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BELA as a Symbol of Courage for promoting Environmental Justice in Ne’er-do-well Bangladesh

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BELA (Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association) is an NGO of lawyers, which was formed in 1992 in response to a global movement to protect and conserve natural environment while promoting environmental justice, lack of which have serious implications on rural based economies like Bangladesh. This organization emerged out of necessity of environmental equality in a country which at the time was barely three-decade old. Since its the foundation, the challenges facing BELA are profuse with hostile opposition and a tumultuous legal system. There are approximately 210 laws regarding environment and natural resource conservation in the country. Impressive for a country which is barely half a century old now. However, the process of effectuating those laws fall on the legal system. Due to a nascent legal system and politics mired with an ineffectual democratic process and uncertainty, steps to combat violations are usually gridlocked in an inefficient bureaucracy. Greedy conglomerates avail the lack of law implementation to operate in absolutely monopoly and with blatant disregard for rules and regulations. Naturally, they make no efforts to change a status quo from which they benefit greatly.

BELA seeks to bring notice and change to this lack of inefficient government operation which is adversely affecting environmental justice. Finding a case for environmental justice is a matter of perspective. In the case of Bangladesh, environmental justice would be protection against natural disasters and mass displacement, maintenance of natural resources, protection against health threats and maintaining the contemporary agronomy which is a source of livelihood for millions. We see that the problem lies both within the human rights framework and environmental justice framework. The environmental injustice is continuing due to the absence of civil and political rights such as a free trial and a safe environment. From an environmental justice framework which seeks to eliminate harmful environmental and social practices, there is structural racism since there are social and environmental decision makers who are involved in the disparities of environmental hazard.

BELA on a domestic level runs a lot like the Basel Action Network (BAN). Both are organized networks of activists dedicated to combating toxic dumping. The organizations make progress through challenging and lobbying extensively to change and implement the law to ensure it does not happen again along with ensuring environmental equality and is committed to engaging the economic opportunity structure in a fair manner. The only difference is BELA lacks the resources to establish such a vast presence in the environmental justice field and thus relies on morally conscious individuals to keep operations running.

Comprising of well-qualified and vehement lawyers along with a dedicated staff, BELA usually springs to action once it receives any grievances from local communities through any of its seven offices spread throughout the country. Most of these cases are brought to attention through grass roots level efforts. After finding a cause for environmental injustice, BELA uses the strategy of “information politics”. The framing of the work and building of a case is presented as a contravention by the accused party along with local media coverage to disseminate the information to the public. Once there is admittance and recognition that a problem exists, the Constitution of the country is utilized intuitively to address the crime being committed. Since the country relies greatly on international remittance and trade agreements along with aid, leverage politics takes place. In 2003, BELA was awarded the global 500 rolls of honors at the United Nations Environmental Program. Its executive was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental award for her persistent efforts in redressing people’s sufferings among many others. These awards are not only positively conspicuous, but it further helps to form alliances and partnerships with organizations abroad who have similar motives. Maintaining these connections help the organization get more media coverage which may at times cause foreign governments and organizations to voice concern. Even if the Bangladesh government does not relent to international pressure from NGOs, it certainly relents to the bad publicity due to its economy earning on manufacturing and exports.

Rapid industrialization which has been stimulated by government lobbying and subsidies has made Bangladesh one of the fastest rising economies in Asia. However, in the process, an exploding population along with ill-equipped ministries and poor-planning has turned the country into a virtual wasteland. The country often ranks one of worst countries in global index of in air and water quality, with its capital city and financial hub Dhaka being named the world’s most polluted city for the year of 2018. However, most worrisome of all is the indiscriminate dumping of waste in lakes and rivers which are spread throughout the outer skirts and low-income areas of the country and in communities inhabited by dwellers of low socio-economic status. First and foremost, a lion’s share of the pollution is caused by the textile, leather and ship breaking industry. Combined, they account for most of the country’s exports and the tycoons of these sectors hold the most senior portfolios in the government or are some of the country’s most influential personalities. Where influence can be brought, organizations like BELA are usually snubbed by the government, and co-operation is a last resort to avoid court hassles. However due to the judicial nature of the work of BELA, the lack of a state mechanism to aid the disadvantaged and poor is compensated by BELA who usually attempts to fight these egregious violations pro bono. To understand why such an elevated level of pollution is tolerated and accepted, it can be compared with the various tactics government and industry officials applied to the Chester residents in Pennsylvania to keep them in the dark by applying highly technical languages in meetings. In one instance, a Chester residence was silenced when he asked about an incinerator to which the representative corrected him by using the interchangeable but more difficult term, “resource recovery facility” (the term is used in Luke Cole’s and Sheila Foster’s book From the Ground Up). In a similar condescending manner, people who are deemed less sophisticated or educated are told to be stoic and promised jobs and fortune. By the time they realize the results, it is too late. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious repetitive circle in various parts of the country and poverty can be harrowing to the point that it can make one forget many things.

