RECENTLY, Bangladesh 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. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her inaugural speech, stated that her “government will do everything for conservation of the tigers.” These words sound rhetorical and absurd since the government has also been planning several projects threatening the Sundarban's survival, the main habitat of tigers in the region.
People in general and independent experts, particularly from Bangladesh, have been expressing their concern and protest against these projects in many ways. Many research papers and investigative articles have specified the problems. Big local and national demonstrations, including 6 day Dhaka Sundarban long march, raised people's voices, artists have written songs and plays about the Sundarban.
There are numerous research papers and articles to show the uniqueness of the 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.” (http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/ 2014/09/17/bangladesh-vows-to-protect-wild-tigers-in-spite-of-industrialization/)
Dr. Abul Bashar, biologist and Dhaka University professor, showed that the ecosystem in the Sundarban is unique in the world, any damage in any part of the system will be disastrous to the whole system (Sarbajonkotha, November 2014).
Despite popular protest and expert opinion against Rampal coal-fired power plant, the government and NTPC (India) keep continuing work for building the plant. Not only that, the government allowed a Bangladeshi company last year to build another power plant near the forest. On March 19, the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China to set up a 1,320 MW coal-based power plant in Patuakhali, which is close to the Sundarban.
These projects and the government's attitude encourage violation of the national law to protect the environment, ignore international law and convention to follow certain rules for protecting ecologically sensitive areas, and encourage grabbers to take possession of land.
Grabbers' free zone
Last year, a series of investigative reports in a leading English language newspaper revealed the government's role in allowing industrialists “to purchase land and providing site clearance to install hazardous industries, grossly violating environmental laws” in the Sundarban area. The report mentioned that a number of projects, including government owned silo, naval dockyard and commercial projects sponsored mostly by persons blessed by the ruling party, would be set-up in the buffer zone. Those “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” (The Daily Star, October 13-14, 2013).
According to the report, around 3,000 acres of land in that area have already gone to a few groups, “mostly through using unfair means.” Online advertisements also are available about the availability of another 1,550 acres of “industrial land” in adjacent areas, which could be used for “shipyard, ship-breaking yard, oil depot, cement factory and LP gas unit”!
The consequence for the local poor people, including religious minority, has been disastrous. Many were forced to leave their homes. Recent events show that things have become much worse.
Ramsar and Unesco worried
International community and related international agencies have also been making their points against harmful projects in greater Sundarban, not only because the Sundarban is a rare ecological treasure of Bangladesh but also because it is the location of Ramsar, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. In 1992, according to Ramsar convention also signed by Bangladesh in 1972, the Sundarban was declared as Ramsar site wetland. And at Unesco's 21st conference of the World Heritage Committee in 1997, the Sundarban was declared a natural World Heritage Site, the only natural World Heritage Site in Bangladesh.
That explains the worries expressed by the Ramsar secretariat and Unesco about the fate of the Sundarban after government approval of dangerous commercial projects. Since 2011, the Ramsar secretariat has been sending letters of concern to the government of Bangladesh. These projects also made Unesco question the government's role in allowing problematic projects, and write about the government's indifference and inaction in protecting the people and environment.
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 to express their serious concern. On April 11, 2014, it sent a letter to the government requesting further information about projects affecting the 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.” Their concern for “making any decision that would be difficult to reverse” is very important.
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 February 1, 2015, “an updated report on the state of conservation ... for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 39th session in 2015.” (http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/2868)
That means they are expecting that the government will not proceed with the projects before doing some fresh and credible comprehensive assessments.
Protest from India
Meanwhile different organisations and experts from India have also started joining their voices to save the Sundarban because (i) an Indian company is the major partner of the leading project of destruction and (ii) the Sundarban spreads into India as well. Therefore, if damage is done in Bangladesh the effect will not stop at the political boundary.
On September 8, the National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF) and Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum (DMF) of India had sent a letter of request to the prime minister of India 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 fishers and wild honey collectors dependent on the natural resources of the Sundarban forests.” http://ncbd.org/?p=1236
Sundarban must win
Will the governments of both Bangladesh and India stop advancing with weapons of Sundarban destruction, or continue defying local, national and global outcry against destruction in the name of development? Evidences show that it may be the latter. There are reports of harassment, surveillance, and threats to protesting local people too.
It seems that local and foreign grabbers and profiteers are influencing the government's decision making process. People and environment do not have any space in their consideration. Not only have the policymakers lost the ability to understand scientific arguments, they have also lost commonsensical vision. The Sundarban is a rare forest, a combination of rich eco-systems. For Bangladesh it is much more, it is a question of life and death. Millions of people have always been protected from so many natural disasters by the mighty Sundarban.
Recently, several theatre groups, singers, artists and writers came together in Dhaka as part of countrywide cultural campaign to register their protest against destructive projects in greater Sundarban and to urge all at home and abroad, national and international organisations, environmentalist groups, experts and individuals to come forward effectively to build strong resistance against destruction of the Sundarban. (http://news.mongabay.com/2014/1028-hance-rampal-coal.html).
We keep on saying that there are many alternatives for generating electricity, but we have only one Sundarban that cannot be rebuilt, cannot be replaced by any other, therefore there is no alternative to the Sundarban.
The survival and growth of the Sundarban, therefore, cannot be compromised for giving profit to business barons.
The writer is Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University and Member Secretary, National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports.