Majuli is a 500 square km island in the middle of the Brahmaputra river in Assam. It is the world’s largest river island, home to 170K people and is renowned for its tribal and neo-Vaishnavite sub-culture. Now, however the island is grappling with severe climate change related issues. Bikash Bhattacharya’s article focuses on a specific facet of the impact of climate change, namely, how the boat making industry in Majuli has been impacted. He begins by explaining the centrality of boats for the residents of Majuli: “Boats are the primary mode of transport in Majuli, given its location in the middle of the Brahmaputra. Almost every family has a canoe or a dugout, used for navigating the numerous beels (wetlands) and moving to safe ground when the river is in spate.”

These boats are made by local craftsmen. Mr Bhattacharya writes: “The village of Salmora is historically known for the craft of boat-making. About 80% of the boats used in Majuli are made by the boatmakers of Salmora.

Debasish Dey, a doctoral research scholar at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal and author of a 2021 study in Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, says that the indigenous craft of boat-building is an important “living heritage” of Majuli.”

Majuli’s boats are made using wood from local trees. In fact, wood from a specific tree is ideal for boatmaking: “Dharmeswar Hazarika, 43, another boat-maker of Salmora, says that during his grandfather’s time, the hollong tree (Dipterocarpus retusus) used to be the first-choice source of timber for boats….The hollong tree once grew in abundance in the plains forests of the Brahmaputra valley. But as early as the late nineteenth century, E. A. Peal noted in his The Canoes of Assam, the tree was already under pressure from overexploitation.

“These trees were found in abundance until a few decades ago,” Hazarika says, pointing to a community forest just across a shallow stream flowing southward to the Brahmaputra. “Before, we used to procure trees from that forest.”

Earlier, a single piece of wood from the hollong tree–which grew up to 45 metres in height with a trunk up to 6 metres–was used to make a boat. While this practice is now rare in the absence of such big trees, boat-makers in Solmara still follow centuries-old methods of boat building. The boat-making industry in Salmora is artisanal in nature, and the boats built here are entirely handmade with no involvement of machinery. Only traditional instruments such as hacksaws, blades, chisels, and rivets are used in the construction of boats.”

Unfortunately, climate change and soil erosion has made the hollong tree almost extinct: “That tree is now on the verge of extinction, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature listing it as endangered….With the hollong tree on the verge of extinction–subsequently the tree was declared Assam’s state tree in 2003 and accorded protected status–boat-makers took to using other locally available trees.”

Given that the boat makers are no longer allowed to use hollong trees, they have switched to using other trees. Unfortunately, even this switch has not solved their need for wood to make boats: ““Nowadays we use timber from trees like Ajar [Lagerstroemia speciosa], Uriam [Bischofia Javanica] and ou tenga [Dillenia indica] to make boats,” Hazarika says. “Even these trees are hard to find as their numbers are shrinking.”

Forest authorities in Majuli have now strictly prohibited the felling of trees on the island. Deforestation is known to accelerate erosion, as removing vegetation reduces the soil’s ability to absorb rainfall; further, it is the roots of trees that hold soil in place and once the trees are gone, the soil no longer has that binding force.”

Soil erosion has for several decades now been a major issue for Majuli. In fact, the majority of this river island have already been washed away: “According to government data, Majuli has reduced in size from 1,250 sq km at the beginning of the 20th century to 483 sq km by 2014. And as the island has shrunk, the number of cadastral villages has dwindled from 210 to 141, of which as many as 96 are vulnerable to flooding…

“While the island always experienced perennial floods and erosion, the intensity of flood and erosion has undergone a significant shift in recent years,” says Jaya Kalita Gogoi, assistant professor of geography in Majuli College. She adds that recent shifts in rainfall patterns have led to earlier and more prolonged monsoons on the island.

A study published in 2020 in International Journal of Geoheritage and Parks found an ‘alarming’ rise in the annual rate of erosion in Majuli. The rate of erosion in the island was 1.75 sq km per year from 1975 to 1990, 2.33 sq km per year from 1990 to 2005, and 6.7 sq km per year from 2005 to 2017.

“In recent years, flooding has become more severe, and the normal nutrient-rich silt deposits, which rejuvenate the soil each year, are being replaced by sand,” says Jogendra Nath Sarma, a geologist and retired professor of Dibrugarh University who studied long-term geomorphological changes in Majuli. “This makes the soil infertile and unsuitable for any vegetation to grow.”

While Majuli does not have any protected forest area, research indicates dwindling of general vegetation cover on the island. A study on land cover change in Majuli, published in 2021 in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, found that vegetation on the island has gradually decreased from 365.59 sq km in 1973 to 262.79 sq km in 2019…

Overall, Assam has lost over 7.5% of the state’s total landmass–approximately 4,000 sq km, or two-and-a-half times the size of London–to riverbank erosion in just the second half of the 20th century. This includes more than 2,500 villages and 18 towns, including sites of important cultural heritage.”

Giving the cutting trees increases the rate of soil erosion, the authorities cannot be blamed for putting a halt to tree cutting but with tree cutting halted, the boat makers of Majuli can no longer earn a living: “…procuring timber from outside the island increases the production cost and renders boat-making economically unsustainable.

They say a 16-foot long, low maintenance boat costs around Rs 35,000 but the price will go up by a few thousands if they have to source the wood from outside of Majuli….People who lost everything to the river here have migrated to places like Titabar (in Jorhat district) that neither experience flood nor are close to the river,” says Bora. “Boats are of no use there. So they don’t make boats any longer, and consequently have lost their boat-making skills.””

Eventually, the boats used in Majuli will end up being imported from China. Majuli’s boat makers are already migrating to India’s cities where they will join the millions seeking to earn a living by working in factories or construction sites. The government will hopefully one day announce a PLI scheme to encourage indigenous boat makers and increased NREGA spending to keep the rural poor above the poverty line.

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