Reimagining the political ecology of environmental risks and place-making in Chittagong, Bangladesh and its location in the Indian Ocean World: a critical feminist analysis of the perceptions of contemporary vulnerabilities and historical memory of the Indian Ocean region

Bidita Jawher Tithi

Chittagong, the southeastern part of Bangladesh, is currently widely acknowledged as one of the places which will be drastically affected by various environmental risks such as climate change in the near future (IPCC, 2007). Most current approaches to environmental risk mitigation plans to cope with the current and future environmental risks are based on and limited by geographically categorizing regions according to their elevation and proximity to the sea.  Furthermore, the historic connections and shared experiences between the places are often ignored. The aims of this paper is to unsettle the current ways of thinking about the Chittagong region and its people by presenting a different way of thinking about historical and the current risks, and different geographies (such as seaports and the hills) in Bangladesh. The study is based on a study of two regions of Chittagong: Cox’s Bazar, a historical port, and Bardarban, a hilly region often described as a remote outskirt or the borderlands of Bangladesh(Shamsuddoha, Hossain, & Shahjahan, 2014). In particular, this paper considers how a focus on the situation of the two regions in the Indian Ocean worlds can foster different thinking about the political ecology of the region. The Indian Ocean worlds is a particularly powerful concept as it is a network of historical connections and a powerful heuristic device (Prestholdt, 2015), especially for understanding environmental risks.
I look at the two places and the day-to-day lives of the people in these places in relation to the various risks that they experience with a focus on an intersectional understanding of the complex social, cultural, economic, political and environmental risks experience. By bringing together the two places, I seek to find out the possible rationalities between these ‘neighbors’ in the Indian Ocean worlds (Simone, 2010)  and which have a long history of (inter)relations, movement and connections, especially since the British Raj (Amrith, 2013; Sen, 1981; Sengupta, 2011). The paper discuss how historical risks and disasters (such as famine, flooding, cyclones, riots, and wars) shape the local peoples’ attitude towards the current and future climate change effects. The paper shows that it is important to understand how the people and communities use their past to understand the turbulent present and future.

In the paper I use an integrated mixed method approach and a critical feminist political ecology perspective (Forsyth, 2003; Rocheleau, 1995, 2008; Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, & Wangari, 1996) to investigate the historical and current experiences related to risks in the two places from the beginning of the 20th century (during the British Raj) to the current period. The paper includes archival study of the records of official (that is, government) discourse of disasters, participant observation of everyday life of political refugee communities in Chittagong, interviews of local experts in the three cities working on natural disasters and environmental crisis, and focus group interviews of groups in the two places regarding the daily risks that they face, and oral history interviews.