BELA as a Symbol of Courage for Promoting Environmental Justice in Ne'er-do-well Bangladesh

By Mahmudul Hasan - Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) was formed in 1992 in response to a global movement to protect and conserve the natural environment while promoting environmental justice. The legal NGO emerged out of necessity for environmental equality in a country that was barely three-decade old at the time.

Boats on the Rive Dhaka

Since its establishment, BELA has faced hostile opposition within a tumultuous legal system. There are approximately 210 laws regarding environmental and natural resource conservation in the country - impressive for a country which is barely half a century old. However, the process of implementing those laws fall on the legal system. Due to a nascent legal system, and politics mired with an ineffectual democratic process and uncertainty, steps to combat violations are usually gridlocked in an inefficient bureaucracy. Greedy conglomerates avail the lack of law implementation to operate as a monopoly with blatant disregard for rules and regulations. Naturally, they make no efforts to change the status quo, from which they benefit greatly. 

BELA seeks to bring notice and change to this lack of inefficient government operation which is adversely affecting environmental justice. Finding a case for environmental justice is a matter of perspective. In the case of Bangladesh, environmental justice would include protection against natural disasters and mass displacement, maintenance of natural resources, protection against health threats, and maintaining the contemporary agronomy which is a source of livelihood for millions. We see that the problem lies both within the human rights framework and the environmental justice framework. The environmental injustice continues due to the absence of civil and political rights such as a free trial and a safe environment. From an environmental justice framework which seeks to eliminate harmful environmental and social practices, there is structural racism since there are social and environmental decision makers who are involved in the disparities of environmental hazard. 

On a domestic level, BELA runs a lot like the Basel Action Network (BAN). Both are organized networks of activists dedicated to combating toxic dumping. The organizations make progress through extensive lobbying to change and implement the law to ensure it does not happen again. They are committed to engaging the economic opportunity structure in a fair manner. The only difference is BELA lacks the resources to establish such a vast presence in the environmental justice field and thus relies on morally conscious individuals to keep operations running. 

Comprised of well-qualified and vehement lawyers, along with a dedicated staff, BELA usually springs to action once it receives any grievances from local communities through any of its seven offices spread throughout the country. Most of these cases are brought to attention through grass roots level efforts. After finding a cause for environmental injustice, BELA uses the strategy of “information politics”. The framing of the work and building of a case is presented as a contravention by the accused party along with local media coverage to disseminate the information to the public. Once there is admittance and recognition that a problem exists, the Constitution of the country is utilized intuitively to address the crime being committed. Since the country relies greatly on international remittance and trade agreements along with aid, leverage politics takes place. In 2003, BELA was awarded the global 500 rolls of honors by the United Nations Environmental Program. BELA’s executive was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental award for her persistent efforts in redressing people’s sufferings among many others. These awards are not only positively conspicuous, but they help to form alliances and partnerships with organizations abroad who have similar objectives. Maintaining these connections helps the organization gain more media coverage which may at times cause foreign governments and organizations to voice concern. Even if the Bangladesh government does not relent to international pressure from NGOs, it certainly relents to the bad publicity due to its economy earning on manufacturing and exports.

Rapid industrialization, stimulated by government lobbying and subsidies, has made Bangladesh one of the fastest rising economies in Asia. However, in the process, an exploding population along with ill-equipped ministries and poor-planning has turned the country into a virtual wasteland. The country often ranks as one of the worst countries in the global index for air and water quality, with its capital city and financial hub Dhaka was named the world’s most polluted city in 2018. However, most worrisome of all is the indiscriminate dumping of waste in lakes and rivers which are spread throughout the outer skirts and low-income areas of the country and in communities inhabited by dwellers of low socio-economic status. First and foremost, a majority of the pollution is caused by the textile, leather and shipbreaking industries. Combined, they account for most of the country’s exports and the tycoons of these sectors hold the most senior portfolios in the government or are some of the country’s most influential personalities. Where influence can be brought, organizations like BELA are usually snubbed by the government, and cooperation is a last resort to avoid court hassles. However, due to the judicial nature of the work of BELA, the lack of a state mechanism to aid the disadvantaged and poor is compensated by BELA who usually attempts to fight these egregious violations pro bono. 

The current political situation in Bangladesh can be compared with the situation in Chester, Pennsylvania. In that instance, government and industry officials tried to keep residents in the dark by using highly technical language in meetings. In one instance, a Chester resident was silenced when he asked about an incinerator, to which the representative corrected him by using the interchangeable but more difficult term, “resource recovery facility” (the term is used in Luke Cole’s and Sheila Foster’s book From the Ground Up). Similarly, in Bangladesh people who are deemed less sophisticated or educated are told to be stoic and promised jobs and fortune. By the time they realize the results, it is too late. Unfortunately, it is a vicious repetitive circle in various parts of the country and poverty can be harrowing to the point that it can make one forget many things.

Since its formation, BELA has waged war against individuals and institutions whose presence in the country has given many an ambivalent feeling regarding what the outcome may be. Despite that, the organization has been continuously victorious. First, it came to light in the 1990s when it successfully sued mayoral candidates of Dhaka for environmental violations. Once the court deemed it against public interest, it paved the way for the environmental guidelines in monitoring the adverse effects of election campaigns on the environment. In late 2000s, BELA further intensified their efforts to bring about proper change when they pursued legal action against the ship breaking industry of Bangladesh. Going against the shipbreaking industry was a much more contentious and thorny issue. While the shipbreaking industry completely refutes the claims of BELA, BELA has maintained its position by stating that it has no intention of ruining the shipbreaking industry of Bangladesh, but instead is determined to see that it operates lawfully by ensuring that toxic materials are removed before the ships are brought to the yard for dismantlement. In March 2009, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh ruled that ships entering the country for decommissioning must be "pre-cleaned" in line with The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. One year later to the utter shock of the people of the country, it was found that the building of the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers Exporters Association) was illegally occupying government owned land. To add to this repugnant discovery, it was found that a former Prime Minister had laid the founding stone of the building while another had inaugurated it. Besides the illegal occupation of land, the building was unjustly blocking a canal which was crucial to the water body movement of some of the main lakes in the city. BELA had taken a keen interest in this discovery and had worked to have the order to demolish the building expedited. Despite the court order for immediate demolishment and the BGMEA’s move into building another lawful one, the illegal structure still stands today. This is a perfect example of impunity by organizations who flout directives of the government and the people. 

BELA’s use of judicial pressure along with disseminating information to the public has cemented a robust platform for the country’s environmental justice. However, no matter how many NGOs and individuals try to redress such issues of magnitude, it will not make a permanent mark until and unless the government is enthusiastically concerned. Greed and corruption are cancerous and if they are not removed, they spread and poison others. An absolute reform is need be initiated not by any leader, NGO or party but simply by those affected: the people. 

About the Author

Mahmudul Hasan 

Mahmudul Hasan is an IUCN-WCEL member from Bangladesh. He is a recent LL.M. graduate of energy and environmental law, and Thomas Buergenthal Fellow, at The George Washington University Law School, Washington, D.C.  You can follow Mr. Hasan’s latest commentary on his personal webpage at http://mahmudulhasan.net/

Go to top