Communities in Bangladesh mobilise against toxic waste in local canals

Dec 7, 2020

MAAR Ltd.’s Toxic Operations 

Maize Advance Agro Refineries Limited (MAAR Ltd.), a factory producing dry starch from Maize, has allegedly been dumping untreated toxic industrial waste into the Ekhtiarpur canal in Habiganj’s Madhabpur Upazila, Bangladesh. 

MAAR Ltd. started operation in Bangladesh in 2012. The local environment administration has conducted various investigations and found repeated breaches of environmental laws. Despite this, MAAR Ltd. has continued to operate without the renewal of environmental clearance.

MAAR Ltd. claims the factory uses an effluent treatment plant (ETP) to remove toxins from the water before disposal. However, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA), told The Daily Star that their ETP is neither effective nor functional. As such, MAAR is disposing of untreated liquid wastes into the canal. The dumping of untreated effluents into canals and rivers by factories and industries is common in Bangladesh. Without adequate action from local authorities, toxic river pollution will continue.

Social and Environmental Impacts

The pollution from MAAR Ltd. has directly impacted 6 villages in the Habiganj district, and has had indirect impacts to an additional 34 villages. For many residents, the canal serves as the primary water source for agricultural and everyday purposes. Recent reports claim that several people, including children, have been suffering various health impacts, such as skin disease, after coming into contact with the water. Local community members have also reported the deaths of livestock and a reduction in fish in the canals as a result of the pollution. 

“Our ducks, hens, goats are dying by drinking this water, cows are also dying. And then fish, there are no fish here. We cannot catch fish from here anymore.”

Community Testimony

“I used to catch a lot of fish from here [the canal] before 2012. In 2013, when the company first spilled their untreated water here, the water condition turned horribly dangerous. All fish in the nearby wetland began floating on the water. Children caught those fish, but they were not edible due to the unpleasant smell.”

Community Testimony
Community member restoring eroded riverbank

The chemicals in the polluted water have eroded the canals’ banks, causing flooding and loss of nearby crops. Locals have begun volunteering their time to restore the canal banks in the hope of salvaging their livelihood practices. However, without adequate support from the government, their efforts will be in vain. 

“Last year a part of the bank of this canal collapsed and the polluted water spread out in the wide agricultural land, and all the paddy and other crops were destroyed completely. According to the experience of the farmers during that time they didn’t even get 40 kilogram paddy from a 33 decimal land.”

Community Testimony

Campaign against MAAR Ltd. 

Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA)/Friends of the Earth Bangladesh first became aware of the crisis after a community demonstration against the pollution caused by MAAR Ltd. The company filed a lawsuit against the villagers, accusing them of vandalizing equipment and vehicles, and physically assaulting its employees. The charges were dropped after BELA along with its allies organized a public consultation, attended by more than two thousand villagers. The movement forced the company to withdraw the false case against the villagers and begin running the ETP. However, MAAR Ltd. has since started polluting the canal again.       

In August this year, BELA conducted a field visit to Ektiapur to observe the new allegations of improper disposal of industrial waste. Md Khurshed Alam, the head of programs for BELA who attended both the field visit and community consultation, explained,

“The untreated waste water pollutes the canal and spreads a strong and unbearable stink to nearby villages. Agricultural production, livestock, and the health of villagers of 40 nearby villages have been severely affected by the unregulated operation of this industry.”  

“In addition to crop failure and livestock loss, villagers are getting skin and respiratory diseases while pregnant women are reporting abortions due to continuous vomiting and suffocation.”

BELA is in the process of filing a writ petition against MAAR Ltd. and is supporting community organising efforts to put pressure on the government and the polluting companies for redress.

Environmental Human Rights Violations 

Local community members face intimidation and harassment for their activism.

Following BELA’s 2020 visit, a local environmental activist’s business was raided by the police on drug peddling allegations. Local community members claim that the authorities of a company named ‘Maar Limited’ in the industrial area of Madhabpur tried to frame Mr.Qayum, the business owner, in retaliation for his involvement in protests against the industrial pollution. The charges have since been dropped; however, Mr. Qayum cites feeling unsafe and insecure following this most recent harassment. 

This incident demonstrates an ongoing pattern of abuse and harassment towards environmental defenders in Bangladesh. In our 2019 ‘Defending territories, Defending our lives’ report, we exposed the human rights violations related to the Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh. The project threatened community health and riverine biodiversity. Land acquisitions displaced 4,000 families, and campaigners working to halt the project were harassed and have even received death threats

Call for International Solidarity

Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific stands in solidarity with the communities impacted by MAAR Ltd.’s destructive and illegal operations. We condemn any act of violence towards environmental defenders and demand that the perpetrators behind such crimes are held accountable, and justice be served. 

We call on the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to:

  • Establish and ensure protections for environmental human rights defenders, who increasingly face intimidation, criminalisation, and acts of violence,
  • Take strict actions against Maize Advance Agro Refineries Limited (MAAR Ltd.), and immediately halt their entire operations,
  • Urgently clean-up the village areas and affected water bodies,
  • Form a committee to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into all factories and chemical producing companies located near any body of water in Bangladesh, to ensure that they are operating with environmental clearance and adhering to adequate effluent treatment plant processes, and 
  • Hold all companies in the region accountable for negative social and environmental impacts caused as result of their operations. 

Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific and Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association call on the international community to take action.

  1. Share this article in solidarity with the impacted communities,
  2. Copy and share one of the images below with the hashtags #SaveOurCanals #StopWaterPollution.

For more information contact:
Emma Harvey
Communications Coordinator, 
Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific 

Md Khurshed Alam
Head of Programs,
Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association