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The Environment’s Friend

Nader Rahman
Syeda Rizwana Hasan. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Syeda Rizwana Hasan recently won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her pioneering work in spearheading the fight against ship breaking in Bangladesh. As Director of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), she has almost single-handedly taken on the ship breaking industry and its lobby. Aside from her extensive work on ship breaking she has also been at the forefront of most of the major environmental causes fought in court and continues to be a major figure in environmental law. The Goldman Prize, which happened to be a first for a Bangladeshi, brought her to the forefront of the worlds' attention. This week she talks about ship breaking, winning the prize and what the government should do on the issue.

How does the nomination process work?
The nominations are made anonymously, once all the nominations come in, the Goldman people make an initial scrutiny and produce a shortlist which is then presented to an international jury. They then nominate six people from six different regions, and that is how I got nominated.

What was it like to finally receive recognition for your work?
The feeling of recognition is a happy feeling. I got the first call about it at 1:30 in the morning and I was not in my full senses. As soon as I realised that I had been nominated I came to my senses immediately. I took pride not only for my self, but for the entire organisation that I run. The support that I got from my colleagues in Chittagong and in Dhaka ultimately led to our success in the very issue that I won the award for (ship breaking), and they also deserve recognition. Then, when I came to know that this was the 20th year of the award and no other Bangladeshi had ever won the award, I took pride for my country. It was me, my organisation and my country. Although I must say that the credit should also go to my family for sacrificing what would otherwise be theirs, my time.

Can you briefly explain the basics of ship breaking and how you started work in that field?
I often say that ship breaking is a trade in hazardous waste in disguise. There was a point in time when many countries of the world would do ship breaking. Then came a time when most countries said they would not continue with the operation any longer, because it created environmental pollution and was also very bad for the labourers engaged with it. Eventually only a few countries continued with ship breaking and they include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and China.

Friends in western countries that work with the Basel Convention on the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste then started telling us about the devastation that unregulated ship breaking caused to the environment. We also had friends such as Greenpeace, environmental law alliance worldwide and NGO platform on ship breaking who kept on feeding us with information on the environmental consequences of unregulated ship breaking. And they also informed us about how the industry had shifted from the developed countries to very few developing countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Then we started getting information from newspapers that had begun reporting on explosions within ship breaking yards that were killing people. That was also the time when BELA set up its Chittagong offices back in 2003. So that was when we really took up the issue.

So to you ship breaking is…
To me ship breaking is not just a national issue, but an international one. Because developed countries are sending their waste to our countries, and using our coastal areas as nothing more than dumping sites. My first fight was against converting our coastal areas into dumping sites. The second was about protecting the environment of our country as well as the labourers who are involved in the industry. On a different note, although we do the campaign (ship breaking) with our government, it's not only confined to the Government of Bangladesh. We also have to do international lobbying with the EU and the US and with other developed countries such as Japan who are sending their dirty ships to Bangladesh. So although it's a national advocacy issue, it's not limited to national. It has got trans-boundary and international dimensions as well.

What should the government do to deal with ship breaking?
The government has to take a decision, does it want to continue with this ship breaking, if yes than how does it ensure that toxic ships will not enter Bangladesh. If they enter into Bangladesh after they are cleaned, which only removes 80% of its toxicity, then what happens to the remaining 20%? Who will give Bangladesh funds for containing that 20%? The government must also come forward to protect the labourers, and ensure that the labourers are given basic rights. The right to from organisation, right to get compensation, the right to know that they are working in an environment that can end up giving them cancer. The government also has to take very strict measures against the defiant ship breaking yard owners.

You have often spoken up against the two main ideas that the ship breaking industry uses to justify their existence. Could you please inform us of your thoughts on those issues?
The ship breaking industry is currently operating on two main pleas, one is that they are supplying 80%of the iron to Bangladesh, the other is that they employ up to 20,000 workers. Now there are only 14 countries in the world that have a natural supply of iron and only five countries in the world that are doing ship breaking, what about the rest of the countries? How are they meeting their iron demands? Are the people in Sri Lanka buying iron at a higher rate than us, the answer is no.

If you read the draft policy that the department of shipping prepared on ship breaking, it has said that the ship breaking industry supplies 80% of the iron to Bangladesh. And yet after a price rise in 2007 when the ship breakers were blamed for the increase, the owners openly came out and said they do not supply 80% of the iron, but merely 25%. Then one could ask, if they did not artificially increase the price then who did? The answer is that whichever is the source of getting iron, whether its imported iron billet or from ship breaking, all of it is sent to the re-rolling mills. Who owns the re rolling mills? It's the ship breaking companies. That is where they do the manipulation and increase the price. But the point is clear, that they do not supply 80% of the iron. Their second plea is that they employ 20,000 labourers, but when you ask them they will never be able to give you a list of those workers. I have not come across another sector where every two weeks a minimum of 1 person is dying and there is no labour unrest. These workers are dying, getting cancer, getting skin diseases; they are also losing their hands and legs. After working in the ship breaking yards for a few years their bodies are in such a horrible condition that they can barely do any other form of labour. It is essentially crippling them for life. Often people worry what will happen if this industry is shut down, many will lose their jobs. To them I would say, if it's a choice between unemployment and gross exploitation then I would chose unemployment. So basically both the pleas on which they are operating are futile to say the least.


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