The population of Bangladesh has increased by 60% since 1990. Its capital Dhaka is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, expected to have a population the size of Shanghai’s current population within the next decade. This unstoppable growth is fueling an explosion in construction. Bangladesh isn’t alone. Countries throughout South Asia and South East Asia are growing at breakneck pace as well as urbanizing.
All of this construction needs massive amounts of concrete. And concrete needs sand. But where does the sand come from? Shahed Kayes is founder of the Subornogram Foundation, which established schools for poor and marginalized families like the fisherfolk who live on islands in the Meghna River. There, he found sand mining companies dredging sands from close to the islands, causing the islands to erode and disappear. When he began to protest the practice, getting Bangladesh to pass laws against it in 2012, he was met with threats–and nearly killed.
I met him in Gwangju, South Korea this summer, where he is working towards promoting democracy at the May 18 Memorial Foundation and studying at Chonnnam University, and then interviewed him. Following is an edited transcript and audio. The audio also includes conversation about South Korea’s historic democracy movement and the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, which was the impetus for the creation of the May 18 Memorial Foundation.
Here’s the audio:
Here’s the text:
Mitchell Blatt: Many people do not think of how much sand is used in the world. But when it comes to building towers or anything that uses concrete, it involves a lot of sand [also for glass, and expansion of landmass in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and China’s east coast]. Can you give an introduction as to why sand mining is important?
Shahed Kayes: In Bangladesh, India, South Asia, and in many other countries, one of the biggest issues is sand mining. In Bangladesh, we are a country of rivers. We have more than a thousand rivers flowing through Bangladesh. Many people live by the riverside, and there are many islands. My team and I were involved in the Mayadip School for the Fisherfolk Community’s Children on one island since 2007. It’s called Mayadip Island in Narayanganj district, under Sonargaon jurisdiction. My organization, the Subornogram Foundation, focuses its work in three areas: human rights and democracy, environment, and for the education of underprivileged children. So we had a school over there for the children of the fisherfolk communities.
Then the sand mining started in July 2010, and we started the movement to resist it two weeks later. The real estate companies, to build the buildings in the cities, they need sand. There is big money involved. It involves the real estate companies, the sand mining companies, and the powerful politicians from the ruling party [the Bangladesh Awami League], those who are in the power in the Bangladesh Government.
If they extract the sand from the middle of the river, it doesn’t harm the islands. But it is more expensive to go deep into the river to get the sands. So what they do is they go very close to the islands, and they extract the sands from very close to the islands, and the islands slide down and erode. So the islanders lose their homes, their livelihoods, and their lands. In particular, I’m talking about the Mayadip and Nunertek in the Meghna River, but these same kind of things are going on all over Bangladesh.
But those who are involved in sand mining, they are very powerful politically and socially. So people cannot protest. There is nothing they can do. After losing their homes and their livelihoods, they become homeless, and these people come to the cities, and they become the rickshaw pullers and the homeless people in the slum areas in the city. The people who had a place to live on the island, they are not educated. They didn’t have any schooling. So they fish in the river. The only thing they know—generation by generation—is how to fish in the river. So once they lose their island, they have no other way. They have to go to the city and live in the slums and do some odd jobs.
Another thing is that when the sand mining people are dredging the sands from the riverbed, it is destroying the whole ecosystem. A lot of the fish are dying. It’s also impacting climate change, changing the climate in the country.
MB: Are there any laws or regulations? Are they not being enforced?
SK: There were no laws [in Bangladesh] before 2012. This movement, the sand mining movement, started in July 2010. We started it. We organized the villagers, the islanders, the twelve thousand thousand people who are living over there. We wrote many letters to government officials.
Many of those involved in sand mining said they had licenses from the government to extract the sands. When we went to the government, what they said is that those sand miners had a license to extract the sands not from very close to the islands but from the middle of the river. We arranged many press conferences in the Sonargaon press club, nearby where the illegal sand mining was happening, with the journalists, and we also arranged press conferences in the Narayanganj city.
When there is a huge pressure to the government, then the government people came to find some way [to address the problem]. But then when they sat with the sand miners, a few weeks later, they wouldn’t come near the islands. So there was still no law.
