ucanews.com reporter, DhakaUpdated: August 10, 2016 11:05 AM GMT
A woman catches fish in a river near the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh's southwestern Satkhira district. Environmental activists have expressed anger over industrial projects including power plants near this UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
A Caritas official has joined calls by environmental activists for the Bangladesh government to ban all industrial activity near the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest.
Environmentalists have expressed alarm after leading Bengali daily Prothom Alo reported Aug. 9 that about 300 conglomerates, businesses and individuals have purchased more than 4,000 hectares of land around the Sundarbans — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — to start up heavy and medium industries.
They said firms are being encouraged by the government to set up shop in the area, despite a 2015 directive banning all industrial activity within 10-kilometer radius of the forest.
"People living around Sundarban already pose a threat to this great forest, and locating industries near the forest would surely put its existence in grave danger," said Sanjeeb Kumar Mondal, project officer of Caritas Khulna's Sustainable Development and Biodiversity Conservation project.
Caritas Khulna is the southwestern regional branch of the Catholic Church's social service agency.
"Various industries are already operating around the Sundarbans causing gradual damage to it. Recently, we noticed signboards for new industries, which would worsen the situation," he said.
Mondal urged the government to stick to the 2015 directive.
"There are many places for industrialization but we have only one Sundarbans and we can't take any risk of causing irreparable damage to it," Mondal said.
Some of the businesses looking to start up in the area include power and energy projects, rice mills, saw mills, brick kilns and cement factories, as well as shipbuilding and saltwater purification projects.
The Sundarbans is the largest single bloc of mangrove forest in the world and is spread between India and Bangladesh. The forest is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and a protected wetland.
The forest is considered a natural shield against climate-change charged natural disasters like cyclones and tidal surges for millions of people living in the coastal region of Bangladesh.
Environmental activists say the rush to industrialize the area was sparked by an India-Bangladesh agreement signed on July 13 to build a 1,320-megawatt coal power plant at Rampal, within 14 kilometers of the Sundarbans.
This plant alone would have disastrous impacts on the environment and biodiversity of the forest as well as the livelihoods of local communities including fishermen and rice farmers.
"This destructive power plant project is inviting a herd of land grabbers and looters, who don't care for the forest but for money," said Professor Anu Muhammad, a prominent economist and rights campaigner.
M.A. Matin, secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, a leading environmentalist group voiced similar concerns.
"It's clear the government is not committed to the preservation of the Sundarbans. One doesn't need to become an expert or environmentalist to realize power project and industries would be disastrous to this unique forest. We are not against industrialization but it should not be in expense of the Sundarbans," he said.
He warned that efforts to protect the forest would be stepped up if the government refuses act to prevent industrialization around the World Heritage Site.
An official at Bangladesh's environment ministry said some industries have existed in the area for quite a long time and denied the government was encouraging new firms to relocate near the Sundarbans.
A committee is looking into the matter, Mallick Anwar Hossain, the ministry's Khulna divisional office director.
"We will take action according the decision of the committee, but we don't know how long it might take," he said.