by: Chista Keramati
Before parting on that sweltering mid-July afternoon, you asked me and my colleague to promise not to forget the stories you had shared with us earlier that day, while we were taking shelter from a torrential monsoon rain under your neighbor’s mud porch. My colleague and I were but two graduate students doing research on the difficulties women like you face under the looming threats of climate change and environmental degradation. Time and again during focus group discussions, women and men from rural communities such as yours highlighted similar hopes and fears for the future–hopes for more jobs, mixed with fears of losing them too quickly and at the cost of access to natural resources. We promised not to forget your stories, yet we were unsure what we could do to help.
It has been a few months since then. It is dry season in Bangladesh now. You described dry season to be very hectic–no time to mess around. It’s time to plan and prepare for the next monsoon season: store food and fuel, work and save money for when there are fewer employment opportunities, repair your home to have a more resilient shelter against potential climatic hazards. While you keep busy tending to your immediate and future needs, I try to pass on your message to the international community to seek solidarity for change. I am sure there are a lot of stories like yours in other countries as well–stories from the ground that need to be actively sought out and listened to.
Flashback to that day under the porch: as you are participating in the focus group discussion, you are also knitting dolls, making the most of your time. All of you have learned the skill during a workshop as part of an NGO project. “Nobody knits or uses knitted things around here,” you say. NGO employees stop by, occasionally, to bring you the yarn that is otherwise not available in the local market. It is also they who pay you for your knitted dolls. You appreciate the income. And the work does not interfere with a host of other tasks you usually need to accomplish during the day: cooking, cleaning, gathering fuel, you name it. You can knit while taking a break to relax and chat with friends and family. But you are also worried about the future: “What if the NGO people decide to stop the project?” However, you admit that whatever the NGO decides to do with the project is out of your control. You shake your head and continue with the knitting, which has a soothing effect on you, especially since you have learned to knit better and faster over time.
We also meet with a group of smallholder farmers who used to cultivate rice but have now shifted to shrimp. They explain how they have been affected by the transition from rice to shrimp cultivation. When large landowners direct sea water onto their land for shrimp cultivation, the saline water spoils the soil in all neighboring farms. High salinity levels have made it impossible for neighboring smallholder farmers to grow rice anymore. All participants in the discussion say they received training to do shrimp farming from an NGO workshop. “Shrimp farming is not too bad,” some say. “It means we can make money to bring food for our families.” Everybody in the group nods in agreement. “But in an ideal world, what would be your favorite job?,” we ask. Everybody gets excited and the discussion heats up. One says, “Rice farming, of course!” Another passionately comments, “We’ve grown and eaten rice for generations.” Someone else adds in agreement, “With rice farming we wouldn’t need to do other jobs on the side. No need to take the risk of going fishing in the mangrove forest where we might easily get attacked by a crocodile or a tiger or even pirates.” In the end, however, everybody admits that life is not ideal, and that one has to accept and live with life’s trade-offs. But what if trade-offs are manageable?
People of Singhortoli village, you probably do not know this, but in 2015 countries agreed on a comprehensive grand plan to make the world a better place for everybody–to leave no one behind. The plan included 17 goals, called the Sustainable Development Goals, that span such broad topics as eradicating poverty and hunger to sustaining life on land and sea. Just like your description of different aspects of life, these goals are intertwined; sometimes addressing one goal helps achieving other goals as well, and sometimes the opposite is true. Your wisdom assures me that you understand.
In a few months’ time from now, in the summer of 2019, officials from many countries will gather in the United Nations headquarters for the annual High Level Political Forum (HLPF) to discuss progress towards the SDGs–among them Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth and Goal 13 on climate action. It is on this occasion that I decide to fulfill my pledge. You deserve to be heard and remembered. The ones who made the pledge to improve your living conditions also deserve to hear your stories for better decision-making. The HLPF meetings can be the perfect space for the participants to share and discuss knowledge on how to manage negative interactions among SDGs.
Meeting you in your villages showed us how people on the ground face the challenges of trade-offs on a daily basis. You say a lot of decisions are outside of your control, but you have invaluable insider knowledge that can guide the ones who decide on policies. Let us hope that governments, donors, NGOs, and the private sector will use opportunities such as the upcoming HLPF to actively share knowledge and expertise on how to address the SDG trade-offs. Let us hope that, although these talks take place far from you, your stories are held at the heart of such discussions.
Hope to see you again in a prosperous and ever more beautiful Singhortoli.
Chista Keramati worked as a translator and research assistant in Tajikistan from 2015-16. While in Tajikistan, she also volunteered as an English tutor. She holds a BA in English literature and an MA in linguistics, and is interested in climate change and women’s issues in the Global South. At home in Iran, Chista is part of the minority Sunni community. She is a graduate of the Master of Global Affairs program at the University of Notre Dame.