By Jessica Lawrence
Around the world, concerned people are using “Keep it in the Ground” as a rallying cry to protect the Earth’s climate. This campaign calls on governments and corporations to stop mining and burning the fossil fuels that are the primary source of global warming pollution. While there have been both successes and setbacks everywhere, the fight against coal in Bangladesh is particularly urgent and distressing.
Last week, Earthjustice attorneys and I were in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s World Conservation Congress, a week-long gathering of more than 6,000 conservation experts. We were there in part to urge the IUCN to use its leverage as an official advisor to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to prevent two massive coal-fired power plants from being built adjacent to the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans.
Much of this this precious mangrove forest—which spans much of the southern coast of Bangladesh and northeast India—forms two World Heritage sites. It is priceless in part because it is home to so much biodiversity, including endangered Bengal tigers, river dolphins, crocodiles, turtles and fishing eagles.
Earthjustice is assisting a diverse, nationwide, non-partisan coalition of 53 Bangladeshi organizations called the National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans. The committee is calling on the IUCN and UNESCO to urge Bangladesh and India (which is providing substantial financial support), as well as the companies and financiers involved in the project, to forego the plants and instead help Bangladesh transition to renewable energy sources that will provide the electricity Bangladesh needs without destroying the Sundarbans.
“People across Bangladesh consider the Sundarbans to be their mother. She gives us food, medicines, materials for shelter, beauty, peace, a sanctuary for wildlife and protection from cyclones, tsunamis and saltwater intrusion,” said Sharif Jamil, a spokesperson for the coalition. “To stop the proposed coal plants and massive river dredging, for years we have formed human chains and boat chains and marched for days to call attention to the fact that our mother is in danger.”
Unfortunately, opposing coal plants can have serious repercussions in Bangladesh. The government is strongly suppressing dissent against the coal plants. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently placed coal protesters in danger by saying they are equivalent to the terrorists who murdered 24 people in a Dhaka café in July. The following day, the government jailed a university student who criticized her speech and expressed support for coal protesters on Facebook. Twenty-two-year-old Dilip Roy has been in jail since August 28 and faces up to 18 years in prison. Amnesty International has called for his immediate release.
Fearing that the government is not open to hearing their concerns or to acknowledging the scientific evidence that the plants will pollute the Sundarbans, earlier this year the coalition petitioned the World Heritage Committee to recommend that the government abandon the projects. More than 50,000 people around the world wrote in support of the coalition’s demands.
In March, the IUCN and the World Heritage Centre (the secretariat of the World Heritage Committee) undertook a monitoring mission to the Sundarbans to assess threats to the ecosystem, including the proposed coal plants. Their report will be made public in October. Meanwhile, the government is moving steadily ahead with the coal plants. Bangladeshis are concerned that river dredging could begin shortly, which would dump millions of tons of harmful sediment into waters that are home to endangered river dolphins and the source of daily food for thousands of river-dependent people.
Following the release of the monitoring mission report in October, the World Heritage Committee will make recommendations on the issue at its July 2017 meeting. These actions are both important opportunities to pressure Bangladesh and India to stop the planned dredging and coal plants.
When I left for Hawaii, my six-year-old daughter said she didn’t mind that I would miss the first few days of her first grade year, as long as it meant I could help stop coal from ruining the home of the dolphins, tigers and people of Bangladesh—and the world heritage that belongs to all of us. I am doing my best to keep that promise. I hope the World Heritage Committee and the governments of Bangladesh and India will do the same. – World News Report via EIN News
By Jessica Lawrence