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Rizwana Hasan, recipient the Goldman Environmental Prize, 2009.
Rizwana Hasan, recipient the Goldman Environmental Prize, 2009.

The desperation of not being able to provide for one’s family will compel an individual to cross borders, to suffer indignities, to break moral codes, and to put one’s own life at risk. For unskilled, illiterate young men, concerns about personal safety and health issues are a luxury. The cries of Mother Nature may be drowned by the sobs of a hungry child, at least in her father’s eyes.

In the developed nations, we have the luxury to care about the environment without asking many needy people to sacrifice so much. We have less of an excuse to ignore environmental issues. Yet here in New Jersey, we have a problem: We have more toxic waste sites than any other state in the Union. In the spirit of thinking globally and acting locally, I was wondering how I could tap into the inspirational figures I have encountered in my daily perusing of the news from Bangladesh and apply those lessons to my own life here.

Near our home lies an area with a high concentration of children who have contracted brain and other lethal cancers. Two of the underground wells that supply the drinking needs of the 80,000 residents in our area are contaminated by Union Carbide, a company that dumped the contents of 4,500 metal drums on a property it leased from a local farmer directly into the ground close to where the main drinking water supply is drawn.

Union Carbide has been horrific and irresponsible in disposing off its toxic chemicals. No question. And yet, it cannot compare to the amount of toxins involved in ship breaking, the process by which a large ship is recycled. Many of the chemicals present in these ships can lead to a host of problems. The ship breaking industry can kill workers and poison the land for generations to come.

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

By its nature, ship breaking relies on beaching vessels along major waterways, areas of great population concentration, and sources of ecodiversity, agriculture, and fishing. If any of the ship breaking yards lie within flood zones, no amount of mitigation can prevent the unforseen consequences of the rising waters.

The ship breaking yards near Chittagong lie in an 8.8 km swath of coastal plain below the city and within the current of the Bay of Bengal. As I view the satellite picture, a question springs to mind:

“Wouldn’t coastal flooding carry those dangerous toxins into the entire low-lying area between Cox’s Bazar to the South and Sandwhip Ship Ghat Road in the North, and West of R170 and the Dhaka Chittagong highway? Could that region be contaminated with toxins from the shipyards if floodwaters come from a rise in the waters via the Bay of Bengal?”

Think about it. By 2030, on-site accumulations of asbestos in Bangladesh will reach 37,525 tons. In addition, 169.5 tons of heavy metals 1,978,000 cubic meters of organic wastes, and 107,000 square meters of sewage could brew a soup so lethal that generations would suffer long-term ill effects.

Here’s the problem: People rely on the ship breaking industry for sustenance, raw materials, and profit. More than 50 percent of Bangladesh’s steel needs are supplied by ship breaking, according to a World Bank Report (#58275-SAS). According to the same report, direct and ancillary employment from Bangladesh’s ship breaking industry employs for 200,000 workers.

So where do you all stand on this issue? Can Bangladesh afford to lose a $1.5 billion industry? Is the payoff worth the cost?

Enters attorney Rizwana Hasan who will receive the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award on August 31. She has dedicated her life to the plight of workers in this dangerous profession and has advocated successfully for environmental causes. Through acts of litigation and advocacy, she has fought to put an end to the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh. Rizwana sees the industry as exploitation of people desperate for jobs, even at negligible wages and in dangerous conditions. Worldwatch Institute quotes Rizwana: “Even if it is 20,000 [employees], what are happening to these people? They are inhaling asbestos. Do you want people to choose between employment and unemployment, or do you say that this is a choice between unemployment and exploitation?”

I find the work versus environment ambiguity so compelling that I don’t think I could “do the right thing” and demand the shut-down of the industry. The workers may be choosing between unemployment and exploitation, but show me a single dedicated son of a sick parent, or a proud new father, who would not be willing to be exploited in the hopes of making a better life for his family.

My point in writing this article is not so much to present the sides in this issue as to applaud an individual who has the courage to take a clear stance on a controversial issue. I ask myself, what have I done here, in my own country, my town, even in my household to match this woman’s selfless dedication to her cause? Rizwana is thinking of the impact of the industry on her country on future generations. She is challenging her people to make difficult choices. I don’t know if I could do that. I don’t know if I could dismiss the concerns of desperate people, no matter how unhealthy their working conditions.

Can new positions be found for 20,000 workers? The answer, long-term, is yes. Out there in the world, someone is willing to pay for someone to do something less toxic, something better, long-term for the future of Bangladesh. Rizwana has identified the problem and taken a stand. The next step, even before cleaning up the mess, is to discover a better path, perhaps through education, perhaps through hiring those same workers for remediation.

Here’s my American solution: I read that ship breakers usually borrow money from a local bank to purchase the ship to be grounded. The interest rates are high. In six months, when the ship is broken down, the investor repays the loan. If the government could provide lower-interest loans in exchange for better environmental and labour conditions, and that interest rate could mitigate the cost of accountability, it may convince some ship-breakers to self-regulate. As time went by, these conditions could become more stringent.

So what can I do here at home to make a difference? How can I imitate the brave example of your Rizwana Hasan? Well, I could start in my home. I could examine the toxins that are produced right here under this roof. Then I could go to my local forest and redouble my efforts to remove the articles people have dumped. It’s not huge, but it beats doing nothing. I can do my tiny best to make my toxic state just a little bit less toxic. On August 31, 2012, as Rizwana Hasan receives her award, I will honour her, not with a gold medal, but with ten trees planted and ten bags of trash pulled from the woods.


Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.

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