CS

Case Study

February 23
6 mins

Guardians of Moheshkhali: Defending Traditional Ways of Living by the Sea Against Unsustainable Blue Growth 

Samiya Selim, Jewel Das, Marion Glaser, Prabal Barua, Tahura Farbin, and Shahriyer Hossain Shetu
Regional
Bangladesh
The sandy shores of Moheshkhali: here fishermen are striving to bring joy to their families amidst the challenges of changing coastal life.
Launched in 2015, the Matarbari Mega Project seeks to transform Moheshkhali Island into an economic hub, including a coal power plant and port facilities. Despite promises of modernization, the project has caused environmental harm and displaced 20,000 locals, impacting livelihoods and cultural identity. Since 2018, local ocean defenders have protested, resulting in successes like the cancellation of certain coal plants. Yet, the struggle to preserve heritage and environment against industrial expansion persists. This highlights the crucial role of community involvement in development decisions and the ongoing need for a sustainable and culturally sensitive approach to economic growth.
Figure 1. Empowered hands weave tales of Moheshkhali: A collective of women from displaced families stitch dreams into art, crafting stories with every delicate thread.

In the Bay of Bengal’s lively waters sits the charming Moheshkhali Island, where a vibrant community has thrived for generations through fishing, aquaculture, and agriculture. The island is divided into two administrative units, Dhalghata Union and Matarbari Union. In total, the island has a population of 57,814 inhabitants (350.org, 2022). The main occupations include salt cultivation, agriculture, shrimp culture, and fishing in the Bay of Bengal (350.org, 2022). The island’s tranquility was shattered in 2015 when the government of Bangladesh designated Moheshkhali as one of the country’s economic zones. This designation set the stage for a conflict that pits the aspirations of industrial development against the rights and livelihoods of the local population.

The conflict revolves around the rapid development projects on Moheshkhali Island, collectively known as the Matarbari Mega Project. The island, covering an area of 268 square kilometers, is planned to include one coal power plant, five LNG and LPG terminals, a deep-sea port, a petrochemical refinery, gas pipelines, and even a tourism park. While these initiatives promise economic growth and modernization, they have unleashed a wave of environmental and social challenges that threaten the very fabric of the island (BWGED, 2018; Dhaka Tribune, 2022).

The Matarbari Mega Project has left a trail of destruction in its wake. Coastal erosion, driven by extensive dredging and soil removal, threatens the fragile shoreline. Pollution from industrial facilities, both on land and in the water, imperils marine ecosystems (Chowdhury, 2018). Disturbingly, there are anecdotal reports of disruptions in local fish populations, though these claims await scientific validation (Alam, 2023). However, it’s the human toll that paints the most harrowing picture. Around 20,000 people have been forcibly displaced from their ancestral homes and occupations to make way for the coal power plant alone (350.org, 2022). Salt farmers, shrimp farmers and workers, crab farmers, agricultural laborers, and fishermen have all found themselves brutally uprooted. Their loss extends beyond livelihoods and land; it reaches into the heart of their cultural identity and community cohesion, particularly impacting women who already had limited access to livelihoods and mobility (Alam, 2023; Budrudzaman, 2022).

Figure 2. Salt farms provide an economic income to local fishers.

In the face of this mounting crisis, a dedicated group of ocean defenders has risen to challenge the industrial juggernaut. They hail from diverse backgrounds, with most being members of various small NGOs and rights groups, and are between 25 and 40 years old. What distinguishes them from others in the community is their level of education and income, which provides them with the means and determination to fight for their rights. These defenders self-identify as activists striving for the voice and rights of the local community in the decision-making process. They are the guardians of their fishing and coastal farming territories, driven by their deep connection to the land that has been home to their families for generations.

The ocean defenders’ mobilization efforts, the group remains nameless, began in earnest in 2018, but the roots of their resistance date back to the initial project announcement in 2015 (BWGED, 2018). They have organized protests, conducted demonstration marches across Moheshkhali, and even extended their actions to the city of Cox’s Bazar, where they have aimed to raise awareness about the project’s devastating consequences and draw attention to the plight of local people through newspapers and social media platforms. Their demands are clear: halt the construction and prevent evictions.

The ocean defenders are fighting for the right to participate in decision-making processes that affect their land and livelihoods. They aspire to defend their territories, ensure equitable compensation for those displaced, and safeguard their environment from unchecked industrialization. Their ultimate goal is to secure a future where the people of Moheshkhali can prosper without sacrificing their heritage. 

While the ocean defenders have not been entirely successful in halting the development or preventing displacement, their efforts have not been in vain. Pressure from various quarters led to the cancellation of several coal plants slated for construction. Japan’s decision not to fund the second phase of the Matarbari power plant is a testament to the impact of their struggles (Market Forces, 2022; Market Forces et al., 2022). However, local corporate entities are stepping in with their funding, perpetuating the threat.

