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By Genevieve Belmaker and Joseph Charpentier
Throughout 2018, forests continued to be threatened and destroyed. From the Amazon, to the Congo Basin, to the Mekong Delta and scores of places in between—journalists reporting for Mongabay filed hundreds of stories about the world's forests.
Although the significance of any one story is difficult to gauge in the short-term, several Mongabay reports from 2018 stood out. These pieces dealt with illegal timber trafficking, advances in technology-based environmental protections and human rights protections for the people doing environment-defense work—formal and informal.
By Joyce J. Chen and Valerie Mueller
Salt is essential for cooking, but too much salt in soil can ruin crops and render fields useless. According to legend, Roman general Scipio Aemilianus Africanus sowed the soils of Carthage with salt after conquering the city during the Punic Wars. And after defeating the Italian town of Palestrina in 1298, Pope Boniface VIII is said to have plowed its lands with salt "so that nothing, neither man nor beast be called by that name."
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"To achieve this, we encourage animal welfare organisations, community groups, youth and children's clubs, businesses and individuals to organize events in celebration of World Animal Day. Involvement is growing at an astonishing rate and it's now widely accepted and celebrated in a variety of different ways in many countries, with no regard to nationality, religion, faith or political ideology," the event's website says.
By Kieran Cooke
As another monsoon season begins, huge numbers of homeless Bangladeshis are once again bracing themselves against the onslaught of floods and the sight of large chunks of land being devoured by rising water levels.
Bangladesh, on the Bay of Bengal, is low-lying and crisscrossed by a web of rivers: two thirds of the country's land area is less than five meters (approximately 16 feet) above sea level. With 166 million people, it's one of the poorest and most densely populated countries on Earth—and one of the most threatened by climate change.
By Jeremy Lent
Imagine you're driving your shiny new car too fast along a wet, curvy road. You turn a corner and realize you're heading straight for a crowd of pedestrians. If you slam on your brakes, you'd probably skid and damage your car. So you keep your foot on the accelerator, heading straight for the crowd, knowing they'll be killed and maimed, but if you keep driving fast enough no-one will be able to catch you and you might just get away scot-free.
Of course, that's monstrous behavior and I expect you'd never make that decision. But it's a decision the developed world is collectively taking in the face of the global catastrophe that will arise from climate change.
By Andy Rowell
As much of the North American media focuses on the ongoing unprecedented flooding and relief efforts in Texas and now potentially Louisiana, another tragedy is unfolding, which is going largely unreported, in Asia.
Whereas the death toll in Texas stands at 20, the death toll in South Asia is estimated at 1,200 after weeks of unusually strong monsoon rains affecting India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
On Jan. 13, the MV Aichgati, a large bulk cargo vessel carrying 1,000 tons of coal, sank in the estuary of the Pashur River in the Sundarbans World Heritage Site. In addition to the large amount of coal, hundreds of gallons of fuel oil, batteries and other toxic contaminants may now be polluting the Sundarbans.
The is the fifth time a vessel has sunk in the Sundarbans over the past two years. In December 2014, an oil tanker capsized in the Chandpai Dolphin Sanctuary on the Shela River, spilling and spreading 350 m3 of fuel oil across at least 40 km of the waterway. Five months later in May 2015, a cargo vessel sank, polluting the Bhola River with 200 tons of potash. In October 2015, a barge transporting 570 tons of coal capsized near the Dhangmari Dolphin Sanctuary in the Pashur River. In March 2016, a cargo vessel transporting 1,245 tons of coal sank in the Shela River. The waterways flowing through the Sundarbans are home to the Dhangmari and Chandpai dolphin sanctuaries, created to protect the rare Irawaddy and Ganges dolphins.
"Five recent episodes of ships capsizing have created a cumulative impact that endangers the rare aquatic ecology of the Sundarbans," Donna Lisenby, clean and safe energy campaign manager for Waterkeeper Alliance, said. "The Rampal coal plant must be stopped before it further imperils the World Heritage Site."
The governments of India and Bangladesh are aggressively moving forward with the construction of the proposed Rampal coal-fired power plant which will dramatically increase the shipping of coal, coal ash and gypsum pollutants through the Sundarbans.
"If the Rampal coal plant is built, it will require hundreds more coal ships and barges to travel through the Sundarbans," Sharif Jamil, coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh, said. "This is one of the many reasons why the World Heritage Centre (WHC) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) concluded that the proposed Rampal power plant poses a serious threat to the Sundarbans and should be canceled."
