Sustainable Trade and Environmental Concerns in Bangladesh


by Saleemul Huq, Khandaker Mainuddin and Dwijen Mallick


The tanneries at Hazaribagh in Dhaka discharge huge quantity of effluents to the nature without treatment. The liquid waste goes to the river Buriganga. This has been a common practice for more than three decades. Fish resources are adversely affected in few hundred metres of the river. The pollution is not limited to the surface water as it also contaminates the groundwater apart from the atmospheric pollution through bad smell.

The integration of the global economy under the framework of the WTO is likely to further enhance the trade volume in the future. The expansion of trade, however, is also a growing concern pertaining to various social and environmental problems. The adverse impacts of trade on environment has been acknowledged by the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) through a key document called Agenda 21. The issue is also being increasingly emphasized by other multilateral agencies like the WTO and the European Union.

Garments, leather and shrimp are the most important export-oriented sectors of Bangladesh economy. These three sectors together earn more than 80 per cent of the country's foreign exchange. Garments sector alone earn about 70 per cent of the total foreign exchange. These three sectors, however, are characterized by similar as well as diverse social, environmental and trade related problems. Similar problems are faced by all these three sectors due to inefficient and inadequate infrastructural facilities including road, electricity, port, transport, etc. Lack of investment fund and inefficient banking system also hinder the export growth of these sectors.

Garments: The RMG (ready-made garments) has emerged as a trendsetter of rapid growth. Exports of garment products in the year 1997 reached three billion US dollars or about 68 per cent of the countries total export earnings. RMG industry is now one of the main employers of non-farm workforce in Bangladesh. According to rough estimate, more than one million persons are directly employed by the industry and about half-a-million are engaged in linked activities.

The garments sector has generally witnessed a stable growth; although, it has also been affected by both external and internal factors from time to time. The imposition of quotas on a number of products by the USA in the mid-eighties caused a serious setback to the industry. Some firms faced closure due to restriction imposed on exports into the US market. As a consequence, entry of new firms willing to produce the items under quota were banned. While the firms that remained in business utilising the quota facilities were benefited, owners and workers of others were adversely affected and underwent economic hardship. Firms that could diversify their products or were able to switch over to new products did overcome the situation. With the lifting of the ban on entry in 1991, there has been a surge of new firms in the industry. This has led to a more competition and a consequent reduction in profit margin.

Shrimp: Bangladesh enjoys an advantageous natural setting for shrimp culture. Its soil, water, climate and local cultural heritage are especially suitable for shrimp production. The country has vast floodplain and about 25,000 square kilometers of land area along its coast is subjected to spring tidal influence. The water bodies in the low-lying area of the Sundarbans mangrove forest are excellent hubs for shrimp-fries. The beginning of the present shrimp culture dates back to the late sixties when a number fish freezing plants were set up in Chittagong and Khulna regions. A big boost in production and export of shrimp, however, was witnessed in the mid-'70s due to excessive demand from the USA, Europe, Japan and some middle-east countries. Abundant supply of local labors at low-wage, is also an important factor for the growth of the industry. The European Union is the largest importer of Bangladesh shrimp followed by the USA and Japan.

Shrimp cultivation is concentrated in the coastal areas of Khulna and Chittagong regions. At present about 0.2 million hectares of land are occupied by shrimp culture in the country. About 80 per cent of the total shrimp land are in Khulna region especially in the districts of Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat, while 20 per cent is in Chittagong region.

Leather: Leather is a traditional export item. Annual value of leather export is about 234 million US dollar which is about 6 per cent of the countries export earnings. Skins and hides of livestock animals are the row materials of leather industries in Bangladesh. Being a beef consuming country, Bangladesh has a good number of livestock populations with an annual supply of hides and skins of abbot 18 million square metres. The major tanneries are located in Dhaka at Hazaribagh, while there are also few tanneries in Chittagong and in Savar, Dhaka.

Major environmental Concerns in these three sectors

The garment industry in Bangladesh is mainly concentrated in Dhaka and Chittagong. Garments manufacturing plants are scattered almost all over Dhaka City including the residential areas. This has created extra burden on the basic municipal services such as electricity, road, water, drainage waste management etc. Housing for the garment workers, large majority of them are migrants from the rural areas, poses a serious problem. The low-paid female garment workers live in poor dwelling units of the slum areas that lack basic municipal services. As a result, they are exposed to various diseases.

The garment industry generates a huge quantity of solid waste including pieces of leftover clothes, plastic materials etc. At the initial stage, the industry appeared as a serious problem in the absence of proper disposal. The situation has gradually improved with the use of these leftover materials in the cottage industries engaged in the production of toys, dolls, cushions, mattresses etc. While the garment industry is not considered as a major environmental concern, but an emerging textile industry as a backward linkage to the garment sector could pose a serious environmental problem. The good news is that the newly set up few such industries, however, are quite aware of the environmental issues and are putting in place the requisite environmental waste management system.

