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Mourning the Sundarbans

  • Published at 01:20 am August 27th, 2016
Mourning the Sundarbans
July was the month of Mangrove Action worldwide, and July 26 was International Mangrove Day, when the world was, in theory, imagined to celebrate mangrove action for conservation of the mangrove and associated ecosystems across the globe. The recognition of Mangrove Action Day by the UN is an achievement of the consistent struggle of a number of transnational environmentalist organisations including the Mangrove Action Project, Red Manglar, ASIA, African Mangrove Network, and many international activist-grids that have been celebrating July 26 as International Mangrove Day for over a decade. Although this year the world was poised to hear joyous sounds of celebration for the mangroves, the ominous din of devastation cast a dark shadow across the Earth, instead. We heard about the plans that threaten the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, contrived by corporations and governments of Bangladesh and India who signed a contract to build a new coal fired power plant at Rampal.

The attack on Bangladeshi environmentalists does concern all of us -- in and beyond Bangladesh

This project was originally proposed by an Indian corporation, called the National Thermal Power Company. The detrimental aspects of the project were highlighted by the county’s experts. The plant was opposed strongly by national and international climate experts and campaigners, whose advice was ignored. Despite strong opposition and thorough critiques, a new deal was signed by both Bangladesh and Indian governments that has given the go-ahead to the controversial Rampal coal-fired plant to be built within 14 kilometres to the Sundarbans, an invaluable ecosystem along Bangladesh’s coast. This situation is saddening. The decision of the two neighbouring governments could destroy this unique wetland ecosystem and its bountiful life. We witnessed outcries and protests across the country and beyond, and also the violent ways these protests have been suppressed. Official estimates show that the Rampal plant, if implemented, will produce 1,320 megawatt coal fired power by burning 4,720,000 tons of coal which will lead to the production of 750,000 tons of fly ashes and 200,000 tons of bottom ashes, indicating the amount of carbon emission the plant would cause. Long-term research by the environmental and climate scientists show that the Rampal coal-based power plant will further annually generate 52,000 tons of toxic sulfur-dioxide, 30,000 tons of nitrogen-dioxide, 0.75 million tons of fly ashes, and 200,000 tons of bottom ashes. Moreover, water withdrawal from the River of Pashur at a rate of 9150 cubic meter per hour, subsequent colossal discharge of the polluted water into the river, temperature of the discharged water, and various toxic elements dissolved in the water will damage the natural water flow of the river, its ability to carry sediment, and affect the life cycles of fish, plants, and other living beings. Ultimately, the aquatic ecology of the Sundarbans will be destroyed by Rampal coal-plant. Coal transportation through the Sundarbans, liquid and solid toxic wastes from the ships, oil spillage, and flood-lights will devastate normal life cycle and biodiversity of the Sundarbans’ mangroves. It was heart-warming to see that the national and diaspora Bangladeshi climate campaigners have taken to the street to protest this deal. But utterly shocking was the news that the campaigners were not only ignored, but also were beaten and abused by the state law enforcement force as they marched to the prime minister’s office to handover a statement that demands cancellation of the undemocratic deal over a destructive plant that was approved in the month of Mangrove Action. Mangroves are a cornucopia of life -- a rainforest by the sea, surviving in inter-tidal zones of tropical and sub-tropical regions. Mangroves are the markets for traditional communities: Providing food, tannins, fuel wood, medicinal remedies, and building materials. They protect shorelines and property from storm damage, erosion, and prevent silt and polluted runoff from reaching fragile coral reefs and seagrass beds. Mangroves are amazing carbon sinks, sequestering five times the amount of carbon than any other forest type, storing that carbon for millennia. Our friends from Ecuador from the local charity Fundecol suggested July 26 to be international Mangrove Action Day, so that they could commemorate their decades-long struggle to remove illegal shrimp farms from the mangroves around Muisne, Ecuador. The UN eventually accepted the proposal and the planet Earth was meant to observe the date for conservation of mangrove everywhere. Instead of doing so, Bangladeshi and Indian governments have signed the destructive Rampal deal, two weeks before the Mangrove day. And a day after Mangrove Day, police unleashed violence on those who sought to conserve the mangrove ecosystem in Bangladesh. Instead of celebrating International Mangrove Day, Bangladeshi environmentalists were found super anxious, traumatised -- mourning over mangrove policy of the government that has put the interests of the corporations before national and natural resources of Bangladesh. Our concerns are therefore two-fold: What should be the government’s role in protecting national resources and conserving the country’s ecosystems, largest mangrove area, which is also a World Heritage Site? The more pressing question concerns state policy in regard to democracy and freedom of expression. In a democratic state, people should have the right to express their independent views, to speak to and meet with their elected leaders when and as they need to. Nonetheless, when concerned citizens of Bangladesh went to the prime minister’s office to handover a public statement, detailing their views about the damage of the world’s largest mangrove and national sovereignty, the response of the government of the state appeared brutal. It is unclear why the front-line environmentalists and progressive activists, wanting to meet with their prime minister, were prohibited, humiliated, beaten, and imprisoned by state law enforcement force. Our question is: Would the attack on progressive activists and peaceful environmentalists be read as an ultimate threat to democratic protests in the state? Should people not be allowed to express independent views about national interest and natural resources of the nation? Does the government approve the heinous acts of police who unleashed violence on a peaceful march to save the Sundarbans? If so, and if the government doesn’t take the responsibility to protect national interests and resources such as Sundarbans, a pride of the nation, then what would be the final advice to the national climate activists from the government? Should the government fail the voices of concerned citizens in Bangladesh? Are they not encouraging people to take a rather violent resistance, like Phulbari and the Bashkhali outburst, in future? As climate campaigners from Bangladesh, UK and the US, the attack on Bangladeshi environmentalists does concern all of us -- in and beyond Bangladesh. Unless the Bangladesh government wants a bloody resistance, they ought to put out a clarification on the above questions. There is little doubt that outcries to save the world’s largest mangrove forest can be stopped by suppressing voices and abusing activists. It would be far wiser for any democratic administration to let the local voices for mangroves be heard.   Rumana Hashem is a political sociologist and a post-doctoral researcher at University of East London and Alfredo Quarto is a Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Mangrove Action Project since 1992.
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