Zero Point, Baldaghat, Jaflong: a place that appears serene, and still a popular tourist destination in Bangladesh, stone workers work around the clock to mine and deplete the riverbed of its stones. The stones are transported by colourful trucks to crushing mills where they are smashed into smaller rocks to become road and cement base for building developments. The implications are dire when industrial capitalism prevails and a toll on nature is inevitable. Drastic changes to the landscape are evident as the river is shrinking, land is much lower, and a place once beautiful is becoming a desolate, infertile wasteland.
On first researching the location I began to create misconceptions of what Jaflong would look like as scores of beautiful imagery appeared on my Google search screen. The one and a half hour trip by CNG was also particularly panoramic as we passed fields of greenery and open air, a pleasant relief from the congestion of the bustling and noisy Dhaka city. The changes in atmosphere were quite drastic after passing several bridges on our approach. The dust was the first thing to hit, and then the crunching noises coming from heavy machinery as we passed numerous stone crushing mills were an introduction to an area of industrial importance.
It was evidently clear that Zero Point was becoming less of a tourist friendly destination as I peered over the accent to an obviously degraded land level full of trucks, holes and workers. The Piyain River that runs through Jaflong appeared meager as its banks have become narrow to allow for the convenient access by trucks, and from the constant shifting of the soil. On closer inspection, the river was vital to the residents who bathed and washed their clothes there. Once on the river by boat it was easy to appreciate the beauty of it as we rowed towards the Indian border, to a point where numerous Bangladeshi tourists gathered.
The stones were still in place at this particular point, as working so close to the Indian border to collect stones on the land is prohibited. Some are, however, collected from the bed of the river as divers breach the surface of the water to retrieve them. The origin of some stones is of note as they were originally dumped into the river from the Indian side of the border, and over time the stones flowed into Bangladesh to be collected and sold. This could be the spark of monetary debate, as the Bangladeshi are selling former Indian property.
As Bangladesh continues to develop and urbanise more land, the collecting and processing of stones is a necessary and wealthy business for the industrial business owners. The value of the rocks increases dramatically as it passes through each stage of its journey to become either road or building material. Although these companies are making a huge income, it is of no surprise that the workers are paid a minimum wage, a standard across the majority of labouring jobs in Bangladesh. Entry-level stone collectors can earn from 100Tk (AU$1.50) to 170Tk (AU$2.50) per day for their grueling efforts. Over time workers can then earn a wage of up to 3000Tk (AU$44) in a day as they progress to higher-ranking positions.
People from all over Bangladesh come to Jaflong seeking work. Unfortunately, as the stones are depleting work is also becoming harder to find. The situation is beginning to become more desperate as the companies are forced to create great pits next to the river, excavating the soils of stone. Black stones that were originally of no value are now among the selling stock. The pits reveal crowds of workers of all ages, both men and women, working by hand, and in bare feet, to pull the stones from the soil to the surface. Stones of all sizes are then shovelled into trucks to be sold to prospective buyers.
The people seem oblivious to any greater issues as they work to provide for their families. Environmental conservation is not of any significance to them when the destruction of natural landscapes is just work, and a norm. However, a forestation program was started in 2005 by Laskar Muqsudur Rahman, the Deputy Conservator of Forests in Sylhet in response to his personal observations of unauthorised stone crushing mills being placed on encroached lands in Jaflong. Under the forestation program, various types of trees are being planted in an attempt to maintain an ecological balance.
Although I understand the economic necessity for industrial developments, it can be depressing to realise how for granted we take the natural earth for. The effects of stone collecting in Jaflong are a clear indication of how beautiful land can be destroyed by mining. Its implications are significant as similar projects are proposed in scenic holiday destinations in my home state of Western Australia, such as Broome, Oakajee in Geraldton and the Kimberly. Luckily there are people like Laskar Muqsudur Rahman who see the importance of ecological conservation and who attempts to reduce the blow from industrial capitalisation.
Images from this exhibition have been showcased at
- Drik Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh 2014
- Spectrum Gallery, Perth, Australia 2014
- ArtGeo Gallery, Busselton, Australia 2014/15