Sundarban is not only a rare ecological treasure but is also a Ramsar wetland, according to the Ramsar convention, which Bangladesh signed in 1972. Sundarban was also declared a world heritage site, the only one in Bangladesh, at the 21st UNESCO conferenc of the World Heritage Commitee in 1997.
Sundarban, a combination of rich eco-systems for humanity, is the largest mangrove forest in the world. For Bangladesh, it is much more — a question of life and death. It has protected millions of people from so many natural disasters. The forest is now under threat because of profit-seeking groups at home and abroad.
Amid popular protests and despite expert opinion against the establishment of a coal-fired power plant at Rampal, which is close to Sundarban, the Bangladesh government and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation keep working on the establishment of the plant. The government also allowed a Bangladeshi company, Orion, in the past year to build another power plant near the forest. On March 19, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with China to set up another 1,320MW coal-fired power plant in Patuakhali, a location that is also close to Sundarban.
It seems that the government is keen on going ahead with such projects, being indifferent to protecting people and the environment. These projects and the government’s attitude have created an environment that encourages denial of national laws to protect the environment, to ignore international laws and convention, to follow certain rules for protecting ecologically sensitive areas, and to pull land grabbers to rush into the area to take possession.
Grabbers’ free zone
In the past year, a series of investigative reports in a leading English daily newspaper revealed the government’s role in allowing industrialists ‘to purchase land’ and providing site clearance for the installation of hazardous industries, in gross violation of environmental laws in the Sundarban area. The reports said that a number of projects, including government-owned silos, naval dockyard and different commercial projects sponsored mostly by individuals enjoyng ruling party belssings, to be set up in the buffer zone, are ‘posing serious threats to the already vulnerable mangrove forest, which acts as a natural wall, reduces intensity of cyclones and saves life and property’.
An example of this is the ‘Sun Marine Shipyard, a shipbuilding company jointly owned by Mahbubul Alam Hanif, joint general secretary of the Awami League’. Others include companies and businesses such as ‘Lithe and Fam Kom readymade garments manufacturers, Jamuna, Amin Mohammad, Mir and Navana LP gas manufacturers, Sundarban and Confidence shipyards’ (the Daily Star, October 13–14, 2013).
According to the reports, about 3,000 acres of land in that area, mostly through ‘unfair means’, have already fallen in the hands of a few groups. Online advertisements are also noticed about the availability of 1,550 more acres of ‘industrial land’ in adjacent areas being eligible for ‘shipyard, ship-breaking yard, oil tanker, cement factory and LP gas unit’!
Another report, published in the National Geographic talked about the silo: ‘a major food silo being built by the ministry of food across the river from the forest at Jaymanirgol. The project is being implemented by the Toma Group, a company partly owned by the government’s jute minister, Mirza Azam. In November last year (2013), the prime minister laid the foundation stone of the project’.
The consequence for the poor local people, including religious minorities, has already been disastrous. Many were forced to leave their homes for unknown destinations. Recent evidences in the following months show that things have become worsened.
Tiger conference and destructive projects
Ironically, Bangladesh recently hosted a three-day international conference on tiger conservation in Dhaka. Delegates from 13 tiger-range countries attended the conference that began on September 14. The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in her inaugural speech said that her ‘government will do everything for the conservation of tigers’. There is no doubt that these words sound rhetorical and absurd as the government has also been backing several projects threatening Sundarban’s survival, the main habitat of tigers in the region.
There are numerous research papers and articles available showing the speciality of Sundarban, its ecological importance as well as its economic value and its role as a mighty natural wall against natural disasters. Dr Y Jhala of India’s Wildlife Conservation Society, who attended the tiger conference, said to National Geographic that ‘there are only around five viable wild tiger habitats left in the world for long-term hope. This is one of them. If you break these up into smaller parts you lose that, not ecologically, but biologically’.
Dr Abul Bashar, biologist and a Dhaka University professor, showed that the ecosystems in Sundarban is unique in the world, any damage to any part of the system will be disastrous to the whole system (Sarbajonkotha, November 2014).