In spite of its contribution to the economy specially in earning foreign exchange and employment generation, the emergence and growth of shrimp culture is identified with various social and environmental problems.

The conflict between traditional paddy cultivation and shrimp culture is a widely debated issue. The land now under shrimp farming was previously used for growing paddy for generations together. Paddy growers who could not change into shrimp farming either leased out or sold their land to the shrimp farms. The land under shrimp production is inundated with saline water through breaching the coastal embankment during the dry season from December through July in Khulna region. Adjoining lands of shrimp farms affected by salinity are not suitable for cultivation of paddy, which requires fresh water.

Introduction of shrimp farming in Chakoria area of Chittagong region is identified with the destruction of a large mangrove forest and its biodiversity. Besides, thousands of people go to Sundarbans for fry collection and thereby damage the bio-diversity in the forest area. The ongoing practice of collecting shrimp fries from natural sources including the sea, channels and rivers by the untrained workers causes significant losses not only to shrimp fries but also to fries of other fishes. Collectors frequently throw away non-shrimp fries on the beaches and riverbanks. This is perhaps one of the main reasons of a gradually declining supply of different natural fish resources.

Various social tensions and conflicts are also attributable due to the rapid expansion of shrimp farming in the coastal areas. Majority of the owners of shrimp projects is not local residents. There is a lack of trust and confidence between the outside owners and the local residents, which often lead to violent conflicts. The local owners of small plots having little or no financial resources cannot go for shrimp farming and are obliged to sell or lease-out their land. They do not get a fair price for their land and also face problems in getting the money for leased out land. In the absence of any institutional regulatory measures such malpractices are quite rampant. Local residents from time to time put up resistance with the support of NGO workers but suffer oppression from the powerful owners of shrimp farms.

Shrimp farming is also criticised for increasing social imbalance and inequity. Shrimp farmers earn a high rate of returns from their investment but local residents experience higher unemployment, lower wage, higher price of food, loss of cattle, other livestock animals and scarcity of pure drinking water due to salinity. The negative environmental impacts of shrimp culture include: a) increasing salinity and soil degradation, b) deforestation and destruction of homestead vegetation, c) destruction of coastal vegetation, and d) waterlogging leading to irreversible changes in micro flora and fauna.

The National Environmental Management Action Plan (NEMAP) identified the leather industry as more harmful to environment than the textile, medicine, fertiliser and paper industries. The tanneries at Hazaribagh in Dhaka discharge huge quantity of effluents to the nature without treatment. The liquid waste goes to the river Buriganga. This has been a common practice for more than three decades. Fish resources are adversely affected in few hundred metres of the river. The pollution is not limited to the surface water as it also contaminates the groundwater apart from the atmospheric pollution through bad smell.

About 200 tons of solid waste is generated per day during peak season and 75 tons during off-peak season from the tanneries of Hazaribagh. The solid waste largely contains the pieces of raw hides and small portion of lime. While some quantity of solid waste like shaving dusts are used for making leather board, a significant portion is left every day on the roadside and in the nearby dustbins causing foul odor to the surrounding area.

Trade policies are felt to be directed towards the goal of sustainable development. In other words, it is felt that expansion of trade contributes to economic development and at the same time ensures the preservation of natural and ecological resources. Sustainable trade is an emerging concept and this requires extensive studies to arrive at workable trade practices. Sustainability of trade practices is increasingly identified with the various social, economic, environmental and ethical issues. Apart from economic growth and wealth generation, poverty alleviation, equity and improved living standard need to be addressed and incorporated through trade for sustainable development.

The exports of garments, shrimp and leather in Bangladesh depend more on the issues of labour standard, international trade agreement (MFA) and artificial trade barriers including quota system imposed by some importing countries. The export of shrimp sector, however, depends on the hygienic and sanitary conditions of the production units. The leather sector so far has not been exposed to such social and environmental conditionalities by the importers.

The adaptive capacity to various social and environmental standards varies not only among the different sectors but also among the units within a particular sector. Productions units that cannot adapt to the new technologies and new social and environmental standards suffer financial loss and face closure giving rise to new social problems.

There is a growing need to raise the level of the awareness among exporters regarding the social and environmental issues. The victims and beneficiaries of garments, leather and shrimp sector should be identified and the extent of damage caused and benefit derived from be assessed on a regular basis. Formulations of police and programmes should be directed to compensate the victims through redistribution of benefits under "polluter should pay principle" in the long run. Environment friendly production technologies should be developed and promoted with support from the government and donor agencies in the short term in order to ensure better human health and welfare. Research and studies should be undertaken covering key issues pertaining to trade, environment and human welfare at sectoral, national, regional and international levels on a regular basis.

- BCAS Feature

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, March 1 ,  2001
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