In addition to cancellation of Rampal, Waterkeeper Alliance and Waterkeeper Bangladesh supports the shipping recommendations made by the WHC and IUCN in the June 2016 Monitoring Mission Report:
Enforce the permanent closure of the Shela River to all vessel traffic, national and international, and apply speed limits and effective control measures for night and poor weather conditions for vessels navigating along the Pashur River.
Develop an effective action plan and emergency response facility in consultation with all relevant stakeholders to react to any future shipping incidents in a timely and coordinated manner, and consistent with the recommendations made in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) oil spill assessment report.
There was grossly inadequate emergency response that failed to remove of sunken vessels and their toxic cargo in a timely manner in all past five shipping disasters in the Sundarbans. Adherence to the WHC and IUCN recommendations is necessary to prevent more capsized ships from spewing additional pollution into one of the world's most important, water-dependent World Heritage Sites.
"All these shipping accidents show that the leaders of India and Bangladesh are not taking steps to protect the Sundarbans; rather, they are attempting to increase damage and destruction," Pashur River Waterkeeper Noor Alam said. "This accident again proves the carelessness of the government towards the protection of the Sundarbans and justifies the call to stop construction of Rampal on the banks of River Pashur."
Waterkeepers Bangladesh and Pashur River Waterkeeper will continue to monitor this latest shipping disaster to assess whether proper clean-up, mitigation and enforcement are completed by the government of Bangladesh.
By Payal Parekh
It's been several years since the first communities in Bangladesh started protesting the construction of the Rampal coal-powered plant near the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. The struggle to save the Sundarbans as well as protect the health and livelihoods of the communities in the region continues. This week, seven marches from different parts of the country will reach Dhaka to conclude in a mass gathering and rally at the Martyr's Square to renew their calls for the cancellation of the project.
Opposition to the Rampal coal plant has been expressed not only by the villagers, but even by financiers. In 2015, three French banks and two Norwegian pension funds withdrew their investments from this project. This year, due to pressure from a petition signed by 50,000 people across the world UNESCO has recommended that the Bangladeshi government scrap plans to build the Rampal power plant.
Yet, the government is still intent on building the coal plant, despite having made an admirable commitment to shift to 100 percent renewable energy as soon as possible at the conclusion of the Marrakech climate conference last week.
The kickstart on Thursday to the Long March to Dhaka to stop the Rampal coal plant.350.org
Experts also agree with Bangladesh that renewable energy is what's needed now; a recently published report from Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis Institute points out that fossil fuel subsidies and electricity-sector losses are a growing drag on the country's economic growth. For its authors, the Rampal plant "epitomizes some of the backward thinking among key energy-development powers that be in Bangladesh." Instead the report lays out a plan that is cost-efficient and enhances national energy security by increasing grid efficiency, energy efficiency and increasing solar energy ten-fold.
If Bangladesh is serious about its commitment to go 100 percent renewable, then it will not only shelve the Rampal project, but will back away from current plans to double fossil fuel generation. This will only instill a long-term dependence on the import of fossil fuels, which would lead to more national debt, devaluation of the currency and an increase in inflation, all of which would destabilize the Bangladesh economy.
The potential to become a world-leader in in the transition to clean, renewable energy by redoubling efforts in deploying solar home systems would help eradicate energy poverty and increase the likelihood that sea level rise would be limited in one of the lowest-lying countries of the world.
The easiest first step is to cancel the construction of the Rampal coal-powered plant to demonstrate Bangladesh's commitment to going 100 percent renewable.
Payal Parekh is the global program director at 350.org.
In conjunction with the Save the Sundarbans protest today at the UN's headquarters in New York City, we're revealing in this EcoWatch exclusive that Friends of the Earth U.S. obtained documents that suggest the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Ex-Im Bank, which is supported by taxpayer dollars, is considering financing the Orion-Khulna coal plant near the Sundarbans in Bangladesh.
Mangroves in the Sundarbans in Bangladesh.Mohammad Rakibul Hasan
The struggle for climate justice in Bangladesh, however, did win an important battle in July. Responding to public pressure from advocacy groups, Ex-Im Bank is no longer considering financing for a coal plant proposed to be built outside Bangladesh's capital city of Dhaka, one of the largest cities in the world. This coal plant, known as the Orion-Dhaka project, would burn coal just a few miles outside Dhaka, poisoning the air and water of 17 million people. While it remains unclear if the Orion-Dhaka project will move forward without U.S. financing, Ex-Im Bank's withdrawal represents an important victory for protecting people and the climate.
