Govt gives green light to 5 cement factories within forest’s ecologically critical area. Unesco heritage body meets in Baku today to decide fate
Th Sundarbans’ status as a world heritage site is being put to the test as the United Nations agency dealing with heritage listings, goes into session today with a proposal to relegate the world’s largest mangrove forest to their ‘List of World Heritage in Danger.’
The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) begins its 43rd session in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, today. Among other things on its agenda: relegating six heritage sites, including the Sundarbans, to their danger list.
As far as the authorities in Bangladesh are concerned, this development comes as no surprise as it was a long time coming with the Unesco body forewarning about the Sundarbans’ compromised ecology for several years, particularly more seriously since its 41st session in 2017.
The declaration came over two weeks prior to today’s Baku meeting as Unesco was discontented with the measures taken to protect the Sundarbans in the context of the Rampal coal powered thermal power plant and other big industrial projects.
Though Bangladesh sent a delegation to the June 30-July 10 Baku meeting to defend its stand on development activities in the Sundarbans’ ecologically important vicinity, many fear the forest may end up finding its place in the ‘List of World Heritage in Danger.’
Out of 1092 world heritage sites in 167 countries, 54 sites are already on the danger list. Six more world heritage sites, including the Sundarbans, are now at risk of being relegated to the danger list.
Unesco World Heritage Committee declared the Bangladesh portion of the Sundarbans a heritage site in 1997, a decade after it had done so for the Indian part of it. Once the Sundarbans in Bangladesh enters into the danger list, the country will end up with just two world heritage sites: the ‘Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat’ and the ‘Ruins of the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur.’
Sites proposed for inclusion on the “List of World Heritage in Danger’ at the Baku meeting are: the Sundarbans (Bangladesh), Ancient City of Nessebar (Bulgaria), Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region (Albania/North Macedonia), Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California (Mexico), Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), and Babylon (Iraq).
The Baku meeting of the Unesco body will also examine progress in the possible withdrawal of two sites from danger list. These two sites are: Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem (Palestine), and the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works (Chile).
More industries in ecologically critical area
The Bangladesh delegation’s attending the Baku meeting to defend their position on the Sundarbans case coincides with a government minister revealing in parliament yesterday, that environmental clearances have been given to five cement factories to be set up within the ecologically critical area of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest.
The factories are Meghna Cement Mills Ltd, Bashundhara Cement Mills Ltd, Mongla Cement Mills Ltd, Dubai-Bangla Cement Mills Ltd, and Holcim (Bangladesh) Ltd.
"These air-polluting cement factories have been given environment clearance certificates in the Mongla port industrial areas under Bagerhat district," Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Md Shahab Uddin told parliament yesterday.
Although the government declared a 10-km area surrounding the Sundarbans Reserve Forest as ecologically critical, the factories are located in places only six kilometres away from the forest.
Though the government always claimed the Rampal coal-fired power plant would not pose any danger to the Sundarbans, the Unesco was never convinced. In 2017, a government delegation attended the 41st meeting of the Unesco World Heritage committee to discuss the issue.
As agreed with the Unesco in 2017, the Unesco assessed that the government did not make enough progress in undertaking a proper Structural Environment Assessment (SEA) for the southwest region of the country, to ascertain potential danger to the Sundarbans.
In the Unesco World Heritage Centre document prepared ahead of the Baku meeting this year, it says: “despite the Committee’s requests, no serious consideration was given to possible alternatives to the construction of the Rampal power plant, and its construction is progressing.”
“All activities are taking place in the absence of the SEA.”
What makes the Sundarbans so special?
The Sundarbans mangrove forest, one of the largest such forests in the world (140,000 hectares), lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. It is adjacent to the border of India’s Sundarbans World Heritage site inscribed in 1987. The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats, and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes. The area is known for its wide range of fauna, including 260 bird species, the Bengal Tiger, and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile, and the Indian python.
The Sundarbans provides sustainable livelihoods for millions of people in the vicinity of the site and acts as a shelter belt to protect people from storms, cyclones, tidal surges, sea water seepage, and intrusion. The area provides livelihood in certain seasons for large numbers of people living in small villages surrounding the property, working variously as wood-cutters, fishermen, honey gatherers, leaves, and grass gatherers.