Since its formation, BELA has waged war against individuals and institutions whose presence in the country has given many an ambivalent feeling regarding what the outcome may be. Despite that, the organization has been continuously victorious. First, it came into spotlight in the 1990s when it successfully sued mayoral candidates of Dhaka for environmental violations. Once the court deemed it against public interest, it paved the way for the environmental guidelines in monitoring the adverse effects of election campaigns on the environment. In late 2000s, BELA further intensified their efforts to bring about proper change when they pursued legal action against the ship breaking industry of Bangladesh. Going against the ship breaking industry was a much more contentious and thorny issue. While the ship breaking industry completely refutes the claims of BELA, BELA has maintained its position by stating that it has no intention of ruining the ship breaking industry of Bangladesh but is determined to see that it operates lawfully by ensuring that toxic materials are removed before the ships are brought to the yard for dismantlement. In March 2009,the Supreme Court of Bangladesh ruled that ships entering the country for decommissioning must be “pre-cleaned” in line with The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. One year later to the utter shock of the people of the country, it was found that the building of the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers Exporters Association) was illegally occupying government owned land. To add to this repugnant discovery, it was found that a former Prime Minister had laid the founding stone of the building while another had inaugurated it. Besides the illegal occupation of land, the building was unjustly blocking a canal which was crucial to the water body movement of some of the main lakes in the city. BELA had taken a keen interest in this discovery and had worked to have the order to demolish the building expedited. Despite the court order for immediate demolishment and the BGMEA’s move into building another lawful one, the illegal structure still stands today. This is a perfect example of impunity by organizations who flout directives of the government and the people.

BELA’s use of judicial pressure along with disseminating information to the public has cemented a robust platform for the country’s environmental justice. However, no matter how many NGOs and individuals try to redress such issues of magnitude, it will not make a permanent mark until and unless the government is enthusiastically concerned. Greed and corruption are cancerous and if they are not removed, they spread and poison others. An absolute reform is need be initiated not by any leader, NGO or party but simply by those effected: the people.

Mahmudul Hasan is a recent LL.M. graduate of energy and environmental law and Thomas Buergenthal Fellow at The George Washington University Law School, Washington, D.C.

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Healthy planet needs ‘ocean action’ from Asian and Pacific countries

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As the Second Global Ocean Conference opens today in Lisbon, governments in Asia and the Pacific must seize the opportunity to enhance cooperation and solidarity to address a host of challenges that endanger what is a lifeline for millions of people in the region.

If done right ocean action will also be climate action but this will require working in concert on a few fronts.

First, we must invest in and support science and technology to produce key solutions. Strengthening science-policy interfaces to bridge practitioners and policymakers contributes to a sound understanding of ocean-climate synergies, thereby enabling better policy design, an important priority of the Indonesian Presidency of the G20 process. Additionally policy support tools can assist governments in identifying and prioritizing actions through policy and SDG tracking and scenarios development.

We must also make the invisible visible through ocean data: just three of ten targets for the goal on life below water are measurable in Asia and the Pacific. Better data is the foundation of better policies and collective action. The Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP) is an innovative multi-stakeholder collective established to enable countries and other stakeholders to go beyond GDP and to measure and manage progress towards ocean sustainable development.

Solutions for low-carbon maritime transport are also a key part of the transition to decarbonization by the middle of the century. Countries in Asia and the Pacific recognized this when adopting a new Regional Action Programme last December, putting more emphasis on such concrete steps as innovative shipping technologies, cooperation on green shipping corridors and more efficient use of existing port infrastructure and facilities to make this ambition a reality.

Finally, aligning finance with our ocean, climate and broader SDG aspirations provides a crucial foundation for all of our action. Blue bonds are an attractive instrument both for governments interested in raising funds for ocean conservation and for investors interested in contributing to sustainable development in addition to obtaining a return for their investment.

