hamlet of Baro Ari in the Khulna region to the southwest
of Bangladesh is lost in the endless reaches of
the Ganges. It is difficult to find, and yet globalisation
has already arrived here along with its unique market
opportunity, the shrimp. In 2000 local bigwigs opened
the dykes of the polders, flooding land belonging
to poor farmers with salt water. They then transformed
the flooded land into lucrative shrimp farms, with
the connivance of a corrupt police force.
got nothing left," says Suranjan Kumar, his
face hollowed by undernourishment. The 20-odd men
around him nod in agreement. "We sometimes
get work as daily farm labourers for 50 takas a
day ($0.78)." Conditions border on servitude.
Farmers have to hand over as much as two-thirds
of their harvest to the landowner. In any case,
"The salt has destroyed everything," says
Abu Sahid Gazhi, who spent 11 months in jail for
objecting to the theft of his land.
farming leads to a five-fold increase in saline
levels in the soil. The ponds may be badly dyked
on purpose, so as to contaminate the surrounding
land, force the farmers to leave and free more land
for shrimp farming. "Nothing grows here any
more. Food prices have risen. The salt makes the
the 1980s Asia and South America have been farming
shrimp on a massive scale to satisfy the huge demand
of rich nations. Bangladesh is the world's fifth
largest producer and has converted some 297 square
miles of mangrove forest and fertile land to aquafarming.
It exports 30,000 tons of shrimp per year, almost
all of it to the northern hemisphere. According
to the United Nations, 80% of Bangladesh's population
of 143 million live on less than $2 a day. They
certainly cannot afford $12 a kilo for shrimp. Yet
because of these exports, Bangladesh has become
caught up in globalisation, and in theory the revenue
should benefit the whole population thanks to the
magic trickle-down effect.
the shrimp farms created jobs in Baro Ari? "The
workers in the ponds are mastaans, bully-boys from
Khulna," sighs one of the farmers. "The
only thing we can do for a living is send our children
to collect shrimp fry to sell to the farms."
But when shrimp fry is collected, quantities of
fry and spawn of other species are left to die on
the banks, ruining local biodiversity. Catches have
fallen by 80% according to fishermen in the region.
And as for the western consumers who eat the shrimp
- at this point looks darken and fists are clenched:
"They're drinking our blood," says Kumar.
"How many Bangladeshis have to die to feed
white people?". The idea of a possible shrimp
boycott in Europe offers a frail hope.
is to Bangladesh what the Nile perch is to Tanzania,
a true "Darwin's nightmare". The shrimp
farms are more than just a social and ecological
disaster; they spread death and destruction. More
than 150 Bangladeshis have been murdered since 1980
for opposing the shrimp farmers. The thousands of
people killed in the 1991 tsunami in the southwest
of the country may be added to this figure. According
to a report by a British non-governmental organisation,
the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a tsunami
on the same scale in 1960 left no victims. In the
period between the two disasters aquaculture has
destroyed the protective mangrove forests.
shrimp farms are encouraged by the World Bank, the
United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation
(FAO) and the Asian Development Bank. The US Agency
for International Development even offers technical
assistance to monitor the quality of the shrimps.
By combating epizootic diseases, these "philanthropists"
hope to develop the Bangladeshi shrimp market and
achieve annual sales of $1.50bn within five years,
compared with $351m currently.
does the money from these exports go and who benefits
from it? Manik Chandra Saha, a young journalist
from Khulna raised the question as early as 2000
when he saw how aquaculture was ruining the livelihood
of thousands of his fellow-countrymen. In January
2004 he was murdered by an armed gang known to offer
its services to the highest bidder. In Khulna alone,
13 of Chandra Saha's fellow journalists have been
killed since 1990. This violence makes Bangladesh
one of the most dangerous countries in the world
for reporters, despite a theoretically free press.
high value-added exports benefit only a tiny minority.
