|A road in the Korean EPZ in Chittagong|
Almost 20 years after getting the go-ahead from the Bangladesh government, the country’s first export processing zone faces imminent collapse.
Initiated by a South Korean company, Youngone Corporation, the multi-million dollar zone in Chittagong has encountered numerous problems in its 17 years, but the most recent may well prove fatal.
Accusing the owners of destroying the environment, the department of the environment sent police and security forces to seize bulldozers and trucks from the site on March 24. The equipment was being used to flatten and remove hills and fill water courses.
“We served notice to them on January 22 and ordered them to stop cutting into the hills, but they didn’t pay any heed,” said Munir Chowdhury, the DoE official who led the raid.
“We had to save our ecology,” he added. “They have bulldozed hills that were 40 to 60 feet high and turned them into flat land, which is a clear violation of their agreement.”
Another DoE official added that, “the department issued 33 conditions regarding the development of the area, but they have violated them. They were allowed to enhance and re-shape the hills, but not remove them altogether.”
Although it has been made clear that the company would be free to apply for a new one, the zone’s environmental clearance certificate has been withdrawn and charges laid against three of the management team.
A spokesman for the operators said they were disappointed by these latest moves and insisted that they had all the correct approvals and clearances to develop the area for industrial use.
“This is a very hilly landscape and if we can’t touch the hills we can’t develop the area,” said Muhammad Shahjahan.
A colleague endorsed the claim that they were acting with the permission of the authorities. “To ensure the environment was protected, we have planted 1.6 million trees and dug 17 ponds,” he said.
Crisis and controversy has dogged the zone since it came into being. Obstacles have included the scrapping of many of the tax benefits for such zones, difficulties with infrastructure and utility supplies and nervousness among politicians about its environmental impact.
The project began in 1995 with the signing of a memorandum between the government and Youngone, a leading investor and employer in Bangladesh, with around 30,000 people in more than a dozen factories in Chittagong and Dhaka.
Fully operational, it is thought that the zone could have employed as many as 350,000 people. Youngone is now focusing its investment plans on Vietnam.
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