These actions and others are steps towards ensuring the viability of several of the region’s key ocean-based economic sectors, such as seaborne trade, tourism and fisheries. An estimated 50 to 80 per cent of all life on Earth is found under the ocean surface. Seven of every 10 fish caught around the globe comes from Pacific waters. And we know that the oceans and coasts are also vital allies in the fight against climate change, with coastal systems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows at the frontline of climate change, absorbing carbon at rates of up to 50 times those of the same area of tropical forest.

But the health of the oceans in Asia and the Pacific is in serious decline: rampant pollution, destructive and illegal fishing practices, inadequate marine governance and continued urbanization along coastlines have destroyed 40 per cent of the coral reefs and approximately 60 per cent of the coastal mangroves, while fish stocks continue to decline and consumption patterns remain unsustainable.

These and other pressures exacerbate climate-induced ocean acidification and warming and weaken the capacity of oceans to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Global climate change is also contributing to sea-level rise, which affects coastal and island communities severely, resulting in greater disaster risk , internal displacement and international migration.

To promote concerted action, ESCAP, in collaboration with partner UN agencies, provides a regional platform in support of SDG14, aligned within the framework of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Through four editions so far of the Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean, we also support countries in identifying and putting in place solutions and accelerated actions through regional dialogue and cooperation.

It is abundantly clear there can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. Our leaders meeting in Lisbon must step up efforts to protect the ocean and its precious resources and to build sustainable blue economies.

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Green Planet

The Human Price of Tea

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There is nothing quite like that first cup of tea (or coffee) in the morning.  The aroma swirls about in the nostrils and a sip of the hot brew, then another, quickly readies body and mind for the day that awaits. 

Whoever gives a thought to the long journey of the tea leaf from its birthplace to a kitchen in the West.  The tea bush is unusual in that it requires an abundance of water but not in its roots.  So it is grown on the windward side on foothills as in Darjeeling and Assam. 

The workers picking tea are mostly women because men prefer the harder work in the fields for it pays more.  The wages paid to the tea pickers can be illegally low, that is below the minimum wage requirements, and the workers dare not file any complaints because the wealthy landowners and tea merchants are too powerful. 

Since they are not earning a living wage, workers usually forage to supplement their diet relying on mushrooms and other edibles.  So it was (BBC report, May 20, 2022) that Anjali Kharia sat down with her daughter to a meal of mushrooms — a special treat thanks to her father-in-law Rajesh Kharia, who had found a good-sized lot in a nearby forest.  They were enough for his family plus friends and neighbors to share with, as is their custom.  

Unfortunately growing among their batch was a particularly tasty — and poisonous — variety indistinguishable from the rest.  And Anjali’s daughter Sushmita and others soon began to feel sick.  Many went to hospital including Anjali’s son and father-in-law.  Sushmita seemed to improve so everyone assumed she was over the worst. 

It was only a temporary respite for she soon started vomiting again, grew steadily worse and died.  They have been eating mushrooms for years; it is a treat and fairly regular part of their diet, and no one suspected the cause.  

Local officials say warnings are not heeded for they do not reach the illiterate workers.  In 2008, more than 20 people died from poisonous mushrooms, the highest numbers recorded.  Most were tea workers or their family members.  The government set up a panel to study the problem.  And there have been campaigns to teach people to distinguish the poisonous types. 

As long as Ms. Kharia is paid 130 rupees ($1.67) a day, far below the unenforced minimum wage, it is unlikely such problems will recede.  She has to feed a family of six.  There are public welfare schemes for the poor but Ms. Kharia says she has never received any free food grain rations.  Meanwhile, prices of vegetables and essential commodities continue to rise. 

It is not just tea.  From the 1906 Upton Sinclair book, “The Jungle,” an expose of the meatpacking industry to Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” published just two decades ago, the problem may be revisited but U.S. meatpacking continues to remain a dangerous place to be.  A 2018 Guardian article’s headline “Two Amputations a Week” illustrates the point.

And tea pickers will have to forage as long as their government does not enforce minimum wage laws.  Fighting against entrenched economic interests is not just India’s problem. 

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Green Planet

The climate crisis is a health crisis

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With one in eight people worldwide threatened by a lethal heat wave in South Asia that’s already taken close to 100 lives, it’s time we recognize that the climate crisis is a health crisis.

This is not an isolated issue. In South Africa, recent floods took over 400 lives, across the Sahel violence and insecurity are on the rise as people struggle with hunger, malnutrition and other factors made exponentially worse by climate change, and in place like Colombia, health and food security are at risk as floods displace communities and trigger disease outbreaks. 