As a response to the defenders’ efforts to halt the mega project, they have faced significant challenges, which include coercion, false promises of jobs and compensation, verbal threats, and the use of police to quell protests. There are even anecdotal accounts of physical violence and murder, although concrete evidence is lacking.

One thing is evident: the ocean defenders operate in a hostile environment where the national governance context is unsupportive of their right to assemble, advocate, and protest for the environment and rights. While the nation’s laws ostensibly protect both the environment and human rights, the reality is marked by clamping down on the free press and a controversial digital act that has led to the incarceration of activists and journalists (TBS, 2023).

Figure 3. A fisherman’s hope: A local fishing boat waits patiently on the sandy shores of Moheshkhali, carrying the dreams of fishermen striving to bring joy to their families amidst the challenges of changing coastal life.

The struggle in Moheshkhali is ongoing, with the ocean defenders persisting in their efforts to protect their island and livelihoods from unchecked industrialization. While some progress has been made in terms of compensation for displaced families and the emergence of fishing cooperatives, the battle is far from over.

In the Bay of Bengal waters, these ocean defenders keep speaking out against the spread of big industries. They are the protectors of Moheshkhali Island, and they are determined to save their culture and prevent harm to their land, their jobs, and their way of life. Their determination shows how strong communities must be in the face of the seemingly unstoppable march of ocean and coastal development, and it reminds us of the difficulties ocean defenders face when trying to protect the sea and their homes.

Citation

Selim, S., Das, J., Glaser, M., Barua, P., Farbin, T., and Hossain Shetu, S. (2024). Guardians of Moheshkhali: Defending Traditional Ways of Living by the Sea Against Unsustainable Blue Growth. The Ocean Defenders Project. Online at http://oceandefendersproject.org

 

 

References

350.Org. (2022). Matarbari and Dirty Development. Available at: https://350.org/matarbari/  

Alam, A. (2023). Bangladeshi Fishers and Farmers at the Frontline of Climate Change. The Diplomat. Published on March 16, 2023. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2023/03/bangladeshi-fishers-and-farmers-at-the-frontline-of-climate-change/

BWGED – Bangladesh Working Group on Ecology and Development. (2018). Initial Observation of BWGED on Matarbari. Published on 7 August 2018. Available at: https://bwged.blogspot.com/2018/08/initial-observation-of-bwged-on.html

Budrudzaman, M. (2022). Matarbari Coal Power Plant: When Development Undermines Development. The Business Standard. Published on 17 July 2022. Available at: https://www.tbsnews.net/thoughts/matarbari-coal-power-plant-when-development-undermines-development-459518

Chowdhury, A. (2018). Coast or Construction? The Daily Star. Published on 8 June 2018. Available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/star-weekend/environment/coast-or-construction-1587958

Dhaka Tribune (2022). Activists Demand Stop to Japan-Funded Matarbari Power Plant in Maheshkhali. Dhaka Tribune. Published on 22 January 2022. Available at: https://www.dhakatribune.com/world/2022/01/29/activists-demand-stop-to-japan-funded-matarbari-power-plant-in-maheshkhali

Market Forces. (2020). Matarbari coal power plants: Sumitomo, Japanese companies threaten communities and climate in Bangladesh. Published on 29 May 2020, updated on June 2022. Available at:  https://www.marketforces.org.au/stop-matarbari-coal-power-projects/

Market Forces, BAPA, Fossil Free Chattogram, and Waterkeepers Bangladesh. (2022, May). A Carbon Catastrophe in the Making: The Dirty Energy Plans in Chattogram, Bangladesh. Available at: https://fossilfreechattogram.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/MF-BAPA-WKB-Report-A-Carbon-Catastrophe-in-the-Making.pdf

 The Business Standard. (2023). Deaths, imprisonments, and harassment: The controversial history of the Digital Security Act. Published on 7 Agust 2023.  https://www.tbsnews.net/bangladesh/deaths-imprisonments-and-harassment-controversial-history-digital-security-act-678322 

Categories

Coastal Erosion, Declines of Biodiversity, Degradation of Ecosystems, Degradation or reduced supply of Ecosystem Services, Disruption of Marine Foodwebs, Eutrophication, Fish Abundance and Productivity, Pollution and Contamination , Local communities, Small-scale fishers, Women, Youth , Maritime Transport, Ports and Related Services , Awareness and communication campaigns, Social movements , Economic marginalization, Political marginalization, Repression and Silencing , Environmental injustices, Lack of Economic Benefits, Social and Cultural Impacts, Tenure and Access

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