The Sundarbans crab farmers battling climate crisis – and pirates

Kate Lamb and Ali Ahsan in Khulna; photographs by Allison Joyce
With rising seas swallowing Bangladesh’s land and kidnappings a regular hazard, families scraping a living farming crab and shrimp in one of the world’s largest mangrove forests are fighting to survive. “The river is so hungry,” says Peramin Ishak, as he gestures to a missing arc of land from the muddy embankment. “It just keeps eating the land.” From his village of Datina Khali, which rests on the edge of the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, Ishak has watched the river swallow up a three hectare (seven acre) chunk of land in the past decade. Stretching across south-western Bangladesh and into neighbouring India, the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world, a honeycomb of islands and tributaries that eventually fan out into the Bay of Bengal. It may be one of the most beautiful places on earth, but the families eking out a living in its waters are buffeted by one problem after another. Here, on the frontline of the climate crisis, rising sea levels claim more and more land each year. Salt infiltrates the drinking water, and imbues the vegetables with a sharp tang. Increasing salinity almost wiped out the local shrimp industry back in the mid-90s, and these days many local fishermen have switched from collecting shrimp to hunting the more climatically resilient mud crab. But even as they adapt, locals remain extremely vulnerable. Mud crabs are becoming increasingly scarce, and as farmers venture into the mangrove forest to collect them, they are falling prey to gangs of pirates who kidnap them for ransom, forcing their families into debt. Loan sharks have spotted the opportunity and are now preying on the villagers too. Somehow they are surviving, but many are looking for a way out. ‘If the heat increases, the shrimp will die’ Around Datina Khali, the aquaculture industry dominates the landscape, with sleepy villages surrounded by an earthen patchwork of shrimp ponds and soft-shell crab farms. In the stifling early morning heat, Shuvendro Nath Mistry is surveying his two hectare shrimp farm, as a group of women knee-deep in water pull weeds from his ponds. “The shrimp haven’t grown well this year. In this hot weather it is harder for them to grow,” admits Mistry, his arms crossed over his bare chest. “If the salinity increases the shrimp will not die, but production will decrease. But if the heat increases, the shrimp will die.” Today the crippling temperatures are one of the shrimp farmers’ biggest concerns. Mistry is all too aware of the precarious situation of his trade, and watchful for the next problem that could bring the industry to its knees – as happened 20 years ago, when white spot disease spread through the farms, brought on by the increased levels of salt. During the crisis, farmers noticed that mud crabs were naturally invading the decimated shrimp ponds, and seized the opportunity for some marginal returns. As a result, some deserted their old stocks and switched to crab cultivation instead. Although still nascent and smaller than the now recovered shrimp industry, Bangladesh’s crab production has proved a success story. With rising international demand from countries such as China, Singapore and Malaysia, the export of mud crab from the south Asian nation reached $24m (£19m) in 2015–16. Now the area’s aquaculture is divided between shrimp and soft-shell crab farming, and collecting wild mud crabs from the Sundarbans for export, or to be fattened up in local farms. Yet the irony is that amid a shift to a more climatically resilient industry, those on its frontline, the fishermen who venture into the mangrove forest, find themselves more and more at risk. Kidnappings ‘up to once a week’ For years, small pirate gangs have roamed the watery capillaries of the Sundarbans, hiding out in the dense forest as they stake out fishermen to kidnap and hold for ransom. There are a few horror stories – of fishermen being severely beaten, or having their Achilles tendons sliced – but for the most part the piratical target is financial. As soon as they capture a victim, the pirates head for areas within the forest known for the best cell reception, sometimes climbing trees for a clear line, so they can call a terrified victim’s family to demand a ransom via electronic transfer. So organised are some they even have their own business cards. “It’s so stressful when the men get kidnapped,” exclaims Shefali Bibi, a pickle maker and fisherman’s wife from Datina Khali, dressed in a bright yellow and purple sari. “Those are the worst days. I can’t eat, or sleep or bathe.” In the past decade, pirates have twice kidnapped her husband and held him for ransom, each time causing immense financial strain. Of about 1,600 fishermen and crab collectors in Datina Khali, almost all have been kidnapped once – others up to four or five times. To address the rampant banditry, the government has in recent years launched a huge crackdown, offering pirates lucrative sums to surrender. Roughly 29 pirate groups brandishing more than 400 firearms have given themselves up since 2015, with the last batch reportedly surrendering in November 2018, when the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, declared the Unesco-listed Sundarbans “pirate free”. But while the situation is significantly better, local fishermen say there are at least three pirate gangs still operating, with kidnappings occurring up to once a week. “There are fewer pirate groups now, but the situation is unchanged. If they find us we still have to pay them,” says 32-year-old Moniral Islam Gazi, a crab collector who was captured this April. “I am not really scared of being caught because I have faced it a lot, but I am scared about where to find the money.” If pirates capture them as they eke out a meagre existence collecting mud crabs and wild honey, they are quickly plunged into vicious cycles of debt. Back in the village, when a family member receives a ransom call they are thrust into a state of panic. Most have little, if any, savings. With payments ranging anywhere from 20,000 to 250,000 Bangladeshi taka (£182 – £2,270), many are forced to take loans. Of almost half a dozen crab collectors interviewed, all but one had a loan. Many had multiple loans, from local businessmen, village loan sharks and microcredit agencies. “Sometimes they need a loan just to pay for their forest permit and supplies,” explains Srikander Ali, a local crab broker at the nearby Katakhali fish market, who reckons the kidnappings still occur between eight and 10 times a month. “I also give them loans for the ransoms. If they get caught it affects my business too,” he says, glancing at baskets of wriggling mud crab stacked against the wall, soon to be trucked to Dhaka for live export. “I estimate that about 80% are in a pretty bad financial position.” ‘A lot of fear factors’ Sitting opposite her husband in their canoe, as he gently scoops up his line from the khaki waters, Henna Bibi is pragmatic about her choices. “There are a lot of fear factors in the forest,” she says. “But if we get scared we won’t be able to raise our children.” For safety, they set out into the forest in numbers. But these days there is also the problem of supply – once bountiful, wild mud crabs are becoming increasingly hard to find. “The number of crabs has dropped noticeably in the last six years,” says Muhammad Didar Boxfaksis, 65. “On a good day, we can get 5–7kg, but 15 years ago it was double that.” “We used to throw the smaller crabs back,” agrees his neighbour, Sobed Ali. “Now, we take everything we can find.” Mojibar Rahman, who is researching a PhD on crab cultivation at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, says the shortage is likely to result from over-collection. To make the industry more sustainable, the government needs to invest in mud-crab hatcheries, he suggests, instead of being almost entirely reliant on wild stocks. “The crab industry is still underdeveloped because of a lack of culture technology and a lack of seeds [baby crabs],” he explains, adding that some farmers have also shied away from crab cultivation because, in the Muslim-majority nation, crabs are viewed as haram (forbidden). With the myriad challenges before them, some local fishermen are looking for a way out. Many of the younger men have already left, seeking work in urban brick factories. The older fishermen claim that if it weren’t for the pirates they would make more than enough, but Sobed Ali is tired of waiting, and luckily has a small amount of money to invest in adapting his business. “The money I make, I don’t end up using it myself, it ends up as pirate bail,” says the exasperated father of three. “It makes my life miserable.” With their savings from harvesting crab and selling pickles, and a loan from a Japanese trading company, Ali and his wife have converted a piece of land they own in the village into a small soft-shell crab farm. “I have to secure my children’s future, so that’s why I am starting the soft-shell crab farming,” says Ali, as he hammers together an adjacent shelter in the fading light. “I don’t want my sons to go into the forest like me. It’s too risky. Hopefully, if this goes well, I can stop going in too.”