Battle Won, But Fight Continues
While activists celebrate this decision, our celebration is short-lived. We have reason to believe that Ex-Im Bank will finance another coal plant in Bangladesh. According to media reports, the Bangladeshi company Orion Group, originally claimed to have secured financing for not one, but two coal projects in Bangladesh from Ex-Im Bank.
The second coal plant, known as the Orion-Khulna project, is proposed to be built 14 kilometers from the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Sundarbans, which spans the border of India and Bangladesh, is home to endangered species like the Bengal tiger and Irrawaddy dolphin, and provides a home and livelihoods for upwards of 6 million people.
Sundarbans Tiger Reserve.Dibyendu Ash
The coal plant would greatly damage the Sundarbans' surrounding ecosystem, threaten the human rights of thousands and contribute to runaway climate change. Indeed, as a nation, Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the world; its people cannot afford for any more coal to be burned.
Mangroves in Sundarbans, Bangladesh.Dibyendu Ash
An Op-Ed that Ex-Im Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg wrote about his trip to Bangladesh in February of 2016 demonstrates Ex-Im Bank's interest in financing projects there. Indeed, under Hochberg's tenure, Ex-Im has supported more than $650 million in U.S. exports to Bangladesh. The status of the Orion-Khulna coal plant is currently unknown, since Ex-Im Bank has provided so little information about its involvement in the project. However, recent news indicates the Orion-Khulna project could move forward soon. Another massive coal project proposed to be built near the Sundarbans, the Rampal coal plant, just secured financing from India's Export-Import Bank. According to local Bangladeshi groups, if the Rampal project proceeds, Orion-Khulna will follow soon after.
Another reason for Americans to be concerned about this international issue is one of the largest U.S. corporations, and a serial environmental polluter and tax evader, General Electric (GE), is slated to receive U.S. Ex-Im financing for its involvement in the construction of the Orion-Khulna coal plant. GE is no stranger to controversy. GE's poor environmental track record includes polluting the Hudson River with toxic waste water from 1947 to 1977 and supplying the nuclear reactors that faltered and led to the Fukushima nuclear plant explosion in 2011. GE, one of the long-running top beneficiaries of Ex-Im—the second largest recipient of Ex-Im financing after Boeing, is contracted to supply the turbine generators for the Orion-Khulna coal plant. Since acquiring the French power company Alstom, GE has expressed a renewed interest in coal throughout the world, including in Southeast Asia.
Troubling FOIA Revelations
Now, present day, here is why the new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents matter: the heavily redacted FOIA documents we obtained reveal further evidence to support the claim that U.S. Ex-Im Bank is considering financing for the Orion-Khulna project and that GE is involved.
They show that Ex-Im Bank was in talks as late as February 2016 with Bangladeshi government officials and GE about coal projects, which most likely include the Orion-Khulna coal plant. The FOIA documents show that during Ex-Im Bank Chairman Hochberg's February visit to Bangladesh, he met with high-ranking officials from Bangladesh's power ministry and energy sector, including the energy advisor and directors from GE. GE's alleged involvement in the Orion-Khulna project and expressed interest in building more coal projects in Southeast Asia suggest that Hochberg very likely discussed financing the Orion coal projects in these meetings.
In addition, a note that merely said "Adani coal project," was scribbled on a document from the meeting between Fred Hochberg and GE officials. Adani Group is an Indian conglomerate made up of various subsidiary companies, including Adani Mining, which operates in Australia, Indonesia and other coal-rich countries. This leads to troubling speculation that Australian coal from the controversial Adani-owned Carmichael coal mine and the Abbott Point coal export terminal, which poses grave threats to the Great Barrier Reef, could supply the coal for Orion's coal projects in Bangladesh.
India has indeed recently said they plan on increasing their coal exports to Bangladesh. This statement further supports the theory that the coal used for the Orion coal plants will come from Adani's problematic Australia coal projects. As it happens, Ex-Im Bank is also considering financing Adani's Carmichael coal mine project. Although pure speculation, if Adani's coal projects in Australia ended up supplying coal for the Orion projects in Bangladesh, the U.S government would be entangled in climate disaster and social and environmental destruction across multiple levels.
Undermining Obama's Climate Legacy
Given the recent actions the U.S. has taken to address climate change, it's very troubling that the U.S. government is still considering financing coal projects at all. Supporting new coal development greatly undermines President Obama's much-touted climate legacy, including his commitment under the Climate Action Plan to restrict financing coal plants overseas and the recent formal U.S. commitment to the Paris agreement, which aspires to limit global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and thus rules out any question of U.S. investment in coal. This also raises questions about what other fossil fuel projects Ex-Im is considering financing.
