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Hidden shame of ship-breaking industry

By Dan Rivers, CNN
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Green Pioneer: Rizwana Hasan
  • Each year hundreds of ships are taken to Chittagong, Bangladesh, to be broken up
  • Men armed with hammers and cutters strip the ships for scrap metal
  • Rizwana Hasan works to expose risks to workers, the environment
  • Critics accuse her of wanting to shut down an important source of jobs

Chittagong, Bangladesh (CNN) -- Rizwana Hasan is a divisive figure in Bangladesh. Heralded by some as an eco-pioneer, a labor rights campaigner and a "take no prisoners" lawyer, she also is characterized as being on a mission to destroy an industry that employs thousands.

Her works focuses on the effects of the ship-breaking industry in Chittagong. Each year hundreds of massive tankers, ferries and cargo ships from around the world are driven onto the mud flats in Chittagong, and then literally attacked by hundreds of men armed with little more than hammers, cutters and brute-force.

They strip the ships for their scrap metal, salvaging what they can, discarding what they can't. Rizwana is the executive director of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) and has been fighting the industry for decades. BELA has launched numerous legal challenges against the shipyards, which it claims don't care about the environment or the safety of their employees.

"All these ships contain very hazardous materials like asbestos, PCBs, and they are in-built in the system, so in a country like Bangladesh we do not have technologies to deal with this sort of hazardous substance," Rizwana Hasan told CNN.

"There is a huge amount of waste oil and water that are eventually released into our coastal environments. In the process our soil gets contaminated, the fishery gets contaminated, the air gets polluted. And we are all inhaling it without knowing the effect of it," she said.

Gallery: Green Pioneer: Rizwana Hasan
  • Bangladesh

The issue of worker safety also is a concern.

The casualties of the trade are easy to find -- Mohammed Murad worked in ship-breaking for 10 years until a 20-ton slab of metal fell on his leg last year. He says that, with Rizwana's help, he got some compensation, but the company had originally refused to pay anything after he lost his leg.

"It's too dangerous, too dangerous. The company doesn't give us any security," Murad said. "They tell us to do it quickly, to cut quickly, If you die in the field, no problem, but you have to work quickly."

There are 78 ship-breaking yards scattered along the Chittagong coast. As we found out when we traveled there, most are hidden from the road, often unmarked at the end of small lanes from the highway. The staff was unwilling to let us film inside or talk to the owners.

Last year, Rizwana says some 160 ships were dismantled in the yards -- a process described as ship recycling by the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency responsible for maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships. Rizwana calls it an "old boys club" for the industry.

Rizwana grew up in a politically active family and after completing her masters at age 24 she joined BELA, rising to become one of the country's leading lawyers and the association's director. In 2009 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize.

Rebuffing accusations from critics, she insists she does not want the ship-breaking industry to shut down. She realizes its importance as a source of employment, money and its potential as a good recycling initiative.

But she is determined that it should operate responsibly and within the law. She says ships containing hazardous material, such as asbestos, need to have these substances removed before they arrive in Bangladesh. She says the country simply doesn't have the facilities to deal with them. In March 2009 Bangladesh's Supreme Court 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, known more simply as the Basel Convention.

The international treaty was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations. Under the treaty, a country must not allow the export of a ship containing hazardous materials if it suspects that the waste will not be properly dealt with by the ship-breaking country.

Dr. Nikos Mikelis from the International Maritime Organization agrees that the ship-breaking industry needs better regulation but says it performs a vital role in Bangladesh, providing valuable jobs.

"It's a benefit to the country, all that is missing is order and order can brought by suitable regulation and enforcement. I believe it can be done. You don't close down the industry because it's not doing correctly now, you adjust it," Mikelis said.

According to Rizwana, the problem is that in countries like Bangladesh, rules such as the Basel Convention are not always observed and not applied to the ships themselves, only to their cargo. She maintains that ships often are re-registered in "flag of convenience" countries before being sent to Chittagong, with few checks about what hazardous substances are contained within the equipment and superstructure of the vessel.

While Rizwana has won a number of key legal battles, she says many of the shipyards' bad practices continue, with new yards opening each year. Her opponents at the yards themselves remain acutely angry with her -- so much so that she feels it would be unsafe for her to even travel to Chittagong. But Rizwana says simply shining a spotlight on the industry is an achievement in itself.

"We have been able to give a bad name to the industry, and the industry deserves a bad name," she said.