But western companies are free to shop in Bangladesh,
considered a star pupil of the International Monetary
Fund, without being shamed too much by human rights
activists, which is not the case in neighbouring
totalitarian Burma. The reason is that shrimp represents
only 6% of national exports. Bangladesh's main attraction
is its ready-to-wear clothing industry, which accounts
for 75% of exports and generated $56bn in revenues
in 2004 according to official statistics.
for the two million textile workers are Dickensian.
Local manufacturers' constant fear that Western
clients will relocate to an even more "competitive"
country leads to an overriding obsession with the
cheapest possible production. Young girls who have
fled the poverty of the countryside and are totally
unaware of their rights make up 85% of the labour
force. They work 12 hours a day or more, often seven
days a week, and earn between $15 and $36 a month.
They are literally locked up in the workplace and
body-searched when they leave it. They are not even
allowed to talk among themselves. Union rights are
purely theoretical: any "subversives"
are fired on the spot so only one worker in a hundred
is a card-carrying member of any union. Rapes by
managerial staff have been reported and nearly 300
workers have died in fires since 1990. The Bangladesh
Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association
(BGMEA) boasts the "elimination of child labour
from the garment sector" on its website, no
doubt expecting congratulations.
On the morning of 11 April 2005, a nine-storey factory
in the export processing zone of Savar just a few
miles outside Dhaka, collapsed. At least 100 workers
died and an unknown number are still unaccounted
for. The following day, riot police took up positions
on the site ready to face the anger of the workers'
families. For this was no accident. The plant had
been built on a former pond and planning position
granted for a four-storey building only. This had
been overridden by the owners, who put orders from
European customers first.
hours before the building collapsed, workers had
warned management about cracks in the walls but
were ignored. The police, always quick on the draw
when it comes to the summary execution of petty
criminals or firing on strikers, was unable to find
the plant mangers responsible for the accident.
One of the managers happens to be the son-in-law
of a member of the ruling party. On 22 April, Bangladesh's
leading newspaper, the Daily Star, claimed that
the owners were too influential to be interrogated.
Class makes all the difference, allowing the privileged
to avoid their responsibilities and the underprivileged
to be exploited.
in Barcelona, the company's main client, Inditex
(Zara), promised to help the victims. The group
says that it manufactures 60% of its clothes in
Europe and has been carrying out a "social
audit" of its 900 Asian sub-contractors since
October 2004. But it seems that the Savar workers
slipped through the audit, since they were hired
through an Indian company that never informed Inditex.
you know these brands?" asks Nazma Akter, secretary
general of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers
Union Federation (BIGUF), holding up the labels
of the clothes that her union members are literally
killing themselves to produce. They are all here:
Gap, H & M, Old Navy, Tesco, Ladybird, The North
Face, Lee, Wrangler, Cherokee, Burton. "How
much do they sell these clothes for? Europeans should
know that these companies pay us one euro apiece."
According to Amirul Haque Amin, secretary general
of the National Garments Workers Federation (NGWF),
"European companies are responsible for the
living conditions of Bangladeshi workers. They buy
at the lowest price, which means that our bosses
pay us the lowest wage, it's the law of the market."
These clothes, which are produced in what amount
to labour camps in Bangladesh, increase in value
because of the marketing concept known as "fashion",
and are sold in Europe with hefty margins to match.
all that, are Bangladeshi workers calling on European
consumers to boycott these clothes? "No,"
says Nazma Akter, "We'd just lose our jobs."
She believes that factory work, however hellish,
plays an important role in emancipating women. "Previously
they had no work, they stayed in the countryside
and put up with domestic violence." Still,
"the European public must be told about our
working conditions so that these companies are shamed
and put pressure on our bosses," urges Amirul
Haque Amin. Amin also wants to see the minimum wage
doubled from BDT 930 to BDT 1,800 ($14 to $28).