Then we started writing to the United Nations. Then the UN intervened in this issue. In 2012 they wrote a 9 page letter.
After that the government decided to pass the Sand Mining Law in the parliament. I fielded a public litigation case in the High Court, the highest court in the country, against the Superintendent of Police (SP), District Commissioner and Dhaka Divisional commissioner. The court issued an injunction ordering the sand miners to stop taking sands from near the islands. Yet even with this law and even with the court order, the illegal sand mining is still going on, people are still losing their lands. Almost half of the islands are now lost to the rivers.
MB: Your activism has gotten you threatened by the sand mining mafias. In 2013 you were even kidnapped and held for a few hours. Would you mind telling about that?
SK: I was actually attacked three times. Once I was attacked with a journalist in a boat. To go to the islands, it takes 45 minutes by trawler. When we were on our way, I was attacked by the sand mining people in the middle of the river while I was with a journalist from a national newspaper. The second time I was attacked was in 2012 when I was with a Government officer of Sonargaon, K.M. Al-Amin, who was the Assistant Commissioner of Land in Sonargaon at that time. There were also five police officers along with us. We all went together to the island to investigate the sand mining issue with the islanders. (Mr. K.M. Al-Amin was a very honest officer and was sympathised with the poor islanders.) There were five police officers along with us. All the sand mining people came and surrounded us. They took us to another place and physically harassed us.
For two weeks, the islanders could not come out from the islands. They have to fish, then they have to go to the mainland to sell the fish, but for two weeks they couldn’t come, because they were surrounded by the local thugs—that is the armed group of the sand miners.
After we started this movement in July 2010, there were two cases fielded against us in December 2010. I was the first person accused. All cases were fabricated and false cases. So our people have been in jail, and our people have been beaten by the sand mining people. Together, we are now facing eight cases—all are fabricated and false cases. They field many cases against us in different districts. Of course we heard that there was big money involved—bribery. You know, in our country, if you give money, there are many things you can do. Laws are in on book, but they don’t work in reality. And cases go on for years.
So this is the first thing they did: they tried to harass us with false cases. The second thing they did was they tried to buy us. They offered our people big money if we stopped our protests. When I and our people denied their offers, they decided to kill me.
They kidnapped me on July 25, 2013. I was on my way to the Ram Prasader Chor [Island in Comilla District]. We started from the mainland, Boidyer Bazar, Sonargaon, and we were heading to the site of another school we were going to start. I was going with two other people: Kamruzzaman Dipu, a student who was volunteering with the organization, and also a Peace Fellow from New York University, Chris Pinderhughes, who was also volunteering for 10 weeks. When we were in the middle of the river, the sand mining people surrounded us with speedboats. And I was being taken away from my boat. They took me somewhere else in another district on the river. They hit me and they severely beat me. I heard them saying what they were going to do. They said, ‘We’re going to kill him.’ They said we should cut his veins of his hands and legs and tie his hands and legs and throw him into the river. They were talking and I could hear it—and also they were talking about it to some people over the phone.
So anyway, Chris and Kamruzzaman Dipu, when they were freed, they went back to the mainland and informed my friends, journalist friends. [Kayes agreed to go without resistance if they let Chris Pinderhughes and Kamruzzaman Dipu go peacefully. He also mentioned that Pinderhughes was an American who worked for the UN, which was only half true.]
After hearing the news from Chris and Dipu all of my journalists friends of Sonargaon (25 journalists) went to the police station, and they put pressure. They also called the national newspapers and the electronic media and news channels. The news channels put it on the scroll that I had been kidnapped. When news got out, there was pressure from the high officials. So police from three police stations and the coast guard from Narayanganj district searched up the river. Also the journalists and the people from the islands came out onto the river searching for me. At last the kidnappers left me in an isolated place and went away and I was rescued.
Later on, the same day when I was rescued, one person was arrested among those who kidnapped me. His name is Moshin. The same day, the Minister of Railways Mr. Mazibul Hoque called to the police station over the phone, and pressured to the Officer In-Charge (OC) of the Sonargaon police station to set Moshin free, who was arrested in the evening same day. This was after there had been much media coverage, including an interview with the officer in charge of the police station of Sonargaon, that was broadcast on ten national TV channels during the 7 pm prime time slot. So the real the Minister of Railway called at just after 7:30 pm—sometime around then—to release him. The next day that was on national news. The interesting thing is that Moshin is the nephew of the Minister of Railways.
