Field studies led to deep dive in mangrove forest

With the Indian Ocean on one side, and mangrove forest on the other, they travelled by motorboat along the Bay of Bengal. A trip that’s resulted in several soil and water samples, rich interview material, and, not least of all, a deep dive on the topic of how valuable the forest is, and how it both protects against and is threatened by climate change.

Boat trip Aisha and Tilde on the boat just outside of Char Kukri Mukri, taking samples. Privat

Aisha Rahman and Tilde Krusberg got to know each other at upper secondary school, when they both studied specialised in environmental studies. Their shared interest, and curiosity for interdisciplinary studies, led them to both apply to study environmental science at Linköping University’s (LiU) Norrköping campus.

“I was attracted by the interdisciplinary nature of the programme, where there is an explicit wish to combine perspectives from the natural sciences and the social sciences”, says Tilde Krusberg.

“It was above all the ecological and social perspectives that attracted me. Natural disasters have real effects on real people’s lives”, says Aisha Rahman.

Picture of a map of Bangladesh.Here are Tilde and Aisha in front of a map of Bangladesh at the Bangladesh office of the UNDP.  Photo credit Private. This is something they experienced first hand during a two-month trip to Bangladesh in the spring of 2022, where they performed field studies with the support of the Minor Field Studies (MFS) scholarship. The scholarship was financed by Sida (the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency), and can be applied for by students who are interested in global development questions and who want to collect material for their thesis in a low or middle-income country. The scholarship is available for field studies in any subject, and for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

Aisha and Tilde found out about the opportunity to apply for the MFS scholarship early on in their studies. They chose Bangladesh because Aisha had been there before.

“My parents come from Bangladesh, so I have family here. We stayed with my aunt in Dhaka.”

Mangroves play a great role in carbon sequestration

MangrovesDestroyed mangroves along the central southern Bengali coast. Photo credit Private. While there, they studied how mangrove forests work as protection against the effects of climate change on an island off the southern central coast.

“The island Char Kukri Mukri has a planted mangrove forest, where 90 percent of the trees are of the same species. Because the forest is basically a monoculture, it is now being destroyed, and the protection it provides may disappear. We investigated the possibility of restoring the mangrove forests by planting more species”, says Aisha.

Mangroves have a lot of important functions, such as providing protection from storms, cyclones, saltwater intrusion and flood waves, at the same time as filtering water and capturing carbon. Mangrove forests absorb four times as much carbon dioxide as rainforests. They are also an important living environment for several species, and provide food and sustenance for local communities. Therefore, developing a sustainable and long-term ecosystem for mangroves is very important.

Interdisciplinary method

During their field studies, Aisha and Tilde took advantage of the environmental science programme’s interdisciplinary nature.
“We aimed to understand both the ecological and social dimensions”, says Aisha. “For the former, we collected soil and water samples; for the latter, we performed interviews with the local population, and with experts from local public agencies, NGOs, the UNDP and climate researchers. This helped us discover the barriers to and opportunities in planting mangroves.”

Climate change is universal

Walking.Aisha and Tilde walking around Char Kukri Murki..  Photo credit Private. The interviews with the local population were facilitated by Aisha’s being able to speak Bengali.

“My language skills have been put to the test, but they have been a big help from the very moment that we touched down in Bangladesh.”

“They were invaluable. Without them, we wouldn’t have got so much out of the interviews. I don’t speak any Bengali, and the people we spoke with often didn’t understand English. But when I explained that we were researching ‘climate change’, everybody understood. It’s a lived reality, something in common that we could discuss”, says Tilde.

How did you collect the soil and water samples?

“We travelled by motorboat with a guy from Char Kukri Mukri to four different places along the coast. Each time we stopped, we wrote down the coordinates and gathered two bottles of water and two bags of earth. It took a whole day”, says Tilde.

Sunset over the Bay of Bengal.  Sunset over the Bay of Bengal.  Photo credit Private. “We were in the Bay of Bengal, right out in the middle of the sea, with the Indian Ocean on one side and the mangrove forest on the other. Now and again, we glimpsed a couple of fishing boats and some worn out ships along the way. The motor stopped running several times, but when we were finished, we drove the boat all the way back, through the sunset”, says Aisha.

The water and soil samples were stored in a fridge bag they had found in Aisha’s mother’s house.

“We gathered eight samples, as we didn’t have room for any more. The samples had to be kept cold. But we didn’t have a freezer on the boat, and no electricity supply either. Instead, we had to use freezer packs.”

They were on the island for a total of five nights and four days. Just getting there and back took a whole day.

“It was very inaccessible and remote. We had to travel by car, boat and plane to get there”, says Tilde.

Greater understanding for different living conditions

View over Dhaka.View over Dhaka from the roof.  Photo credit Private. The material that they gathered formed the basis of their bachelor’s thesis, which they finished writing while in Bangladesh. When they were in need of a break, they went up to the roof.

“In Dhaka, it’s common to hang out your washing and interact with others on your roof. There are lots of buildings and people there”, says Aisha.

They also went out on the occasional walk, to discover more of the megacity and go shopping. Initially, they were always accompanied by one of Aisha’s relatives. But when they got more familiar with the city, they went on walks or took rickshaws unaccompanied.

“We’re so used to being independent from having lived in Sweden. We’re not used to thinking of risks. People gave us a lot of warnings here, and that was a challenge. Because at the same time, we needed to test our own boundaries”, says Aisha.

DhakaMasses of green space and teeming street life everywhere.  Photo credit Privat. “To be safe, at the same time as not being afraid of everything, felt important”, explains Tilde.

“You could see the very richest and poorest on the streets. We’ve really deepened our understanding of and insight into people’s different living conditions”, says Aisha.

They are both planning to study at master’s level after graduating from the programme in environmental science. Anything could happen after that.

“We’ve just been in Bangladesh. Anything is possible now”, says Tilde.

Footnote: This article was published in LiU magazine #2 2022

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