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Making A Difference: Lawyer Fights Ship Breaking in Bangladesh

Ship breaking is an environmentally devastating and dangerous practice carried out on the coastal shores of Bangladesh. Attorney Rizwana Hasan has waged a legal battle against the dismantling of ships in her country, and is continuing to demand this practice that is polluting the environment and costing untrained workers their lives be stopped. VOA recently caught up with Hasan in Washington, DC to see how she is making a difference by challenging this harmful and deadly industry.

Decommissioned ships from around the world are often sent to the southern coast of Bangladesh. Here they are dismantled by hand on the beaches.

The steel and other scrap metals are sold in local communities. While ship breaking is a thriving business in Bangladesh, environmental attorney Rizwana Hasan knows how harmful it is. "The dismantling is done manually," she said. "All the waste actually ends up in our coastal area, and the laborers who work there are not provided with personal protection equipment, so they end up inhaling all the toxic elements."

Hasan says ship breaking workers receive no safety training and are not aware they are being exposed to harmful chemicals like asbestos. She says many of them work for less than one dollar per day and receive no medical care for injuries. It is estimated that one worker dies every day on the ship breaking yards in Bangladesh.

"There is often slipping and all the heavy metal is on their shoulders, and many of them are dying. There are people who are falling from the height and dying. There are people who are cutting the chambers of the ship and there are explosions and they are dying," she said.

But Hasan says most of the workers don't have a choice. "They are the poorest of the poor," she said. "And they don't have any other alternative income source."

Hasan says the work is not only dangerous, but harmful to the surrounding environment as chemicals are released into the nearby land and water.

"I say it's a toxic case of environmental injustice. Somebody is making money and we are bearing the disproportionate burden of this development," Hasan said. "This can't continue."

As the leader of an environmental law firm, Hasan has been involved in a legal struggle against the industry for years. Hasan successfully petitioned the government to prevent two toxic ships from coming into Bangladesh for breaking.

After continuing to file numerous cases, the Supreme Court in Bangladesh ruled last year that government agencies must act to protect ship breaking workers, and then this year the court ruled all ship breaking yards without environmental clearance must be shut down.

"The court has directed that no ships imported to Bangladesh can enter Bangladesh unless it is pre-cleaned by the owner or it is pre-cleaned outside the territory of Bangladesh," she said. "Which means no toxic ships can make it into Bangladesh."

But even with this success, Hasan says the battle is not over and she will continue to fight for the workers and the Bangladeshi environment.

"For the environmental activists it's like a hurdle race. You cross one hurdle and the next hurdle is put in front of you," she stated.

She says her next hurdle is making sure the current rulings are upheld and enforced, while fighting for even tighter regulations.

Hasan recently received a Goldman Environmental Award for her work. She says she hopes the international attention will bring a greater awareness and lead to ship breaking regulations in other countries