Climate change has added a new layer of vulnerability to communities inhabiting marginal landscapes, such as the Sundarbans delta archipelago in the Indian Ocean littoral. These are island societies that largely engage in climate-sensitive livelihoods—such as Betel leaf cultivation, rice paddy farming, and growing vegetables in fields near the periphery of the islands—which are susceptible to low-intensity climate shock and hydro-hazards like cyclones, floods, or salinity ingression. Conversely, their “marginal” position within society as landless peasants and underprivileged “caste” groups often limits their choices for resilient alternative employment and forces them to migrate to safer places for food, shelter, and livelihood.1Sandip Mondal, “Demystifying Caste in Bengal,” Economic & Political Weekly 56, no. 3 (2021). It is imperative to understand the specific challenges faced by such populations from a social science perspective, and this task brings a unique set of ethical challenges and responsibilities for researchers, as we experienced in our project. Our pilot fieldwork aimed to understand why communities moved out of their original homes and what motivated their move. The research aimed to document the perceptions, experiences, and factors influencing migration away from the Sundarbans delta mostly to megacities in the northern, southern, and western parts of India during a period of twin uncertainties: the pandemic and Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in May 2020. Here, we reflect on the challenges we faced while working among vulnerable communities in the remote riverine islands of the Sundarbans delta during these challenges.
Climate disruption and pandemic in the Sundarbans delta
The Sundarbans mangrove forest covers 14,000 hectares and lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers. The delta was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 in recognition of its unique megafauna. A complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats, and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests shape the delta and presents an excellent example of an “ecotone” where two ecosystems merge to create a “third space.”2“Ecotone,” Environmental Geology: Encyclopedia of Earth Science (Springer, 1999). The biodiversity hotspot is well known for a wide range of fauna, including 260 types of bird, the endangered Bengal tiger, and other threatened species, such as the estuarian crocodile and the Indian python. Besides its ecotonic diversity, it is also home to various marginalized tribes and caste groups who have made the Sundarbans delta their home since the twelfth century as the paddy frontier stretched to reclaim swamps, wetlands, mangroves, and backwaters of the Bengal delta.“A significant number of East Bengal refugees settled in the Sundarbans delta islands post-1947 and migration between India’s and Bangladesh’s Sundarbans remains an on-going process of human mobility across the Bengal borderland.”
In the past century, the delta has seen a further transformation with the influx of migrants from East Pakistan to the Indian part of the Sundarbans delta soon after India’s partition in 1947 and after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, both of which created millions of Hindu refugees overnight. A significant number of East Bengal refugees settled in the Sundarbans delta islands post-1947 and migration between India’s and Bangladesh’s Sundarbans remains an ongoing process of human mobility across the Bengal border. Added to these layers of movement are recent events of climate-induced migration out of the delta, which serves as the focus of our project. Additional factors also trigger the desire to migrate, like livelihood opportunities, education, aspiration to move to cities, and comparative safer places far away from disaster-affected islands. Seasonal migration determined by economic opportunities available outside the delta during the inactive agricultural season similarly contributes to people’s movements.
Climate change is directly affecting the marginalized communities of the Sundarbans delta by endangering their livelihoods, destroying their homes, and provoking uncertainty. Researchers need to interact with these vulnerable communities in ethical and sensitive ways to faithfully retell their stories through our work. During the planning grant, we intended to explore a community’s daily experiences to understand their needs through inductive approaches, such as focus group discussions and interviews with key informants. However, these plans were abandoned due to Covid-19 restrictions issued by the Government of India. Our Sundarbans team in India and Bangladesh then decided to adopt arts-based and digital participatory research techniques, which reduced the risk of direct physical contact with the community. These methods allowed our interlocutors to work with us as coresearchers. They soon became active participants in the data collection process as coinvestigators, arousing a sense of collaboration and labor of love. As researchers, to cultivate this collaborative atmosphere with the Sundarbans communities and coproduce knowledge about their identity, well-being, and choices, we turned to photovoices and participatory visual research.
Reflections on applying participatory visual research methods remotely
Participatory visual action research methods, like photovoice and visual diaries, can potentially open new conversations around climate change and uncertainty that otherwise might be inhibited by caste and gendered social structures in South Asia. Unlike most traditional forms of research, where the researcher’s reflections are prominent, participatory visual methods seek to address power imbalances and bring to focus the perspectives of vulnerable underrepresented actors, both of which are central to our ethics.3Upasona Gosh et al., “Expressing Collective Voices on Children’s Health: Photovoice Exploration with Mothers of Young Children from the Indian Sundarbans,” BMC Health Services Research 16, no. 625 (2016). These research methods are about the researchers “letting go of the control” and allowing the community to tell the story from their vantage point. While piloting digital diary work, we documented the stories of uncertainty from below. The visual narratives describe our participants’ everyday lived uncertainties and their fraught navigation of Covid-19 guidelines. Among other issues, they captured the concerns of parents whose teenage male children migrated for work, as well as young people’s desires for a secure livelihood, which grows more uncertain due to the increasing frequency of cyclones and floods that have made agriculture and fishing precarious.
