for that particular time and their situations.
It is fascinating what collaboration can manifest and how replication of a good model can create a wave strong enough from one end of the earth to another. It was not easy for me to leave Bangladesh and separating myself from these inspiring people. However, I trust that the power of CLA will bring us all closer together, as it is happening at this very moment, as you read this piece, with the belief in CLA and for all the Khurshidas of this world.