Since the 1930s Tanguar Haor, like any other wetland in Bangladesh, was managed through a leasing system where the highest bidder won temporary entitlement (for three to five years) to extract the resources. In reality, due to its remoteness and the political influence of the lease holders (who were always from the political party in power), Tanguar Haor was treated as private property.
The considerable population living around the wetland was largely excluded from their rights to access the natural resources. However, some locally influential people were able to obtain a lease for a particular area where they controlled a particular wetland. During the monsoon this area would flood and increase up to three-times the original size, increasing the area they claimed to control. A brutal culture evolved that forced every inhabitant to pay money for rearing cattle and ducks. The local people were also afraid of cooking large fish because recruited guards would often enter their kitchens to perform random checks.
During the fish harvesting time, the lease holders would bring about 2000 people from other villages to help conduct the fishing activities. The outsiders would remain there for at least six months. It would create huge social problem every year, there were reports of killing and abuse as people were desperate to enter the wetlands to meet their subsistence needs.
The lease holders would undertake some degree of management, such as releasing fingerlings (small fish) and creating fish habitats using traditional methods (yet not for conservation purpose as these were actually fish traps). The management of the wetland was conducted from an economic point of view, giving very little or no consideration to the ecosystem itself. In the process, the wetland’s biodiversity suffered rapid degradation leaving the ecosystem in a highly vulnerable state.
Migratory birds were poached indiscriminately and in combination with habitat loss and disturbance, their numbers were decreasing. Recognizing its significance to the region and nation¸ the Government of Bangladesh declared Tanguar Haor an Ecologically Critical Area in 1999. Then in 2000 the area was designated as Bangladesh’s second Ramsar site; a wetland of international importance.
The Government of Bangladesh placed a ban on the lease system in 2001 and for the following two years there was a situation of the “tragedy of the commons” (a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen).
Then in 2003 the Government put its own resources in place to guard the wetland. For next two or three years, until the end of 2006, full protection was provided with limited access for the community people to fish near their villages for subsistence income.
In 2004 the Government formally requested IUCN Bangladesh to seek donors to support the conservation work in Tanguar haor. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) supported the MoEF initiative and provided financial support to implement a project titled “Community Based Sustainable Management of Tanguar Haor”(CBSMTH) with the technical assistance of IUCN Bangladesh. The CBSMTH project aims to establish a co-management system in Tanguar Haor that allows the sustainable use of natural resources, applying the ‘wise use’ principles of Ramsar convention.