This is the most pressing health and humanitarian challenge of the 21st century. A quarter of a million people are expected to die every year from climate change between 2030 and 2050 if we do nothing about it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. According to recent IPCC Climate Change Report, climate change has harmful impacts on human health ranging from mortality from extreme events, morbidity from increasing temperatures and heat waves, malnutrition and disease susceptibility.

And for the first time ever, the IPCC Report includes mental health as a key area impacted by the climate crisis, noting that climate change has adversely affected the physical and mental health of people globally.

People are losing their homes and loved ones as conflicts flare over scarce resources in places like the Lake Chad Basin, and they are redlining on stress as we deal with the prolonged impacts of COVID-19 and the spectre of other zoonotic pathogens that will rise as heat and environmental damage push animals out of their traditional zones, according to Harvard

And even as countries and communities emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, it is evident that the pandemic has reinforced pre-existing structural inequalities, accentuated systemic challenges and risks, and threatens to reverse hard-earned progress across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Climate change is expected to further worsen the risks. We are already witnessing “irreversible” damage from climate change. According to the IPCC report, over 3 billion people – nearly half of the world’s population – live in “contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.” And the direct costs of climate change to the health system – not including health determining sectors such as agriculture, water and sanitation – is estimated between US$2 and $4 billion a year by the WHO.

Rethinking climate and health

Climate change adaptation will be one of the key highlights of this year’s Climate Talks in Egypt. World leaders have the chance to connect the dots between health, food security, livelihoods, sustainable economic development and climate actions as we come together to accelerate the ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement and sprint to achieve the lofty goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Most Nationally Determined Contributions have identified health as a priority concern. At COP-26 over 50 countries committed to build climate resilient and low-carbon health systems. These include 47 countries, representing over a third of global health care emissions. Fourteen countries have also set a target date to reach net zero carbon emissions in their health system before 2050.

There are a number of entry points that can assist countries in reaching these goals. The main opportunities come from adaptation interventions that contribute to food and water security, climate-informed health planning that can be inserted into National Adaptation Plans, early warning systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases, capacity building for health facilities to build the protocols and prepare for the changing health needs that are arising as a result of the climate crisis, public health education campaigns, and community-level investments in water and sanitation facilities and other infrastructure that prevents the spread of disease.

When you think about it as a whole, the climate-health crisis is amazingly complex. In places like Egypt, people need air-conditioning units just to survive the 120-plus degree days. But more AC means more greenhouse gases. So, we also need to rethink economic development, incentives for renewable energy, and reduction of hydro-chloro-fluorocarbons and other pollutants that are literally poisoning our planet.

We also need to rethink climate resilience in our cities, on the farm, and in the marketplace, redefining how we approach commerce and economic development as we adapt to the new challenges of the 21st century.  

Piloting climate-health actions

The good news is that we are making progress.

With funding from the Global Environment Facility Special Climate Change Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and WHO supported local governments to pilot climate change adaptation efforts to protect human health in Barbados, Bhutan, China, Fiji, Jordan, Kenya and Uzbekistan.

In Barbados, community-based public health campaigns supported the safe use of wastewater. In Bhutan, the government has advanced its ability to predict climate-sensitive infectious diseases. And in China, three pilot cities have implemented a heat-health warning system.

With funding from the GEF, UNDP is partnering  with the WHO to build resilient health systems in Least Developed Countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Timor-Leste, and Small Island Developing States such as Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Among the various outputs, the programmes will advance climate-informed health planning and early warning systems, build capacity at health facilities, implement public health campaigns, and support localized community actions directed at the climate-health crisis.

There’s a bigger picture here. In the end, projects designed to address food and water security, advance ecosystem-based adaptation, or enhance livelihoods, will help us in addressing these interconnected issues. In partnership with governments, donors, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders, UNDP’s current climate change adaptation portfolio is geared to benefit 126 million people through US$1.6 billion in investments from the vertical funds and bilateral donors, as well as an additional US$3.8 billion leveraged from partners.

This good start, but far shy of the US$20 to US$40 billion in yearly spending for climate change adaptation called for at the Glasgow Climate Talks.

It’s critical that we take a systems-wide approach, embrace new technologies and new ways of working, engage with the private sector, and activate locally led climate actions if we are going to address this crisis.

Millions of lives hang in the balance. It’s time we step up and make climate action – and climate-health action – a global priority. This is our investment in planet Earth, our investment in future generations, our investment in a better world. 

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