An open letter to the visiting UNESCO team

Risalat Khan

Recognising the Sundarbans as a World Heritage in Danger may be its only chance at preservation

  • Trading this for ‘development’ is the very definition of a bad deal

Dear visiting delegation members from UNESCO and IUCN,

It really feels like a defeat to ask this, but please, put our dearest Sundarbans on the list of World Heritage in Danger.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of tiptoeing amidst the mangroves in the mysterious morning light and shadow, reveling in the fleeting sight of rhesus monkeys and spotted deer, all the while keenly aware of the possibility of one of the few remaining Royal Bengal Tigers presenting herself in all her majesty.

I felt a deep desire to share this experience with my children when I become a parent, and someday with my grandchildren too. It is a devastating thought to consider that I may not be able to. On my way back, I crossed Harintana — an area meant to be a sanctuary for IUCN red list species like Irrawaddy and Ganges river dolphins. Hours later, the Sea Horse vessel capsized there with 1,245 tons of dirty pit coal. This, of course, follows the December 2014 spill of toxic furnace oil, and the sinking of a ship carrying 510 tons of coal in October 2015 in sensitive ecological areas.

An independent study shows how the flora and fauna of the Sundarbans have been gravely impacted by the oil spill, and, as of now, the October 2015 coal wreckage has not been recovered — let alone an effective response to the most recent accident this week.

In the months prior to your visit, you received a lot of assurances from my government about how Bangladesh is taking strong steps to ensure the protection of the Sundarbans. I assure you, you will hear plenty more in the course of the week you spend here — in fact, your entire itinerary will be carefully crafted to manufacture a sense of assurance, to the extent possible by the authorities.

But please, don’t be appeased. The relentless series of accidents, with one just days before your visit, clearly shows that the Bangladesh government is at best ignorant, and at worst plain lying when it says it has taken adequate precautions. I suspect even the latest decision to halt shipping traffic in the Sela river may not have happened were you not visiting at this particular moment.

Mega coal projects like Rampal and Orion will multiply the volume of coal ships traversing the waters inside remote stretches of mangroves — and it is a fantasy to claim that these and other industrial activities underway are safe.

You know this. The facts speak for themselves, and UNESCO has warned in the past that the Sundarbans may lose its heritage status. What I’m concerned about is whether your past words will be reflected in unequivocal action this year — against what I imagine is significant pressure from Bangladeshi and Indian authorities who have shown, repeatedly, that they are immune to reason and open to dirty tactics in the relentless pursuit of these so-called development projects.

When the UN and the Bangladesh government published a joint report assessing damages from the 2014 oil spill, it was criticised heavily for allegedly being revised multiple times at the request of the Bangladesh government, and for making unsubstantiated claims based on weak methodology — claims that are contradicted by the independent study referred to previously.

With BHEL and the Indian EXIM Bank at the doorstep of sealing the Rampal deal, I wonder how much pressure UNESCO will face to water down or delay its verdict on the Sundarbans.

But know that the people of Bangladesh and India are with you. Just this month, I marched with a thousand others (from Bangladesh as well as India) for the long march that went from Dhaka to 400km down south in Bagerhat. It was profoundly inspiring to be with so many activists — chanting slogans together like “Sundarban amar ma, ujar hote debo na” (the Sundarbans is my mother, won’t let her get ravaged).

And our Sundarbans does protect us like a mother. During my trip, she revealed to me her scars from Cyclone Aila — still manifest seven years later in a barren landscape filled with haunted trunks and parched mud void of mangrove roots. She cradles us lovingly whenever the fierce winds howl too loud, oblivious to the wounds inflicted upon herself.

The people of this country reciprocate with deep care and love. As I spoke to a police officer stationed at our rally in Khulna — he voiced the dilemma of doing what he believes is right (ie protecting the Sundarbans) versus following orders that contradict his values (eg charging anti-Rampal protesters like what happened in October 2015).

Despite this love for our Sundarbans, we have to face the harsh reality that our Sundarbans is in danger. So, I’m requesting you to lend your credibility and explicitly acknowledge that by putting the Sundarbans in the list of World Heritage in Danger, making it very clear that Bangladesh will lose the status entirely in a year’s time if Rampal and Orion and other harmful activities are not called off.

The UNEP gave Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina the Champions of the Earth award last year. While there were definitely valid achievements that the UNEP cited, PM Hasina has supported, in fact, championed the Rampal power plant without due process, and her position on the issue is instrumental to its completion.

If the UNESCO is able to make a strong decision, it will greatly empower activists to hold the PM accountable and strike a fatal blow to the false assurances that her government has employed on this issue, and eventually be able to safeguard our one and only Sundarbans.

Local activists and experts have voiced concerns for many years. The struggle against the Rampal plant and the destruction of the Sundarbans is now gaining steam, attracting international media coverage regularly and drawing co-operation from global environmental NGOs. UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee’s own credibility is now at stake in this decision, as it is abundantly clear that current projects in the Sundarbans put its Outstanding Universal Value at risk.

Therefore, you must act decisively and rapidly with integrity against all the pressures you may face, with the knowledge that the Bangladeshi people and future generations are with you and will be tremendously grateful to you for your courage.

Source: Dhaka Tribune

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