But the end of the Multifibre Agreement on 1 January,
together with increased competition from the Chinese
textile industry, do not augur well for Bangladeshi
workers. Though they do have a considerable ally
in the vast network of local NGOs that mobilise
millions of ordinary people.
history explains why these movements flourish to
such an extent. During the Liberation War against
Pakistan in 1971, the progressive forces hoped that
the struggle would also help bring about a social
transformation. Faced with the dictatorships of
the 1970s and 1980s, the persecution of the left
and failed attempts at guerrilla warfare, they transferred
the struggle to the NGO movement. The government
tolerated this since it relieved the state of its
by war, famine (in 1974) and then recurrent floods,
Bangladesh saw an influx of donors pour in along
with the means to finance projects. For the elite
and the left-wing middle classes, working in an
NGO is a way of putting ideas into practice. More
prosaically, these organisations have opened up
career opportunities outside the closed circuits
dominated by the clannish networks of the two dominant
parties (see box). Abuses have, of course, occurred.
Some of these "social workers" consider
that microcredit, invented by Muhammad Yunus and
his Grameen Bank, is simply a marketing ploy, leading
poor farmers to incur heavy debt. Now Grameen Phone,
the Grameen Bank's mobile telephone network, symbolises
a further development in this commercial drift.
Kori (NK), an organisation with thousands of members,
actively discourages microcredit, believing that
it reinforces the dependence of the poor. Instead,
NK seeks to promote their emancipation, starting
with economic emancipation through savings rather
than debt. For example, a single handful of rice
set aside by a housewife at each meal may then be
resold and the money invested in a new source of
revenue such as a fishing net or a few chicken.
The profits are divided among the community. Next
comes political emancipation, by making the poor
aware of their repression and getting them to refuse
it. Through direct democracy in decision-making
processes, NK groups have taken on the prawn farms,
one square mile at a time, fighting the mastaans,
resisting the loan sharks and filing complaints
in the courts with the help of the organisation's
newfound pride is also seen in the landless farmers'
movement. Some 67% of Bangladeshis are landless
today compared with 31% at independence in 1971.
The concentration of agrarian land in the hands
of the few is due to debt and corruption. Local
bigwigs seize the khas -- public land set aside
for the poor -- by bribing government officials.
The farmers then have no choice but to work as agricultural
day labourers or go and live in the city slums.
And yet, according to Proshika, a powerful NGO,
agrarian reforms that would cream off the highest
revenues and guarantee a few acres for everyone
would cost just $2.4bn or so.
seems that the World Bank has got better things
to do than to listen to me," says Qazi Faruque
Ahmed, the head of Proshika, who was imprisoned
by the government in 2004 and has received threats
from fundamentalists. "We identify, occupy
and cultivate the despoiled land," sums up
Alam, head of the Samata (equality) movement in
the Pabna district. "It's not exactly risk-free,"
he adds, showing the machete scar across his scalp.
Samata, Proshika, NK and many other NGOs have enabled
thousands of poor farmers to win back their rights
and their dignity.
is at the heart of the philosophy behind Ubinig,
a movement that promotes organic farming and agricultural
independence. In 1995 the government applied World
Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and suspended fertiliser
subsidies. Consequently fertiliser prices hit the
roof, riots broke out, and the police shot 17 farmers.
Tired of this dependence on the market, concerned
by the depletion of the soil and the loss of biodiversity
as a result of chemical agriculture, several thousand
farmers (130,000 according to the organisation)
switched over to organic farming, sharing seeds
and developing polyculture. They included whole
villages, particularly in the Tangail district which
has a population of 30,000.
the investment is so much lower, the farmers we
met stressed that their revenues had increased.
They are proud of having reduced their dependence
on western companies. Farida Akhter, founder of
Ubinig, is worried about offensives by supporters
of genetically modified (GM) crops and their "humanitarian"
arguments. "Consumer fears about GM crops in
the Northern hemisphere are portrayed by the multinationals
as a luxury in the face of hunger in the South.
How demeaning! Are our lives worth less that those
of westerners?" Farida stresses that in the
face of market-driven individualism people in both
North and South are interdependent. Consumption
by the North is the production - and exploitation
- of the South. After all, she says: "Lifestyle
Translated by Krystyna Horko