- A recent documentary looks at how Bangladeshi farmers are adapting to rising sea levels.
- The film documents how Bangladeshi farmers are keeping their farms from flooding by building floating gardens made of water hyacinth and bamboo.
- The film won the Best Short Film at the New York WILD Film Festival, which begins on Feb. 22.
- Mongabay interviewed cultural anthropologist Alizé Carrère to learn more about why she chose to focus on Bangladesh and why this story is important.
This is a story of hope.
Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Threatened by rising sea levels, storms and cyclones, floods have become commonplace, with seawater encroaching both homes and agricultural farms. But Bangladeshi people have found ingenious ways of adapting to the rising sea level. A recent documentary, “Adaptation Bangladesh: Sea Level Rise,” explores one such example of resilience.
To keep their farms from flooding, Bangladeshi farmers have been building floating gardens — farms made of water hyacinth and bamboo that float on water, no matter what the water level. These floating gardens help the people “fish, raise ducks, and grow produce,” Alizé Carrère, a cultural anthropologist and National Geographic explorer, told National Geographic in 2016.
“Adaptation Bangladesh,” featuring Carrère and directed by documentary filmmaker Justin DeShields, looks not only at simple floating farms that farmers have traditionally used in flood-prone areas, but also explores more advanced floating farms, schools and libraries, and even high-tech floating farms that could potentially provide food for entire cities. For Carrère, it was important to document these “slices of hope.”
“So while I sometimes wonder if people will criticize these stories as futile or inaccurate portrayals given what’s coming down the pike, I have to remind myself that those small narratives (and practices) of resilience are all that we have left,” she told Mountain film education. “And frankly, most of what we’ve used so far to push people to action on climate change are doomsday narratives, which clearly haven’t been working. So why not try a new, more uplifting narrative and see where it brings us?”
Mongabay interviewed Carrère to learn more about why she chose to focus on Bangladesh and why this story is important.
Mongabay: What makes Bangladesh a good location for a film about climate change and rising sea levels?
Alizé Carrère: Bangladesh is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, for a multitude of reasons. To begin with, it’s a giant river delta. Bangladesh sits at the confluence of the Ganges, Jamuna and Meghna rivers, so it’s flat and extremely wet. Any fluctuation in sea level rise or monsoon patterns dramatically impacts the population, many of whom live on or near the water. It’s also the most densely populated country on our planet — more than 160 million people live in a landmass the size of Wisconsin. That’s staggering. When you have that many people living so close together, and when the environment is so susceptible to minor fluctuations in water levels, you end up with a highly vulnerable population. On top of that it is also a very impoverished country, so the alternatives for most people are limited once flooding occurs.
How did you come to look at climate adaptation efforts in Bangladesh, and how did the film come about?
I actually learned about the floating gardens of Bangladesh in college, when I took a geography course at McGill University. I was fascinated by the concept: if you could build gardens that float, then you’re not beholden to your environment. Regardless of what the water level is, your farm stays afloat, continuing to provide food even during the wettest months of the year (when all fields are under water). I loved this idea, and started finding other examples of resilience and practical design in the face of change. Once I started collecting these stories, it gave rise to the idea of making a series. We started with the case study in Bangladesh.
Whereas we normally hear a lot of doom and gloom about climate change, Adaptation Bangladesh seems to strike something of a hopeful note by focusing on the ways farmers are attempting to cope with sea level rise. What are some of the key adaptations you feature in the film?
The film looks at four different adaptive designs as it relates to sea level rise and erratic monsoon patterns: traditional floating farms made of extremely simple materials (all organic plants), more advanced floating farms made with recycled materials, floating school boats and libraries, and finally, large-scale, high-tech floating farms out in the ocean that could provide food for entire cities.
In your time with them, how hopeful did these farmers seem that they could adapt to climate change and even perhaps continue to thrive in a warming world?
That’s a tough question, and I think it changes depending on where you are and who you’re talking to. Bangladeshis have always lived with, on and around water, and therefore constantly adjust to it. To be surrounded by water demands, in some way, that you always stay present. You can’t project too far into the future about the way things will be, because water is incredibly fickle and may be one way today and completely different tomorrow. And when that’s your dominant landscape feature, you get pretty good at, quite literally, going with the flow. From our conversations, and from what I saw, this seemed to be the prevailing attitude. That’s not to say there isn’t suffering and difficulty with that reality, but it’s more of a take-each-day-as-it-comes mentality.
These farmers must still be facing significant challenges. Which of those challenges seemed most daunting to you?
Population growth. I can’t put into words how intense it is to be immersed in such a densely inhabited area such as Dhaka, the capital city. I had never seen anything like it. You can be the most sustainable population in the world, but when there’s 160 million of you – and the land on which you live is disappearing before your very eyes – it’s not easy. Population growth is something we have to start thinking about more seriously in general, somehow it seems like the climate change conversation has taken over the population conversation in the last two decades. I don’t have the answer to it, but I do think we underestimate the power of educating girls and young women. When they have agency in their own lives, it creates a trickle-down effect and results in healthier decision-making for themselves and their families.
There is obvious value in telling these farmers’ stories, but what do you hope this film can achieve in a broader sense? What are the main takeaways for people who maybe don’t live in an area subject to such severe sea level rise?
I always say that adaptation is more of a mindset than it is a practice. To me, this project is about waking up the part of ourselves that has allowed us to exist for as long as we have in the first place – and that’s our ability to be resilient and adaptive in our thinking. Most of my work is looking at the positive, but truthfully, the most depressing part is that those of us living in relative comfort and stability are the least adaptable of all! It gets back to the old adage, “necessity is the mother of invention.” There’s something about people who have nothing between them and environmental change that we can all learn from, and my goal with this series is to start bringing those lessons of creativity into classrooms so that young minds can start thinking differently for our future. We will not solve our present-day issues with traditional, linear approaches. I do a lot of work in schools and with educators, and it’s amazing to see how kids absorb this content. They are so much better at it than adults – they have no limits to their imagination, and that’s exactly what we need.
What are the distribution plans for the film? When and where can the public see it?
We’re still working on that right now, but in the meantime I’m working on putting together a website. Ultimately this project is more than just the series. With the help of an educational consultant, we’re starting to design curriculum around each case study, so that any student, teacher or citizen can go to the site, watch the episodes, and then download educational content if they want to dive deeper into the issues. I’m hoping to have this up by the end of the year.
This film is part of a series, correct? What’s coming next?
Yes, that’s right. It’s a 6-part series that looks at 6 distinct case studies around the world where we see people innovatively adapting to landscape changes. I’ve been following these different case studies/communities for the last few years now, and will be heading to Vanuatu for the month of May as the next installment. I don’t want to reveal too many details, but it has to do with starfish compost!