Doing research in these circumstances brought to the fore communities’ uncertainties during the pandemic and cyclone, like inaccessibility during the storm and the closing of the island’s border during the pandemic, which disrupted livelihoods and income for poor islanders. These events protracted our fieldwork plans but helped both the researchers and interlocutors prevent unwitting hubris from taking hold by reminding them of the realities of fieldwork, power dynamics, and in this internet-connected world, the limitations of digitally less-literate people’s voices. Local researchers were often overwhelmed by the dangerous lives of the climatically vulnerable population in Baikunthapur village of Kultoli and Dashpara village of Sagar Block. The communities during Covid took a long time to trust field researchers in an area already burdened with climate shocks.
Building trust while conducting research“The complexity of doing remote research through interlocutors had a potentially profound impact on both the research process and its findings.”
It is important for academia to give an account of the story behind its research findings. In the context of our research, it means addressing the ethical challenges and the emotional pitfalls that local researchers faced before, during, and after their field experience amidst the devastation of a cyclone. Some of the researchers used their networks with humanitarian agencies and NGOs to direct relief to the most affected population during the study. The complexity of doing remote research through interlocutors had a potentially profound impact on both the research process and its findings. This impact needed proper attention to understand the inherent bias of researchers’ position in the field, since the interlocutors and research assistants were from the communities, and to assess the quality of their findings. The study also demonstrated that a pragmatic approach of prioritizing the safety of researchers and the researched, by ensuring that Covid-19 protocols were strictly maintained, helped in the empirical research process. Because we, as researchers, accounted for the communities’ concerns over Covid, this helped build trust and therefore organically engaged participatory visual action research.
Sessions with community-based organization members, schoolteachers, community leaders, and coresearchers revealed numerous instances of emotional and intellectual challenges for researchers when working with vulnerable communities and discussing sensitive issues such as migration amidst dual uncertainties. It also demonstrated the importance of thinking through how to mitigate the pitfalls—like access to healthcare, loss of shelter and livelihood due to the cyclone, migrants being stranded in their worksites outside the Sundarbans during lockdown without income and support from the state—that arise when we are tempted to emotionally engage with the lives of our research subjects during a pandemic. Balancing our primary responsibility of doing research without transmitting the virus proved a real challenge. The researchers struggled to come to terms with the unprecedented scale of suffering brought about by the simultaneous occurrence of the pandemic and one of the worst super cyclones to have hit the delta. As one researcher recalls:
“We were collecting data from one of the climatically vulnerable islands of the Sundarbans in May 2020 through digital as well as traditional methods when Cyclone Amphan happened. The devastating impact of Amphan revealed the dramatic uncertainties of communities’ lives and livelihoods, which reflected on the realities of climate change. We, as researchers, were overwhelmed by the destruction; however, our prompt action was to facilitate relief processes.”
In addition, due to the nature of remote research, certain privileged access was necessary, and the researcher had to continually be mindful of the trade-offs arising out of the impact of local communities’ perception of the field researcher and the utility of the research. To adhere to standard academic publishing protocols, which were not designed for pandemic times, meant adopting visual and digital arts-based participatory methodologies, such as digital diaries and photovoice, to ethically collect data while staying at a safe distance from our interlocutors. In reality, the research experience was uneven at best, and it highlights the need to be flexible and adaptable and allow for contingency measures in the case of unforeseen challenges interfering with our project fieldwork plans.
The most challenging aspect of digital diary research, particularly during these uncertain times, was to look beyond the data collection process and account for what was not vocalized by community members. Due to lockdown policies, fear and anxiety were a common feature of the research both on the part of the researcher and the researched. In order to gain the trust of the men and women whose stories are our data, acknowledging and understanding their fear, helplessness, and anxiety became a critical research strategy.
During times of unprecedented mass loss of lives, the experiences of the field researchers suggest that gaining and building trust in the context of fear and anxiety takes time. To demonstrate that interlocutors are Covid-free, that they are taking necessary precautions, that they respect their research subjects, and that they are genuinely interested in their lives and livelihoods took much time and persuasion. It also meant that the researcher had to embargo their data or delay its publication in order to reverify it.“Community-based participatory visual methods, like digital photo diaries, often provide a participant’s sole point of view.”
The silent stories of lived experiences captured through the diaries are often the most sublime, and it is imperative for the researcher to go back to the community for validation. Community-based participatory visual methods, like digital photo diaries, often provide a participant’s sole point of view. For it to be considered the voice of the community, it is important that individual perceptions are validated by the community, which can make data more rigorous. From our experience in doing research in these climate change-challenged settings, we knew that the value of a person’s narrative cannot often be judged and should not necessarily be judged in terms of truthfulness but in terms of the underlying meaning that a person assigns to particular aspects of reality.
To successfully embed a community-based participatory research method requires relationship building with the community, which takes time. To do research during a period of “cascading uncertainties” takes even more time and is more complex. Unless the community has complete faith in the researcher and research method, has clarity, and is motivated to participate, the process and the output from the method will not mirror the community’s perception. The step of deconstructing the hierarchy between the researcher and the individuals who take the photos and document the narratives from their lens is often the most crucial part of the study. This often means that researchers had to revisit the study villages on multiple occasions to have regular discussions about how community members view climate change uncertainty and the resulting fallout. Consequently, this was also an occasion for researchers to engage with the relational and reflexive aspects of embedding a participatory action research method during a crisis.
Banner photo: Destruction due to Cyclone Ampham in the Indian Sundarbans. Photo credit: Baikhantipur Tarun Sangha.