Indigenous alumnus advancing biodiversity conservation and environmental sustainability in Bangladesh
Posted: 1 June 2023
Ahead of World Environment Day 2023, we are highlighting the work of Australia Awards alumnus Sheeladitya Chakma. Sheeladitya is an environmental expert promoting a sustainable future by restoring forest ecosystems and biodiversity in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, home to many Asian elephants.
Sheeladitya has always been fascinated by the natural world and the complex ways in which it works. Growing up in a small village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, Sheeladitya spent most of his childhood exploring nearby forests. Being a member of the Chakma indigenous community, he felt a strong bond between indigenous communities and nature, and observed how the local indigenous communities earned their livelihoods while caring for the environment and preserving biodiversity. Over the years, he became increasingly aware of the threat that climate change poses to indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and traditional knowledge.
After completing his Bachelor of Science (with Honours) and Master of Science in Environmental Science at the Institute of Forestry and Environmental Sciences at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sheeladitya started working in the environmental sector. His work focused on forests, watershed management and forest-dwelling communities’ livelihoods. However, his deep-rooted passion for nature and environmental conservation led him to pursue further study in Australia to learn new skills and knowledge that could help him better address environmental challenges and work towards preserving biodiversity.
In 2018, Sheeladitya completed a Master of Environmental Management in Conservation and Natural Resource Management from the University of Queensland, with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Since completing this degree, Sheeladitya has worked mostly with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While working with IUCN, he contributed to various projects, such as mitigating conflict between humans and elephants, restoring forest landscapes, and engaging with youth groups to solve environmental issues in Cox’s Bazar.
A key project involved working with traditional knowledge, refugees and elephants. Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been coming to Bangladesh since the 1970s, but the largest influx began in 2017. Since then, more than 773,000 Rohingya have fled into Cox’s Bazar, which remains home to the world’s largest refugee camp. Because this highly congested site used to be a forest, the number of incidents of human–elephant conflict began to increase. In response, Sheeladitya contributed significantly to establishing a community-based human–elephant conflict mitigation guarding system in that region. He helped blend the traditional elephant guarding system with scientific knowledge and trained the local and Rohingya communities to deter elephants in a coordinated way. Through this system, he has so far contributed to mitigating more than 500 elephant intrusions with less damage and zero fatalities.
Another focus of Sheeladitya’s work has been restoration of forest ecosystems. This is achieved through supporting reforestation, stabilising slopes and promoting conservation solutions. He has worked closely with local communities, government agencies and other stakeholders to develop and implement conservation and restoration strategies for a sustainable future.
“My Australian degree and experience have strengthened my capability to develop and apply preventive and corrective techniques to solve environmental degradation problems. Through my technical guidance and coordination, I was part of rehabilitating 50 hectares of severely degraded land through a plantation program using native tree species,” he says. “However, I believe the success of an eco-restoration project hinges significantly on continued efforts and acquisition of funding to ensure proper care and maintenance, particularly for high-density areas.”
Sheeladitya has recently joined the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangladesh as a Junior Natural Resource Management Specialist. In this role, he contributes to developing the Landslide Early Warning System and supports community-based watershed management, landscape restoration and biodiversity conservation in the Cox’s Bazar region.
While studying in Australia, Sheeladitya joined the international postgraduate student association in his university, where he made amazing friends from different continents. Sheeladitya also cherished his experience of volunteering in a riverbank restoration program with the University of Queensland Geoscience Society. He says that being involved in such restoration programs abroad “has been certainly rewarding and unique, especially in a multicultural and welcoming environment”.
This volunteer experience in Australia encouraged Sheeladitya to engage youth in environmental education and promote dialogue between indigenous people, other local communities and policymakers to incorporate indigenous knowledge into decision-making on climate change. Notably, he has contributed to developing a standard operating procedure to engage youth through environmental education. He also organised training and workshops for youth groups on waste management, biodiversity conservation, ecosystems and climate change.
To extend his experience beyond national boundaries, he recently attended Australia Awards’ 2023 Regional Alumni Workshop. The Workshop theme of ‘Building Back Better: Climate Resilience and Green Economic Recovery’ resonates with his passion and work.
“I am thankful for being selected by Australia Awards to attend the Regional Alumni Workshop. It was an excellent opportunity for all the alumni from South Asia and Mongolia to showcase our work on the green economy and climate change, share our challenges and successes with fellow alumni, and build and strengthen relevant professional networks across the region, including through a relaunched Champions for Environment and Climate Action community of practice,” Sheeladitya says.
By attending this year’s Regional Alumni Workshop, Sheeladitya hopes to connect with global alumni who are working on similar issues, with the ultimate aim of forming partnerships and cross-disciplinary teams to jointly tackle complex problems related to climate change and green economic development.