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A Bangladeshi professor is risking his life to defend the Sundarbans

From Scroll.in: 60-year-old Anu Muhammad, the author of 30 books, has been getting repeated death threats for his role leading a seven-year campaign against plans to build a $1.5 billion coal-fired power plant in Rampal, southern Bangladesh, on a site teeming with waterways, mud flats and a host of threatened species from crocodiles to pythons.

AZM Anas, Scroll.in

Veteran Bangladeshi academic-activist Anu Muhammad is no stranger to death threats, beatings, persecution and arrest, so when the professor of economics received a chilling text message shortly after midnight, it barely registered.

“Death keeps no calendar, and Ansatullah knows no time!”

But a few hours later, on that same October morning last year, a second SMS pinged – one he could not ignore.

“Say ‘yes’ to Rampal [a proposed coal-fired power plant] otherwise you will be hacked to death incredibly by us!”

Reporting the threats to police, Muhammad learned that Ansatullah was probably a mistype and referred to Ansharulla or Ansar al Islam, an Islamic extremist group linked to al Qaeda.

The group, implicated in a series of brutal attacks and murders against atheist and gay rights bloggers, had also claimed the murder of a Bangladeshi sociology lecturer in 2014.

Now they seemed to have 60-year-old Muhammad in their sights for his role leading a seven-year campaign against plans to build a $1.5 billion coal-fired power plant in Rampal, southern Bangladesh, on a site teeming with waterways, mud flats and a host of threatened species from crocodiles to pythons.

The protests have turned nasty with at least 20 protesters injured in January and five detained when police launched tear gas and water cannons against anti Rampal protesters.

Activists fear the plant, a joint venture between Indian and Bangladeshi state-run power corporations, will destroy the Sundarbans, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests and a UNESCO World Heritage site home to the endangered Royal Bengal tiger and rare Irrawaddy dolphins.

Muhammad – author of more than 30 books – said the mangrove forest is extraordinarily rich in flora and fauna and key to the livelihoods of millions of people.

Air pollution

“This has also been a huge natural safeguard against frequent cyclone, storm and other natural disasters in the country,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The lives and properties of up to four million people who live on it will be threatened if there is no Sundarban.”

Scheduled to open in 2021, the plant is expected to burn about five million tonnes of coal each year, pumping out carbon and sulphur dioxide emissions in the process.

Despite local opposition and calls from the United Nations for the plant to be re-located, the government is pushing ahead, saying Bangladesh needs huge amounts of electricity to develop.

Currently, just two percent of power is generated using coal while natural gas reserves are dwindling.

Anwarul Azim, a spokesman for the joint venture company, the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Ltd, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was “unlikely to harm the Sundarbans” because the plant will be 14 km away from the outer edge of the forest and 69 km from the UNESCO heritage site. “As a result, the scanty amount of exhaust from the power plant won’t be any cause for harm to the Sundarbans,” he said.

He said stringent environmental standards had been approved by the Department of Environment and were compatible with World Bank and International Finance Corporation criteria.

Muhammad, however, fears an environmental “disaster”.

Dangerous liasons

Speaking in his Dhaka home, the economist said he is only too aware of the personal risk he runs in opposing a multi-billion dollar government project, particularly one that is championed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

“We need to take this risk,” Muhammad said. “By destroying a natural huge forest, power and other commercial enterprises reflect a blind development paradigm that puts profit before people and environment.”

When committee activists investigated the death threats against him, they told Muhammad the telephone belonged to a member of the Awami Olama League, an Islamist arm of the ruling Awami League. The phone owner denied sending the threats.

Muhammad says he has no intention of giving up.

Over two decades, the professor and his campaign group – the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas Mineral Resources, Power and Ports – have questioned the role of several multinational resource companies in Bangladesh and their relationships with local partners, government contractors and politicians.

In 2006, they helped scupper a British company’s attempt to establish an open coal mine in northwestern Dinajpur district. The company abandoned the project but four lives were lost in the battle to clear farmland.

Muhammad was also integral to a 2007 campaign that quashed multi-billion dollar energy investment plans by the Tata Group.

A year later, when a military-backed caretaker regime was in power in Bangladesh, the professor was threatened with death if he did not stop appearing on television.

In 2009, he was injured when a public rally against an oil exploration project in the Bay of Bengal turned violent.

Network of activism

Erin Kilbride, from the human rights campaign group Front Line Defenders, said governments, companies and armed groups target activists like Muhammad because their deaths not only affect families and friends but disrupt whole activism networks.

“In Bangladesh, for example, following the murders of bloggers and LGBT activists, we documented a sharp decline in advocacy for indigenous peoples, land, and environmental rights as well,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Muhammad said that deaths in state or police custody are not uncommon in Bangladesh and reflect the breakdown of law and order and legal institutions.

He said the lack of a free media made things even harder with little public awareness about issues like Rampal.

But Muhammad takes heart from the fact that the campaign against the Rampal has linked like-minded activists worldwide, allowing them to share information and support each other.

In January this year, supporters of the Sundarbans joined forces in more than 20 countries, from as far afield as Germany to South Korea, in a Global Day of Protest against the plant.

However the economist said his greatest fear now is the Sundarbans might lose their UNESCO listing, conferred in 1997, with a meeting next month to consider the heritage status.

“If we say yes to the largest, coastal mangrove forest in the world then we must say ‘no’ to commercial projects harmful for its survival,” he said. “There are many ways to increase the country’s GDP but there is no way to reproduce the Sundarbans.”

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

In Bangladesh, a growing movement to save the world’s largest mangroves from coal power attack
Soumya Dutta & Neha Mathew, Countercurrents.org
Bangladesh’s 1,320 megawatt Rampal coal power project threatens to devastate the Sundarbans and the communities whose livelihoods depend on it. If completed, it will consume about 13,000 tons of imported coal daily, result in over six miles of river dredging each year, discharge highly toxic sludge, and release ten million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Bangladesh is Building a Dirty and Expensive Coal Plant Next to the World’s Largest Mangrove Forest
Shahzad Uddin, The Wire
A controversial new coal power plant being built in Bangladesh is already running out of friends. Environmentalists worry it will spell disaster for the world’s largest mangrove forest, while locals worry about pollution and being driven from their homes. The vast majority of Bangladeshis have been critical of the project since its inception in 2010. Even the business case seems to be falling apart, as costs mount and international investors pull out. So why is it still being built? Rampal, a 1320MW coal power station, will be big enough to provide around 10% of the country’s electricity generation. It’s scheduled to be operational from 2020.

World Bank chief calls Asia’s coal boom a disaster, but is helping to finance it
Isabel Esterman, Mongabay
According to a new report, the Asian coal boom described by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim as a “disaster” has been quietly enabled by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. After two years of sifting through a commercial banking database, researchers found the IFC has financial ties to 41 new coal projects launched since 2013. These projects include highly controversial power plants like the Mahan plant in India, the proposed Lanao Kauswagan power station in the Philippines and the Rampal coal plant in Bangladesh, each of which has prompted protests by local activists who fear the projects will cause severe environmental, social and human rights problems. ((Related: 1) UN tells Bangladesh to halt mangrove-threatening coal plant 2) Rampal Power Plant: Fly ash a big threat to environment)

Voices around the world unite to save the Sundarbans
A recent Global Day of Protest for the Sundarbans united voices from across the globe calling for the preservation of  the world’s largest single tract of mangrove forest, home of endangered species like the Royal Bengal tiger and the Irrawaddy dolphin. Organizers estimate that up to 4,000 people showed their solidarity with the five year-long popular resistance movement opposing the construction of the Rampal power plant in Bangladesh.


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