For several decades, Bangladesh has been the destination for internationally designed and funded interventions to bring economic and social development into a country rocked by war, buffeted by severe storms along its coastline, and challenged by political instability in a struggle to establish democracy and better futures for its citizens. At various points such programs have targeted rural credit, the empowerment of women, and small-scale industries, often leading to the proliferation of regional and international NGOs across the country (see Bornstein 2005; Shehabuddin 2008; Karim 2011; Julia Huang 2020). Camelia Dewan shows in this clearly argued study based on sustained fieldwork with farmers, fishers, and development experts that climate change has become the latest lens through which development possibilities and plans are now viewed in many parts of Bangladesh.
Development programs have a long and controversial history of seeing the landscape they wish to transform through a particular cosmopolitan perspective—one that is shaped globally and expected to be meaningful in all local situations. Growing concern about anthropogenic climate change and its likely adverse effects in vulnerable places has generated its own all-consuming, parallel discourse. Dewan joins a growing scholarship identifying a configuration of power in development enterprises and policy that shapes interventions considered possible in the face of climate change.1 Drawing on ethnographies of aid and development brokerage, she develops the concept of “climate reductive translations” to capture how knowledge and technocratic consensus on climate change is produced and deployed to affect the lives of poor people in coastal Bangladesh in distinctly different ways.
As Dewan notes, low-lying areas of coastal Bangladesh, sandwiched between the occasionally turbulent sea in the Bay of Bengal and the rivers draining into it, are familiar with the floods, storm surges, and cyclones that periodically shift the course of rivers, deposit sediment, dissolve small islands, sink fishing boats, and inundate paddy fields. Land captured from silt deposits is also lost to unruly waters when embankments breach or when sea levels rise: as tidal waves or as the more gradual ingress of saltwater into intertidal zones. To some extent, the more frequent disturbances and the havoc they create have been attributed to a monsoon season that has become less predictable and more extreme (Amrith 2018). This is often understood as the outcome of climate change.
After providing a dynamic history of flood control embankments that take the story back to colonial encounters with rivers in the Bengal delta, Dewan situates this fine study in two coastal villages: one dealing with saltwater ingress and the other confronting freshwater excess. The vulnerability and struggle for viable livelihoods in these coastal villages is examined through clear-eyed ethnography.
The southwestern coastal zone has undergone several transformations in recent decades. For example, in the late twentieth century, some farmers in this region grew rice, sometimes combining it with freshwater shrimp cultivation and adapting the rotation to the seasonal monsoon. Intensive shrimp farming increased the precarity of this economy, making it more vulnerable to price fluctuations and extreme weather disruptions (Paul and Rasid 1993). In the twenty-first century, some have argued that coastal sea-level rise has frequently inundated fields with brackish water (Chen and Mueller 2018). Camelia Dewan, however, documents how salinity is introduced into fields via embankments that are purposefully broken for the cultivation of brackish tiger prawns. She also looks beyond the specific villages in which she carries out her detailed investigation to provide an ethnography of the workings of the development industry through a close examination of its institutions, which operate from outside and beyond the village to contribute to the exacerbation of rural vulnerability.
To do this, she investigates how an itinerant community of NGO workers, development consultants, and government officials—development brokers—translate the life and challenges of these villages into what she conceptualizes as the metacode of climate change. These mediators decipher the shifting priorities of the development industry and find ways to attract its funds to these areas, which have been characterized as the frontlines for fighting climate change in South Asia and the Global South more generally. Along the way, tiger-prawn cultivation and rice farming are subject to the logic of climate change adaptation, having already been shaped by prior development projects and investments.
The ethnography also reveals how villagers, across class and ecological differences, and women in particular, perceive the threats to their homes and livelihoods from both the inclemency of weather and the vagaries of development projects. Dewan joins a rich tradition of scholarship on how development projects misrecognize the people and landscapes they choose to engineer and transform. She is also pioneering how these approaches can be deployed in the study of climate change adaptation and mitigation projects where the focus shifts from extracting the most from the land and labor to defending the land and residents from cataclysmic events seen as the consequence of nature unbound and unleashed by human endeavor gone awry. The result is a nuanced, analytically sharp account that listens closely to coastal villagers and comments astutely on those who would alter their lives in the name of promoting climate change resilience in rural coastal Bangladesh.
In the latter part of the book, Dewan takes the analysis outward to the larger questions of persistent inequality and vulnerability in coastal Bangladesh. She brings the larger story back to the relative absence of reliable state programs. The reliance of these coastal areas on fitful NGO projects, and their being subject to the enduring structural violence of poverty, inadequate health care, and vicious cycles of debt aggravated by proliferating credit schemes operated by NGOs, is powerfully narrated. However, she also listens carefully to the women villagers and the way they see pathways out of their suffering and precarity. The perspectives of villagers on food, health, fishing, farming, kinship, and migration shine through the text, providing a vivid description of the place and its location amid the turbulent waters of coastal zones facing climate change.
These accounts place in relief some of the obtuseness and insensitivity of climate change–related projects. Dewan situates the solutions to climate change vulnerability in coastal Bangladesh in a history of development that dates back to the Structural Adjustment Policies of the 1980s and the successor programs of microcredit and agrarian enterprise that left the poor exposed, women marginalized, and the whole region at the mercy of growing climate instability. She provides an original contribution to the ethnographic study of climate change–related development projects in the Global South.