The 2015 UNEP Champion Of The Earth‬ (Policy Leadership) award has gone to Bangladesh‘s PM Sheikh Hasina.

With a population of 140 million, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most populated countries. It is also one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Cyclones, floods and droughts have long been part of the country’s history but they have intensified in recent years. Her vision is to turn Bangladesh into a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed one by 2041 through implementing environmentally aware policies.

The Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan of 2009 made Bangladesh the first developing country to frame such a coordinated action plan. Bangladesh is also the first country to set up its own Climate Change Trust Fund supported by nearly US$300 million of domestic resources from 2009-2012.

Her government earmarks 6-7 per cent of its annual budget on climate change adaptation.

In addition, the Bangladesh Constitution was amended in 2011 to include protection of the environment and safeguarding natural resources for current and future generations. Prioritized in the constitution along with wetlands and wildlife, the forestry policies initiative by Prime Minister Hasina has provided a natural barrier from some extreme weather events and the country’s forests cover has increased by almost 10 per cent.

Here’s the irony.

This award comes less than a year after an oil tanker spilled 350,000 liters of heavy fuel oil into the Sundarbans, the largest unbroken mangrove forest in the world.

The Sela river before and after the oil spill

The Sela river before and after the oil spill

Her government has refused to ban illegal shipping traffic through the reserved and protected forest. In response to protests against a thermal power plant coming up at Rampal, her government is now planning two thermal power plants instead of one.

Those two coal plants and a ship-breaking yard (another as dirty-as-they-come industry) are coming up at the head of the Sundarbans, about 14 km from the ecologically sensitive area, necessitating more hazardous shipping cargo to ply through the forest.

These forests that ships carrying plinkers and oil and fertilizer and fly ash ply through are home to endangered species like the Royal Bengal tiger, the Gangetic dolphin, the masked finfoot, the Irrawaddy dolphin, and the sundari tree (Heritiera fomes). Moreover, millions of people live in and around the forest, depending upon it for sustenance and livelihood. (See, On The Brink Of Brine)

The mangrove forests of the Sundarbans are the first line of defense in Bangladesh’s battle against storm surges and rising sea levels. If the mangroves degrade, the port of Mongla and the city of Khulna will lie dangerously exposed to predicted unprecedented storm surges.

As Champion Of The Earth, will HE Sheikh Hasina put the interests of her country above those of any one ministry and protect the Sundarbans?

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See past reporting from the Sundarbans on The Freshwater Trail:

After The Oil Spill: 

Part 1: The Oil Spill

Part 2: A Toxic Clean up

Part 3: Tale Of Two Studies

Part 4: Ships Will Ply

Part 5: Killing The Hero

Photo essay: The Black Legacy

The Sundarbans, Before The Spill:

1: On The Brink Of Brine

2: Pirates & Perils

3: Disappearing Hilsa

Photoessay: Before the Spill

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