Grassroots Pressure, Applied Globally
Despite the schemes of Big Business and bad political actors, people around the world are successfully challenging the coal equation. Ex-Im Bank's response regarding the Orion-Dhaka project came as a result of pressure from activists and civil society groups in Bangladesh and the U.S., who sent more than 156,000 petition signatures to Ex-Im Bank in late June. The petition asked Ex-Im Bank to publicly reject financing for Orion's coal projects. A strong grassroots movement in Bangladesh is fighting to protect the Sundarbans from coal development. There have been two marches over the past several years attended by hundreds of thousands of people in Bangladesh.
Bangladeshis march 155 miles to protest the construction of various coal plants near the Sundarbans, March 2016.Mowdud Rahman
Most recently, a student was arrested for posting a comment on Facebook criticizing the Bangladeshi government's support for the Rampal coal plant. The people have spoken: New coal development is toxic to our environment and human health, and we refuse to accept the status quo anymore.
The fight to protect the Sundarbans is not only gaining momentum in Bangladesh, it has become an international issue. This past year Save the Sundarbans protests have been held in Paris, Washington DC, Atlanta and New York.
Atlanta chapter of Bangladeshi environmental group holding a Save the Sundarbans protest at the Indian Consulate in Atlanta, Georgia, Sept. 2016.Mohammad Nasir Uddin
Environmental groups and South Asian-American groups deliver more than 156,000 petitions to U.S. Ex-Im Bank in Washington DC, June 2016. The Sierra Club
NY chapter of Bangladeshi environmental group holding a Save the Sundarbans protest in Queens, New York, August 2016.Mohammad Nasir Uddin
This growing movement came full circle today, when environmental groups and local Bangladeshi and Indian-American activists held a Save the Sundarbans protest in New York City while President Obama and Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina attended a UN General Assembly meeting. Protesters called for the Sundarbans to be protected and for an end to harmful coal projects in Bangladesh.
To honor the U.S.'s commitment to fight climate change and preserve a livable planet for future generations and for the sake of the people and wildlife who call the Sundarbans home in Bangladesh, U.S. Ex-Im Bank must publicly reject financing for the Orion-Khulna coal plant, once and for all.
The joy of diving into a pool of freshwater is an unparalleled life experience, and for many generations until now has been a readily available opportunity. Ponds, streams and rivers—a gift from nature.
But economic expansion and population growth, powerfully backed by commercial interests, has for many decades now diminished this experience. Our future generations do not have the opportunity for this experience. It is more of a privilege than everyday act to be able to swim in clean, fresh water. The river Buriganga, lifeline of Dhaka city, the capital of Bangladesh, is such an example. For several years now this river has been maltreated by the residents of Dhaka, leading to it being recognized as a “Black River.”
Buriganga Riverkeeper, part of Waterkeeper Alliance, has been actively working towards rehabilitating the river. Today, at the Bosila area of the river, we have demanded it be pollution-free and swimmable throughout the year. To observe Waterkeeper Swimmable Water Weekend 2014, we organized a public gathering and community swimming event in the area.
The event on Aug. 9 was chaired by former advisor to the government, activist and advocate Sultana Kamal. She said, “The rivers are controlled and occupied by only a handful of individuals and organizations. They need to be brought under state supervision for the sake of the nation.” Kamal added, “We should all work together to save our rivers, and everyone should act as a Riverkeeper. If we don’t save our rivers, we will not be able to save our city and civilization.”
She was joined by others who echoed similar thoughts. Rasheda K. Chowdhury has called for the attention of the Honorable Prime Minister and suggested speedy action towards saving the river. Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Magsaysay award winner and representing Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA), said, “A lot of the pillars used to demarcate the river area are done in a way that seems there is no riverbank. Moreover, there is also lack of political will power. In order to strengthen this, local residents have to play an important role.”
Waterkeeper Swimmable Water Weekend 2014 in Bangladesh. Photo credit: Buriganga Riverkeeper
Hasan Masud, popular cultural personality; Gazi Ashraf Lipu, former captain of Bangladesh National Cricket Team; freedom fighter Sultan Ahmed Tipu, Shahjahan Mridha Benu, joint secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon; and Mohammad Manik Hossain, chairperson of Bosila Primary School, also attended and spoke in support of clean water.
The 13 organizations supporting the event include: Bosila United Club, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), WBB Trust, Green Voice, Aachol Trust, Sobuj Pata, Mastul Foundation, Himu Paribohon, Paribartan Chai, NDF, Friends of Rivers and Green Magazine. Residents of Bosila were active participants during the event, which was organized and facilitated by Buriganga Riverkeeper, Sharif Jamil.
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