(Written by Ben Block)
April 2009 – Six relatively unknown grassroots activists from around the globe receive a moment in the spotlight when the Goldman Environmental Prize announces its list of annual recipients. The prize, now in its 20th year, is considered the Nobel Prize for the environment. Past recipients include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva, and Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed seven months after his recognition.
The Worldwatch Institute is honoring this year’s prize winners with a series of profiles based on personal interviews.
Many of the world’s largest ocean vessels reach their final destination on the beaches of Bangladesh. The coast of Chittagong, the country’s main seaport, is littered with scrap metal, stained with toxic oil, and burning from the fumes of the ship-breaking industry.
Some 20-30,000 of Bangladesh’s poorest citizens disassemble the ships, piece by piece, with little more than blow torches and sledgehammers. On average, one worker is killed every week, according to human rights groups.
A few years ago, two workers carrying a metal plate above their heads slipped and dropped the heavy fragment. One died. The second was knocked unconscious and taken to a nearby hospital. He was given saline but otherwise left to die.
“A colleague based in our Chittagong office called and asked what to do,” said Rizwana Hasan, executive director of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA). “I said, ‘Whatever money you have, start his primary treatment.’”
Hasan, who was honored last week with the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia, contacted the ship-breaking yard and convinced them to pay for the four surgeries required to save the worker’s life. “Enough was enough,” Hasan recalled. “Someone needed to take responsibility for these deaths.”
Since Hasan decided to battle the ship-breaking industry in 2003, her advocacy law firm has argued that Western nations cannot legally deposit ships laden with mercury and arsenic in Bangladesh, in accordance with international hazardous waste treaties.
The country’s Supreme Court ruled in Hasan’s favor in a landmark case last month. The decision stated that all domestic ship-breaking yards must close if they do not possess an environmental clearance. The court also banned any vessels from entering Bangladeshi waters if the environmental group Greenpeace International lists those ships as carrying untreated toxins.
The case, which BELA brought to court, threatens to close the 36 ship-breaking companies that operate in Bangladesh, none of which currently operate with an environmental permit.
“It is a matter of concern for the ship-breaking yards operating in Bangladesh. Equally, it’s a matter of concern for the exporters who find Bangladesh as a safe place [to sell the ships],” Hasan said. “I would certainly say that they must not think that it’s safe anymore.”
Hasan, 40, was born into a political family; her father served as a minister in the Bangladeshi Cabinet. Hasan has attempted to remain non-partisan, yet she now finds herself at the forefront of the contentious debate on the ship-breaking industry’s future.
The Bangladesh Ship Breakers’ Association has stated that it supplies the country with 80 percent of its iron ore – repurposed from ship scrap. With domestic demand for steel booming before the global recession hit, the used metal was considered an economic necessity. Nearly all of a ship’s other contents – toilets, lifeboats, lamps, etc. – are also recycled throughout the poor country. Overall, the industry estimates that it provides for the livelihoods, directly or indirectly, of 250,000 people.
If the ship-breaking yards must adhere to environmental and labor regulations, the industry estimates that 30,000 people will lose their jobs.
Thousands of workers from various ship-breaking yards protested the Supreme Court’s decision last month. BELA was a target of the protestor’s posters and chants. “The posters said they’ll pull off our skin and break our bones,” Hasan said.
Hasan argues, however, that the workers were paid to attend the protest, and that the industry provided them with the posters. She also insists that the industry manipulated its statistics. The ship-breaking sector provides less than half of the country’s iron, and its employment numbers are likely exaggerated as well, she said.
“Even if it is 20,000 [employees], what are happening to these people? They are inhaling asbestos,” Hasan said. “Do you want people to choose between employment and unemployment, or do you say that this is a choice between unemployment and exploitation?”
Some 700 ships are sold to ship-breaking yards every year, mostly in China, Bangladesh, and India, according to Greenpeace. As the global shipping fleet ages, the number of ships sold to scrapping yards is expected to rise.
Prompted by environmental damage in Bangladesh and India, and concerned that exporters may search for cheaper destinations to sell hazardous ships, Sri Lanka announced last month that it would not allow ship-breaking on its shores.
Hasan said Bangladesh should follow Sri Lanka’s lead. “There was a point in time when there was ship-breaking in Bangkok, in Vietnam, in other parts of world. All of them decided not to continue,” she said. “For Bangladesh to decide that they will not continue is not impossible. One just has to show that courage and provide alternatives for its people.”