(Written by Nerun Yakub)
7 December 2009 – At a time when environmental awareness is supposed to be growing, with the Prime Minister herself being concerned — and seen and heard across the world holding forth — politically empowered people have reportedly been getting away with sheer sacrilege. It is ironic, and indeed comes as a rude shock, to learn that thousands of trees, planted 20 years ago along Chittagong’s Shonaichari-Kumira coastline in Sitakunda, have been axed under the very nose — with the connivance, rather — of the local adminstration.
It was as if locusts had descended, in phases over the last months, on the 125 acre natural cyclone shield of keora and bain trees along a ten kilometer embankment. Whatever remained were ravaged on Sunday (29/11/09) night by some three hundred hired hands, mainly poor folk who were lured with the promise of cash and kind — a thousand bucks and a tree trunk, may be. It was all pre-planned and involved many players.
The whole purpose was to clear large swathes for more and more shipbreaking enterprises, regardless of the fact that these have always proved to be notorious polluters. They are also known to be ruthless and inhumane towards the poor labour force that toil away for a pittance, without even the minimum of protection against the inevitable hazards of cutting such monstrous vessels down to scrap metal. Accidents are not uncommon in these money spinners but even maiming and deaths often get dismissed for the love of the lucre.
We are told (Prothom Alo 10/10/09), the plundering of the green shield started following deals clinched by the local Awami League parliamentarian and his two sons, with businessmen — of all political shades and hues — interested, commonly, in setting up new shipbreaking yards in the area. Thanks to the ‘facilitation’ talents of the MP & Sons, this coastal area has seen an incredible growth of shipbreaking yards in the shortest possible time — more than four per month on average since the beginning of this year!
There are already 56 of such highly polluting yards along the fifteen kilometer stretch from Faujdarhat to Baro Awliya, but these had taken as long as thirty years to grow, and at considerable cost to the life and limb of countless anonymous labour, and the environment far and wide. The often criminal callousness of the yard owners, with regard to their poor workers, have been documented by more than one activist group. No outrage seems to have made any dent in improving the working conditions or environmental standards at these yards. Of course, one cannot expect shipbreaking entrepreneurs to be very ecoliterate, but this time round it seems the whole gang of soul-lessly greedy, anti-people wheelers and dealers have gotten together to turn this long coastline — and this beloved Bangladesh — into a veritable wasteland.
According to reports, this gang had managed to get the assorted ‘authorities’ to look the other way as it proceeded to clear the huge area of the green shield. First, on 30 June a High Court order helped it ward off the Forest Department and other protestors — genuine or otherwise. Then the esteemed MP convened a meeting at his residence on 02 July and allegedly collected Taka 9.7 million from the aspiring yard owners as facilitation expenses. Large scale plunder of the trees began the following night and by end- November the area was laid totally bare. Fait accompli!
Now, with the carefully nurtured cyclone shield gone, God help the people in this coastal area, should cyclones like Gorky or Aila or Sidr pay a visit in the near future. Do the powers-that-be really care what happens to ordinary people? Our money-makers and their friends in positions of power are hell-bent on gettingeverything- now-or-never — even if it means wrecking the health of our habitat and all life on it. This can go on with impunity, clearly because wisdom is utterly absent in all our brands of politics and governance — no matter who is at the helm and what the pledges are.
One would have thought, in this season of environmental consciousness, moneymaking initiatives would not be so grossly anti-green. The reality on the ground, unfortunately is as far away from conserving and building the ‘natural capital’ as possible. It is at our peril that decision makers continue to wink at the plunderers of our natural resources — the fertile soil, the sweet waters, the flora and fauna.
Invest billions in nature today, save trillions tomorrow, says a recent UN-backed paper released in Brussels by TEEB (The Economics of Economics and Biodiversity), calling on governments ‘to switch from short term profits through exploitation to long-term stewardship of natural resources.’ The value delivered to society by the natural environment ought to be a policy priority, it says, citing the case of Vietnam where 30,000 acres of mangroves were replanted in the south last year. It may have cost the Vietnamese government one million dollars but it would be more than compensated as it would save annual expenditures of more than seven million dollars on dyke maintenance alone.
Is there anyone listening among the decision-makers of this country of teeming millions?