MB: How is the case going?
SK: The case is still proceeding. It may take up to 5-10 years to get to the final judgment. But the pretrial jailings were short. Moshin was only in prison for two-and-a-half months. The others, they got bail from the high court, and so they were released, but one and a half months later the other five kidnappers had to report to the lower court, and then at the lower court, the Judge of Narayanganj district cancelled their bail and sent them to prison for 21 days. The trial is still going on, and it may take 5-10 years to get the final judgement. They face a possible sentence of many years in prison, as there are lots of evidence in that case against them, as it’s one of the highest profile cases in the country. Many International organisations, civil society, and media in the country are very vocal.
And these were powerful people. One of them, Osman Gani, was the president of the ruling party in my local jurisdiction.
Information from the Asian Human Rights Commission:
Name of victim: Shahed Kayes, a well-respected human rights defender and poet, Executive Director of Subornogram Foundation, based in Sonargaon in Narayanganj district
1. Md. Mohshin, a person associated with the Four Point Trading & Construction Ltd., owned by Selina Islam
2. Zakir Hossain, owner of Jalal Enterprise, resident of Sonakanda of Meghna in Comilla district
3. Osman Gani, son of late Amir Ali, president of Bangladesh Awami League of its Ward No. 6 Unit of Baradi Union Parishad, ex member of Baradi union parishad, Nunertek, Baradi, Sonargaon, Narayanganj
4. Zakir Hossain Zakaria, son of Mr. Sadar Ali (former member of Union Parishad), Nunertek, Baradi, Sonargaon, Narayanganj
5. Hossain Mian, son of late Mongol Ali, resident of Nunertek (Chuadanga) of Sonargaon, Narayanganj
Date of incident: 25 July 2013
Place of incident: Meghna River near Baiyder Bazaar under the jurisdiction of the Sonargaon police station in Narayanganj district and Farazi Kandi under the jurisdiction of Meghna police station in Comilla district
MB: How do you feel to be threatened with murder and yet keep on fighting?
SK: The pressure was huge. After the attack, I got a little bit of treatment from the local hospital, but for better treatment I went to the capital, Dhaka, and also for safety. I was in the hospital for one-and-a-half months getting treated. Later on I had some offers from two embassies for fellowship in abroad in order to protect my safety, but I denied them. I said this is our fight and we have to fight ourselves. For six months I didn’t leave my country.
After six months, the situation was very bad. They pressured me to compromise in the kidnapping case. The perpetrators were high profile people. They said if you don’t compromise in this case, we’ll try to kill you again. So maybe in five years, ten years, fifteen years, whenever it’s over, this order will go against those people, and they will have to serve a longer time in prison.
Later I left the country in 2014. I went to Hong Kong as an intern at an organization. Then I went to Nepal, to India, and then now to Korea. But even though I’m here, my organization is still working in the country, and I’m keeping in touch with them. Still they are fighting. But I don’t know how long they will be able to fight.
On the impact towards democracy and environment:
Our present government is a very repressive government. They always say that we don’t need democracy, we need development. This is a new phenomenon in many South Asian countries. They say our country is a poor country. We need to get developed. Once we are developed then we will think about the issues of democracy and human rights. They are building many construction projects. But the question is, is the development just the development of the infrastructure, or also the development of the people’s lives, the development of the institutions, those institutions that are going to be responsible for running the state? The government doesn’t think about those things. They think that development only means economic development.
They are focusing on the cities. The cities are booming. They are filling many rivers. And also it is changing the climate in the country. Now it is the autumn season. We should not have so much rain. It is not the rainy season. And many districts are flooding. So people are losing their land, and at the same time the ecosystem and climate are getting affected.
Listen to the full podcast for more on sand mining and also about Kayes work with the May 18 Memorial Foundation in South Korea, which works to preserve the memory of Korea’s democracy movement and help spread democratic values abroad.