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Prize Winners Today: Rizwana Hasan on the Environmental Crisis in Bangladesh

March 17, 2021

A conversation with Rizwana Hasan (Bangladesh, 2009) is like a crash course in international relations, environmental studies, and political economics rolled into one. She navigated our questions and led the conversation with clarity and ease, expanding upon some topics and addressing others with brevity, always looping back at the end to re-articulate her main points. It’s easy to see how Rizwana has established herself at the forefront of environmental law in Bangladesh, rising from a young lawyer to the chief executive of a public interest law firm.

Upbeat and crackling with knowledge, Rizwana does not shy away from topics typically left unspoken in Bangladesh. After all, her organization, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), is not one to back down from a fight. In its 28-year history, her team of lawyers has tackled everything from human rights violations to environmental justice. Despite BELA’s strong record of success and international recognition, its work has consistently been an uphill battle—and not just in the courtroom. In addition to dealing with a partisan judicial system, there have also been severe security threats against Rizwana, her family, and members of her team. While she cautioned that in Bangladesh, “anyone who has an opposing view has to be very diplomatic in expressing it,” she also admitted that her level of frustration has reached its peak. “You can’t live in an atmosphere of fear all the time,” she stated.

Environmental Crisis in Bangladesh

To understand the severity of environmental challenges and Rizwana’s work in Bangladesh, it is important to first understand the country itself. Bangladesh is one of the most populous countries in the world, one of the poorest countries in the world, and, arguably, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. After gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, the country’s decades-long transition to democracy has been continually interrupted by military rule and rampant corruption. It is in this context that Rizwana outlined a litany of issues facing the environment and the people of Bangladesh.

Nestled in a coastal pocket between India and Myanmar, Bangladesh is one of many low-lying Asian countries that are extremely susceptible to sea level rise. If sea levels rise by just one meter, one third of Bangladesh will be underwater. In a country already facing significant population pressure, the remaining landmass would then have to accommodate a massive, displaced population.

As rapidly encroaching saltwater threatens local freshwater fisheries and agricultural land, rivers are also suffering from upstream pollution. 258 out of 259 rivers in Bangladesh are international rivers shared with India or China, resulting in a regional collision of water rights, pollution, and infrastructure development.

Bangladesh’s troubles on land are just as serious as those in the water. With a population of 16 million, Dhaka, the capital, regularly jockeys for the title of world’s most polluted city. “Oh, yes, we beat Delhi recently,” Rizwana quipped ironically as we discussed air pollution. She then shared a recent projection that Bangladesh’s landfills will be at capacity within the next six months. “We don’t know what we will do with the waste,” she noted.

Rizwana finally finished enumerating the multitude of environmental issues in Bangladesh, leaving me stunned and silent. I eventually asked, “With so many problems, how do you choose what to focus on?”

Tahirpur, Bangladesh. Photo: Hasin Hayder via Unsplash
(Left) Waterlogged homes in the village Bhabadaha; (Right) Trucks along the riverbed of River Shomeshhori are illegally loaded with sand to be used for construction of roads and other infrastructure. Photos: BELA

BELA’s Casework

BELA’s casework is roughly divided into two sets of issues. The first are issues of national significance with global dimensions. For example, building on the momentum of the global movement to reduce plastic waste, in 2020 BELA took on a single-use plastics case. The result? The Bangladeshi government will begin phasing out single-use plastics by 2022.

The second set of issues are those filed on behalf of aggrieved community members. BELA believes that if there is a violation of people’s environmental rights—the right to breath clean air, drink potable water, live in a noise-free environment, or have safe, chemical-free food—people should have redress. BELA worked successfully to bring the concept of class action to public interest cases in Bangladesh, creating an important foundation allowing the organization to represent communities on various environmental issues, from river encroachment to crop damages caused by factory pollution. Rizwana and her team think and plan strategically—how many people will be benefit from a given case? Could the outcome be replicated in the future?

Over the years, BELA has won many notable victories, such as the landmark ship-breaking case for which Rizwana won the Goldman Prize in 2009 and a 12-year case against the destruction of wetlands. Despite these victories, BELA’s fight for the environment is still a fight against complacency and corruption. The morning of our interview, Rizwana was drafting a petition to protest the government’s filling up of a river for easy access to a coal-based power plant. In 2014, a ship contaminated with radiation was imported into the country to be dismantled, without major pushback from the Bangladeshi government despite lack of compliance from the exporting country. As Rizwana explains, there is no significant political will in Bangladesh to change the popular understanding of environmental threats and progress. The prevailing attitude is, “They have to put their vessel somewhere.” Unfortunately, “somewhere” is often Bangladesh. “We started with a dream, and it has been a shattering experience,” Rizwana concluded.

(Left) Community meeting against contamination from a rice mill which was constructed on agricultural land next to a residential area; (Right) BELA facilitator briefing participants during group work in the city of Sylhet. Photos: BELA

Gender and the Environment

Interwoven with environmental degradation in Bangladesh is gender, according to Rizwana. In Bangladesh, women are culturally regarded as the protectors of the environment, namely because the responsibility of feeding one’s family falls to the mother. Women are considered the “seed banks of Bangladesh” because of their interconnected relationship to the land. There are many proverbs about women in Bangladesh safeguarding fish or harvesting food. This connectivity results in an ironic duality. In a positive sense, women are the protectors of the environment; in the negative sense, women are most affected by environmental crises.

As women are deeply engaged with their natural environment, Rizwana believes that it’s important to include them in conversations about environmental protection from the beginning. For example, Rizwana shared, you would never hear a female farmer call a pesticide a “pesticide.” “To her, it is poison—she calls it ‘poison,’ and she would never use it in her food.” The engagement of women in environmental work has the potential to protect agricultural resources and maintain nature’s equilibrium, resulting in a more climate resilient Bangladesh.

A Future for Bangladesh

Our respect and admiration for Rizwana were only further reinforced by her concluding request—to engage in solidarity efforts, support BELA and its mission, and assist those experiencing injustice in Bangladesh. Rizwana acknowledged that, ultimately, the efficacy of environmental laws and practices hinges on political will and enforcement of the law. In the meantime, as Bangladesh remains a case study for extreme environmental challenge, we are confident that the environment—and its people—have a good lawyer.

Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: Shafiqul Islam via Unsplash

This blog post is part of the Prize Winner Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?

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About the author

Ellen Lomonico

Communications Associate

Ellen is excited to elevate the stories and amplify the impact of Goldman Prize recipients around the globe. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Prize in 2020.

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