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bangladesh: ship-breaking industry smashed?

Bangladesh’s ship-breaking beaches are soaked in a toxic soup of hazardous substances, such as oily wastes, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead and arsenic. These toxins leak out of ships as they are being dismantled bit by bit.

ship-breaking-bangladeshBecause their environment is so severely contaminated, and because of frequent fires, explosions and accidents, life for those in the ship-breaking industry is extremely hazardous and there are regular fatalities. It is estimated that, on average, one ship-breaking worker dies in Bangladesh every week. There are 20,000 men working in the industry, some as young as 14, and all are paid very little, housed in the most basic accommodation, and provided with little or no medical care. 


The 1995 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal bans the export of toxic waste. Yet many of these ships come from countries such as the US and the UK. They are illegally exported by owners seeking to cut costs.


Friends of the Earth Bangladesh/BELA is striving to ensure that such ships can only be accepted by Bangladesh’s ship-breaking yards when they are certified as being free of toxic substances, as required by the Basel Convention. They also want the Bangladeshi government to enact and enforce standards that genuinely protect workers and the environment. So far, for example, none of the 36 ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh has ever had or applied for environmental clearance.


what happened

In 2009, Friends of the Earth Bangladesh scored a resounding victory when the Bangladeshi High Court declared that all ship-breaking yards operating without environmental clearance – in other words all of them - should close their operations within a matter of weeks. This followed a writ filed by Friends of the Earth Bangladesh, challenging the entry of a Greenpeace-blacklisted ship, MT Enterprise. 


The Court also banned Bangladeshi ship-breakers from importing end-of-life vessels without first ensuring they have been pre-cleaned of hazardous materials.


Rizwana Hassan, Programs Director of Friends of the Earth Bangladesh and an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, was awarded the 2009 Goldman Award for spearheading the legal battle to reduce the impact of Bangladesh’s ship breaking industry. She also received the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global 500 award for Friends of the Earth Bangladesh’s outstanding work. Rizwana is a Board member of the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking.


what next?

Friends of the Earth Bangladesh will continue its efforts to ensure that these rulings are upheld and enforced. Securing tighter environmental regulations in Bangladesh could also set a precedent for similar legislation being enacted in other countries such as India, Turkey and Pakistan


For more information on the Goldman award:

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Photo: Courtesy of AdamCohn

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