Activists condemn UNESCO for failing to list the Sundarbans to “World Heritage in Danger”
By Akhter Khan
Despite heavy lobbying by Bangladesh government and Chinese coal diplomats, UNESCO held the ground by asking to halt all industrial constructions near the Sundarbans. On Thursday 4 July at the 43rd meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Baku the committee agreed a decision that “notes with great concerns the likely environmental impacts of large scale industrial projects” and asked Bangladesh government to “take all necessary mitigation measures”.
The committee asked the government to conduct a regional Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) by the end of 2019. It “expresses concern that 154 industrial projects upstream of the property are currently active, and reiterates the Committee’s request in Paragraph 4 of Decision 41 COM B.25”. The government has been asked to “ensure that any large-scale industrial and/or infrastructure developments will not be allowed to proceed before the SEA has been completed.”
The government of Bangladesh, backed by Chinese coal lobbyists, has maintained the Rampal project was put through a thorough environmental assessment process. But the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has disputed this claim.
Bangladeshi and transnational campaigners to save the Sundarbans condemned the decision of UNESCO for it has moved away from the earlier draft decision of the committee. The earlier draft did express grave concerns to the construction of three coal plants in the area. But the final decision re-drafted by China, Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cuba, Hungary and Norway fails to recognise the threats linked to the coal plants near Sundarbans.
We should name and shame those members of the Committee that removed mention of danger of coal plants in the final declaration. UNESCO’s final decision is cowardly. But we also note it doesn’t approve building of any coal plants or industrial constructions in the vicinity before a Strategic Environmental Assessment is completed, said Dr Rumana Hashem, the Phulbari Solidarity spokesperson and an organiser of transnational campaign to save the Sundarbans.
An earlier draft decision of the Committee citing the site as a ‘Heritage in danger’ was indisputably supported by climate campaigners and earth defenders from across the world. On Monday 1st July, a petition initiated by Bangladeshi diaspora campaigners in the UK and Europe, and signed by 53 global ecological and grassroots climate justice organisations demanded UNESCO must recognise the threats posed to the Sundarbans. There were other calls and messages sent from across the globe to the World Heritage Committee to save the Sundarbans.
Despite all calls, the Committee allowed amendments to the original draft decision. It also failed to acknowledge the existence of economical renewable energy options which were recommended by biodiversity experts. The Alternative Power and Energy Plan for Bangladesh, recommended by the energy experts belonging to the Save the Sundarbans movement articulate that it is possible to generate up to 91,700 MW of electricity through renewable sources. The Committee overlooked the Alternative Energy Plan.
Professor Anu Muhammad, the Member Secretary of NCBD said that: Yeras ago, UNESCO from its own research and investigations confirmed the danger of Rampal coal fired project for the survival of Sundarban. The global institution has to do more to save the Sundarban. The government and the corporations have been lobbying to rationalize disastrous projects there.
He added: People will not accept such decision. Lobbying and propaganda cannot hide the truth. We demand that the governments of both Bangladesh and India will come to senses to scrap the Rampal project immediately. When we say YES to the Sundarbans, we must say NO to Rampal and other destructive projects in the vicinity.
Cultural Survival, Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace Russia, Global Justice Forum, London Mining Network, Mangrove Action Project, Reclaim The Power, South Asia Solidarity, 350.org, Urgewald and 43 other environmental organisations from Asia, Afrika, Australia, Canada, Europe, East Europe, Middle East, UK and US stand firm in solidarity with Bangladeshi communities to prevent destructive coal projects in Bangladesh.
Urgewald’s Director, Knud Vöcking, stated: Again the Sundarbans are threatened by fossil fuel projects. UNESCO has to step up but they failed!
Extinction Rebellion International Solidarity Network’s joint cooridinator, Kofi Mawuli Klu, as a signatory of Monday’s petition stated:
For the Internationalist Solidarity imperatives of our Climate and Ecological Emergency International Rebellion demand, we boldly take sides with grassroots Communities of Resistance at the Global South front ranks of defending World Heritage sites like the Sundarbans. We stand firm with the communities to prevent their loss from worsening the looming catastrophe. The most decisive victories of our International Rebellion will be won on such Global South battlegrounds as the Sundarbans, to effectively save all Humanity and our entire planet Earth.
Which are the coal plants that threaten the Sundarbans?
There are three coal plants that threaten the Sundarbans. The first plant is being built by a joint venture of Bangladesh and India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation at Rampal, within 14 kilometers north of the world Heritage site. There are two other plants to be built at Taltoli and Kalapara as joint Chinese-Bangladeshi ventures. The mentions of these later ones were taken out by the Chinese amendment to the final draft decision at the 43rd session on 4 July.
The pollution and dredging from these coal plants will, as a mission from the IUCN in 2016 reported, enduringly damage the world’s mangrove forests. There are also plans for two additional coal plants to be built on the Payra port, by Chinese investments, which would threaten the ecological buffer zone.