The Sundarbans are not only a rare ecological treasure, but also a Ramsar wetland, according to the Ramsar convention, which Bangladesh signed in 1972. The Sundarbans were also declared a World Heritage Site, the only one in Bangladesh.
The Sundarbans, 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 many natural disasters. The forest is now under threat because of profit-seeking groups both 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 the Sundarbans, the Bangladesh government and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation keep working on its establishment.
The government also allowed a Bangladeshi company, Orion, to build another power plant near the forest. On March 19, 2014, 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 the Sundarbans.
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.
The free zone for grabbers
In 2014, 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 Sundarbans area. The reports said that a number of projects, including government-owned silos, naval dockyard, and different commercial projects sponsored mostly by individuals enjoying ruling party blessings, to be set up in the buffer zone, are “posing serious threats to the already vulnerable mangrove forest.”
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.”
The consequence for the poor local people, including religious minorities, has already been disastrous. Many were forced to leave their homes for unknown destinations.
There are numerous research papers and articles available showing the specialty of the Sundarbans, 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 said 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 eco-systems in the Sundarbans are unique in the world, any damage to any part of the system will be disastrous to the whole system. And experts 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-Sundarbans long march, raised people’s voices; artists have written several songs and performed plays on the Sundarbans since the government’s approval of the coal-fired power plant project.
Protests from India
Meanwhile, different organisations and experts from India have also started raising their voices to save the Sundarbans after realising that an Indian company is the major partner of the leading project of destruction and the Sundarbans spread into India as well. Therefore, if damage to the forest is done in Bangladesh, the effect will not stop at the political boundary.
The Sundarbans must win
Will the governments of Bangladesh and India stop advancing with weapons of the Sundarban’s destruction? Or will they continue denying local, national, and international cries against destruction in the name of development? Evidence shows the latter. There have been reports of harassment, surveillance, and threats to unwilling local people too.
It seems that local and foreign grabbers and profiteers are influencing the government’s decision making. People and the environment do not have any space in their consideration. Not only have the policy-makers lost the ability to understand scientific arguments, but they have also lost common-sensical vision.
The survival and growth of the Sundarbans cannot be compromised for giving profits to certain business mafias. The Sundarbans must win the battle because there are many alternatives to power generation, but we have only one Sundarbans that cannot be rebuilt or replaced with any other.
A version of this article previously appeared on anumuhammad.net and New Age.