“The river is so hungry,” says Peramin Ishak, as he gestures to a missing arc of land from the muddy embankment. “It just keeps eating the land.”

From his village of Datina Khali, which rests on the edge of the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, Ishak has watched the river swallow up a three hectare (seven acre) chunk of land in the past decade.

Stretching across south-western Bangladesh and into neighbouring India, the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world, a honeycomb of islands and tributaries that eventually fan out into the Bay of Bengal.

It may be one of the most beautiful places on earth, but the families eking out a living in its waters are buffeted by one problem after another.

Here, on the frontline of the climate crisis, rising sea levels claim more and more land each year. Salt infiltrates the drinking water, and imbues the vegetables with a sharp tang.

Increasing salinity almost wiped out the local shrimp industry back in the mid-90s, and these days many local fishermen have switched from collecting shrimp to hunting the more climatically resilient mud crab.

But even as they adapt, locals remain extremely vulnerable. Mud crabs are becoming increasingly scarce, and as farmers venture into the mangrove forest to collect them, they are falling prey to gangs of pirates who kidnap them for ransom, forcing their families into debt. Loan sharks have spotted the opportunity and are now preying on the villagers too.

Somehow they are surviving, but many are looking for a way out.

‘If the heat increases, the shrimp will die’

Around Datina Khali, the aquaculture industry dominates the landscape, with sleepy villages surrounded by an earthen patchwork of shrimp ponds and soft-shell crab farms.

In the stifling early morning heat, Shuvendro Nath Mistry is surveying his two hectare shrimp farm, as a group of women knee-deep in water pull weeds from his ponds.

“The shrimp haven’t grown well this year. In this hot weather it is harder for them to grow,” admits Mistry, his arms crossed over his bare chest. “If the salinity increases the shrimp will not die, but production will decrease. But if the heat increases, the shrimp will die.”

Today the crippling temperatures are one of the shrimp farmers’ biggest concerns. Mistry is all too aware of the precarious situation of his trade, and watchful for the next problem that could bring the industry to its knees – as happened 20 years ago, when white spot disease spread through the farms, brought on by the increased levels of salt.

During the crisis, farmers noticed that mud crabs were naturally invading the decimated shrimp ponds, and seized the opportunity for some marginal returns. As a result, some deserted their old stocks and switched to crab cultivation instead.

Although still nascent and smaller than the now recovered shrimp industry, Bangladesh’s crab production has proved a success story. With rising international demand from countries such as China, Singapore and Malaysia, the export of mud crab from the south Asian nation reached $24m (£19m) in 2015–16.