People in general and independent experts in particular from Bangladesh have for long been expressing their concern and protesting against these projects in many ways. Many research papers and investigative articles have already specified the problems. Local and national demonstrations, including a six-day Dhaka-Sundarban long march, raised people’s voices; artists have written several songs and performed plays on Sundarban since the government’s approval of the coal-fired power plant project.
Ramsar and UNESCO worries
International community and related international agencies have for long been making their points against harmful projects in greater Sundarban too. The Ramsar secretariat and UNESCO sent a number of letters expressing their concern about the fate of Sundarban because of dangerous commercial projects. Since 2011, the Ramsar secretariat has been sending letters to the government of Bangladesh. These projects also made UNESCO write letters, questioning the government’s role and demand certain steps.
At its 35th session (UNESCO, 2011), the World Heritage Committee requested the government to submit a state of conservation report by February 1, 2013. But the government ‘has not submitted the requested report’. On May 22, 2013, the World Heritage Centre wrote a letter to the government expressing its concern. On April 11, 2014, the World Heritage Centre sent a letter to the government, requesting further information on projects affecting Sundarban.
UNESCO also noted that the ‘the dredging necessary to keep the channels of the Pashur River open for navigation is likely to alter the morphology of the river channels.’ Therefore, the committee ‘… requests the state party to ensure that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the dredging activities include a specific assessment of potential impacts… and to submit it to the World Heritage Centre prior to making any decisions that would be difficult to reverse….’ The concern for ‘making any decision that would be difficult to reverse’ is crucial.
Most importantly, the UNESCO committee urged the government to undertake a ‘comprehensive Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of development in the Sundarban’ and to submit to the World Heritage Centre by 1 February 2015 ‘an updated report on the state of conservation.. for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 39th session in 2015.’
That means that they are expecting that the government will not proceed with the projects before doing some fresh and credible comprehensive assessments.
Protests from India
Meanwhile, different organisations and experts from India have also started raising their voice to save Sundarban after realising that (1) an Indian company is the major partner of the leading project of destruction and (2) the Sundarban spreads into India as well. Therefore, if damage to the forest is done in Bangladesh, the effect will not stop at the political boundary.
On September 8, the National Fishworkers’ Forum and Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum of India sent a letter of request to India’s prime minister seeking to stop participation in the Rampal coal-fired power plant project. The letter said, ‘Our country should not be a partner in the destruction of environment and ecology of the largest and the richest mangrove forest on our planet that provides the Bay of Bengal eco-system with the largest nursery of fish… the hundred thousand fishermen and wild honey collectors dependent on the natural resources of the Sundarban forests.’
Sundarban must win
Will governments of Bangladesh and India stop advancing with weapons of Sundarban’s destruction? Or will they continue denying local, national and international cries against destruction in the name of development? Evidences show the latter trend. There are reports of harassment, surveillance, threat to unwilling local people too.
It seems that local and foreign grabbers and profiteers are influencing the government’s decision making. People and environment do not have any space in their consideration. Not only have the policymakers lost the ability to understand scientific arguments, but they have also lost commonsensical vision.
There are many environmentalist groups and individuals in the country but surprisingly many of them are still silent about the killer projects around Sundarban. We still hope that they and many of the international environmentalist groups will break their silence to save Sundarban soon.
Recently, several theatre groups, singers, artistes and writers came together in Dhaka, as part of a countrywide cultural campaign, to register their protest against destructive projects in greater Sundarban urging all at home and abroad, national and international organisations, environmentalist groups, experts and individuals to come forward with an effective role in building strong resistance, against the destruction of Sundarban.
The survival and growth of Sundarban cannot be compromised for giving profits to certain business mafias. Sundarban must win the battle because there are many alternatives to power generation; but we have only one Sundarban that cannot be rebuilt or replaced with any other; there is, therefore, no alternative to Sundarban.
(November 18, 2014 Published by New Age)