In the eight-year people’s movement to save the Sunderbans, many from India and around the world have joined in, expressing their solidarity for the campaign. It is now urgent to strengthen and expand this solidarity. The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Ports and Power puts out a call to observe November 10 as ‘global solidarity day for the Sunderbans’
THE Sunderbans, the largest single-tract mangrove forest, extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, a Ramsar site, the UNESCO-declared world heritage site, located in southern Bangladesh, is now in grave danger. The Rampal coal fired power plant, now under construction, and many other commercial projects in and around the forest are going to destroy the unique biodiversity and the extraordinary ecosystem. The joint project of Power Development Board of Bangladesh and the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited of India India for 1320MW Rampal coal-fired power plant is not alone, it is also inviting a range of local and foreign vested interests to grab the forest and set up hundreds of deadly commercial projects in and around the Sunderbans. This has not only put the livelihood of at least 3.5 million people at risk, it has also made the lives of around 40 million coastal people vulnerable to natural disasters as the Sunderbans have also been a huge natural safeguard against frequent cyclones, storms and other natural disasters. While Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries facing climate change, the Sunderbans are the natural safeguard against the deadly threat of climate change for Bangladesh. The Sunderbans now demand more public action on a global scale for its survival to preserve its outstanding universal value.
Not many years ago, we used to hear that environment is a luxury for a poor country like us; poor people first need food and job; and development should, therefore, get priority over environment in ‘underdeveloped’ countries. But in recent years, things are not the same. As air gets dangerously polluted, rivers are grabbed or polluted, open space reduced at an alarming rate, forests are disappearing fast, effects of global climate change are increasingly felt, the supply of food has been increased on the market but people are becoming more concerned about environment and willing to know more about it.
The Phulbari uprising, in northern Bangladesh, has been recognised as the most significant and successful people’s revolt in the country against environmentally disastrous projects as well as against environment-blind conventional development thinking. People’s protests culminated into uprising there on August 26, 2006 against an open-pit mining project proposed by a British company. Facing strong local and national resistance the then government was compelled to accept all demands of the movement and the company fled Phulbari in police protection. In the following years, continuous surveillance and resistance of the people have defeated all the evil attempts by pro-mine forces.
Since 2010, people’s movement against the Rampal coal-fired power plant to save the Sunderbans is continuing which has earned a huge popular support. In the past eight years, we have tried our best to convince the governments of Bangladesh and India that the largest mangrove forest should not be a playground for grabbers, mindless businesses; it must be protected for survival of lives. There have been many research studies, discussions, debates, publications and also exchanges with the government agencies in Bangladesh as well as demonstrations, protest meetings and long marches to the Sunderbans to make the point. Cycle rallies and art exhibitions on the Sunderbans were also organised; many songs were written and documentaries produced by young people at their on spontaneous initiatives. Moreover, we wrote open letters to both the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India where we explained our concern in details. But the governments have been showing extreme insensitivity towards all public concerns. Not only that, we faced several incidents of police atrocities, obstruction or attacks on the Sunderban movements; death threat and harassment also were used to stop the campaign. The crisis of democracy and the crisis of environment go hand in hand; when people suffer a huge deficit of public rights, the environment also suffers a massive attack on it.
The pro-company groups (ie, ministers, bureaucrats, company consultants, commission agents) often brand us as ‘anti-development’. Main arguments of them are on the one hand, ‘if we want development we have to accept some harm to the environment’, on the other, ‘we are going to use the best technology so that there will be no harm’. Hired intellectuals, media and advertising firms are doing their job to hide the reality and glorify the destruction as development; they are to create public opinions in favour of environmentally disastrous but big profit-making projects.
It is often claimed by these ‘development’ contractors that economic growth should be the most important goal of development. Because, in their views, economic growth, even if it causes harm to environment, can ensure ‘people’s interest’ — employment, income and future security. They systemically hide the real cost of these development projects, environment and social cost, in particular. They consciously hide the fact of an increasing number of people being uprooted because of the development projects they advocate. They turn a blind eye to the growing population of environmental refugee or environmental proletariat.
The corporate interest-driven energy and power generation system has massively affected the global environment, agriculture and water bodies; it has also caused a global conflict — war and occupation. In Bangladesh, threatening the survival of the Sunderbans and coastal ecological system, coal-fired power plants are being implemented, destroying fertile land, underground water resources and evicting millions of people where open-pit mining project is proposed; nuclear power plant with high debt and high risk are promoted and these are examples of projects that are highly prioritised in the name of development.
While subsequent governments of Bangladesh have been pursuing corporate-controlled, private profit-centric, debt-dependent and environmentally disastrous energy and power policy, a strong democratic people’s movement has also emerged to resist this. The movement, on the one hand, puts forth demands to scrap anti-people and anti-environment deals, it advances the vision of pro-people alternative, on the other hand. It shows that cheaper, healthy, environment friendly sustainable power generation is possible. Projects such as Rampal coal-fired power plant and the Rooppur nuclear plant are not at all needed to meet the power demand of the country. There are much better attainable alternatives. (The Alternative Power and Energy Plan for Bangladesh: Draft for consultation prepared by National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, Bangladesh, 2017).
When people’s movement stands for these demands, when people give lives to protect natural resources, when people come out on the streets to save forests, rivers and other natural resources, when independent writers and researchers spend time on working to save environment and public interest, all this raises hopes and makes a big difference in the understanding of development and public ownership.
In our eight-year people’s movement to save the Sunderbans, many friends from India and around the world have joined in, expressing their solidarity for the campaign. On January 7, 2017, Global Protest Day for the Sunderbans was observed in more than 30 cities around the world. Now, it is urgent to strengthen and expand this solidarity further. Since numbers of international companies are behind the project, international voice is crucial to stop this. Therefore, the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Ports and Power, a national alliance for public rights, again put out a call to observe November 10 as ‘global solidarity day for the Sunderbans.’
We believe that the observance of the day would strengthen our unity, uphold our common spirit, and take our struggle to a new level to protect the mother nature from the disastrous profit-hungry projects and from the threat of climate change. We believe that global solidarity would also open up the opportunity to create worldwide awareness for environment and ecology-friendly power generation and sustainable development that put people and environment before corporate profits.
We do not forget that economic policies and the development process cannot be independent of politics and power structure and of hegemonic ideological vision. The question of changing power balance in favour of many against a few, in favour of people against corporate grabbers, in favour of environment against destruction is inseparable.
Anu Muhammad is a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University.
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