Now the area’s aquaculture is divided between shrimp and soft-shell crab farming, and collecting wild mud crabs from the Sundarbans for export, or to be fattened up in local farms.

Yet the irony is that amid a shift to a more climatically resilient industry, those on its frontline, the fishermen who venture into the mangrove forest, find themselves more and more at risk.

Kidnappings ‘up to once a week’

For years, small pirate gangs have roamed the watery capillaries of the Sundarbans, hiding out in the dense forest as they stake out fishermen to kidnap and hold for ransom.

There are a few horror stories – of fishermen being severely beaten, or having their Achilles tendons sliced – but for the most part the piratical target is financial.

As soon as they capture a victim, the pirates head for areas within the forest known for the best cell reception, sometimes climbing trees for a clear line, so they can call a terrified victim’s family to demand a ransom via electronic transfer. So organised are some they even have their own business cards.

“It’s so stressful when the men get kidnapped,” exclaims Shefali Bibi, a pickle maker and fisherman’s wife from Datina Khali, dressed in a bright yellow and purple sari. “Those are the worst days. I can’t eat, or sleep or bathe.”

In the past decade, pirates have twice kidnapped her husband and held him for ransom, each time causing immense financial strain.

Of about 1,600 fishermen and crab collectors in Datina Khali, almost all have been kidnapped once – others up to four or five times.

To address the rampant banditry, the government has in recent years launched a huge crackdown, offering pirates lucrative sums to surrender.

Roughly 29 pirate groups brandishing more than 400 firearms have given themselves up since 2015, with the last batch reportedly surrendering in November 2018, when the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, declared the Unesco-listed Sundarbans “pirate free”.

But while the situation is significantly better, local fishermen say there are at least three pirate gangs still operating, with kidnappings occurring up to once a week.

“There are fewer pirate groups now, but the situation is unchanged. If they find us we still have to pay them,” says 32-year-old Moniral Islam Gazi, a crab collector who was captured this April. “I am not really scared of being caught because I have faced it a lot, but I am scared about where to find the money.”

If pirates capture them as they eke out a meagre existence collecting mud crabs and wild honey, they are quickly plunged into vicious cycles of debt.

Back in the village, when a family member receives a ransom call they are thrust into a state of panic. Most have little, if any, savings. With payments ranging anywhere from 20,000 to 250,000 Bangladeshi taka (£182 – £2,270), many are forced to take loans.

Of almost half a dozen crab collectors interviewed, all but one had a loan. Many had multiple loans, from local businessmen, village loan sharks and microcredit agencies.

“Sometimes they need a loan just to pay for their forest permit and supplies,” explains Srikander Ali, a local crab broker at the nearby Katakhali fish market, who reckons the kidnappings still occur between eight and 10 times a month.

“I also give them loans for the ransoms. If they get caught it affects my business too,” he says, glancing at baskets of wriggling mud crab stacked against the wall, soon to be trucked to Dhaka for live export. “I estimate that about 80% are in a pretty bad financial position.”

‘A lot of fear factors’

Sitting opposite her husband in their canoe, as he gently scoops up his line from the khaki waters, Henna Bibi is pragmatic about her choices.

“There are a lot of fear factors in the forest,” she says. “But if we get scared we won’t be able to raise our children.”

For safety, they set out into the forest in numbers. But these days there is also the problem of supply – once bountiful, wild mud crabs are becoming increasingly hard to find.

“The number of crabs has dropped noticeably in the last six years,” says Muhammad Didar Boxfaksis, 65. “On a good day, we can get 5–7kg, but 15 years ago it was double that.”

“We used to throw the smaller crabs back,” agrees his neighbour, Sobed Ali. “Now, we take everything we can find.”

Mojibar Rahman, who is researching a PhD on crab cultivation at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, says the shortage is likely to result from over-collection.

To make the industry more sustainable, the government needs to invest in mud-crab hatcheries, he suggests, instead of being almost entirely reliant on wild stocks.

“The crab industry is still underdeveloped because of a lack of culture technology and a lack of seeds [baby crabs],” he explains, adding that some farmers have also shied away from crab cultivation because, in the Muslim-majority nation, crabs are viewed as haram (forbidden).

With the myriad challenges before them, some local fishermen are looking for a way out. Many of the younger men have already left, seeking work in urban brick factories.

The older fishermen claim that if it weren’t for the pirates they would make more than enough, but Sobed Ali is tired of waiting, and luckily has a small amount of money to invest in adapting his business.

“The money I make, I don’t end up using it myself, it ends up as pirate bail,” says the exasperated father of three. “It makes my life miserable.”

With their savings from harvesting crab and selling pickles, and a loan from a Japanese trading company, Ali and his wife have converted a piece of land they own in the village into a small soft-shell crab farm.

“I have to secure my children’s future, so that’s why I am starting the soft-shell crab farming,” says Ali, as he hammers together an adjacent shelter in the fading light.

“I don’t want my sons to go into the forest like me. It’s too risky. Hopefully, if this goes well, I can stop going in too.”