Op-Ed | Bangladesh, Our Global Canary?


The writer is founder and director of Motif Ltd., a fair trade company that operates a workshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She divides her time between Bangladesh and Illinois. Motif products are sold at Global Village, a Fair Trade shop at 1308 E. Seiberling Ave., Peoria Heights.

Imagine with me: Illinois is on the coast, mostly less than 30 inches above sea level. Chicago, the commercial hub of Illinois, is just 13 feet above sea level and is surrounded by a huge dyke. Not one but three major rivers run through to the sea and in the monsoon climate, flooding is common. And oh yes, about half of the entire United States lives in Chicago. That’s right, 166 million people, not the 2.7 million now living in Chicago.
However good your imagination, it’s hard to comprehend what I’ve just described. But this is the reality of Bangladesh, a country about the size of Illinois. Situated east of India on the Bay of Bengal, this fertile land and its resilient people are now dramatically impacted by climate change.

Vulnerable areas are always inhabited by the poorest in our societies – it’s the same all over the globe. So what happens to these people? The term “climate refugee” is understood by everyone because local media regularly brings news of yet another island inundated or river banks disappearing with arable land and whole villages swept downstream. In certain seasons there are floods, cyclones and other natural disasters that vie for headline space with disheartening images of families forced to flee their homes, land and communities to start life again elsewhere.

I’ve seen the growing impact of climate change on Bangladesh during the nearly 30 years I’ve lived there. I’m reminded of canaries – yes, those cute, tiny yellow birds legendary for saving many a coal miner’s life. Toxic underground gases, undetectable by humans, caused the birds to fall ill. Workers would then spring into action and evacuate whilst the problem was resolved. If the warning went unheeded, soon the bird would die and maybe the miner too.

Over the last few decades, low-lying nations like Bangladesh have alerted us to rapidly accelerating climate change. Although attention and action has come from some quarters, potential solutions are fraught with politics, and minimal progress is made. A simple online search for “climate change Bangladesh” reveals the warning signs we must all heed. Many rural families are taking action just like the miners of old. They understand the danger. But where do they go?

Poverty is complex and forces difficult, unwanted choices. Rural-urban migration is one of them. Many families are forced to separate because although work may be found in cities for the men, it’s too expensive to raise a growing family. Other families stay together and struggle in burgeoning slums to make ends meet. The capital Dhaka is about half the square mileage of Chicago yet it is occupied by 14.5 million people compared with the whole of Chicago’s 2.7 million people. Dhaka now ranks No. 3 in the world’s most densely populated cities.

Although much must be left behind when people are forced to flee, thankfully hand skills stay with you. Opportunities for fairly paid work are created by a few social entrepreneurs so that at least some talented artisans can work in safe places earning their livelihood with integrity and respect – an opportunity they never thought possible when forced from their homes. Some of these vulnerable yet resilient women and men work at Motif, our Fair Trade craft production business now in its 20th year. We see first hand the dynamic impact Fair Trade has on individual artisans, their families and most significantly on their future choices.

Countless others however are not so fortunate and easily get trapped into sweat workshops, prostitution, drug rings and more.

While Fair Trade is helping some rebuild their lives in Bangladesh, how are we helping all others? How are we responding to the warning signs clearly being issued by a climate in flux. The canary has stopped singing – it’s time to move. Now.

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