ACCESS Seminar: Living with Toxic Development

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Seminar details

Presenter: Dr Camelia Dewan, University of Oslo

Zoom Password: 176831


Based on ethnographic fieldwork among local communities and shipbreaking workers, I focus on the lived experiences of toxicity in the rapidly industrialising zone of Sitakunda. A ship is filled with hazardous materials, ranging from asbestos and glass wool, to heavy-metal laden paints, gases, oils, and other toxicants. The shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh has faced criticism in mainstream media for labour conditions and environmental pollution, yet exporting ships and blaming Bangladesh for not properly managing hazardous materials can be seen as a form of waste colonialism. Despite a plethora of problems, there are unreported improvements such as the eradication of child labour, Bangladesh’s first internationally-certified Hong Kong Convention-compliant yard, and the government regularly inspecting (and fining) yards while pledging to create a facility for the safe disposal of hazardous materials by 2023. Yet, the current situation remains highly toxic. Workers complain over inhaling fumes as the steel they cut is covered with layers of paint containing toxic substances such as heavy metals. Working for 2-3 days, they end up bed-ridden and sick with high fevers, respiratory difficulties and aching muscle pains for days without pay. At home, living next to a heavily-trafficked highway, they are also subject to the visibly extensive air, soil and water pollution caused by Sitakunda’s many industrial factories. As one of my interlocutors remarked: “There are much longer queues to the pharmacies – there are so many now – than there are to food stores. What does this tell you?” The article discusses the difficulty of separating people’s livelihoods from the very practices that pollute both their work and home environments. It reflects on the reluctance to acknowledge the severity of toxic development and its everyday impact on health, and contributes to debates on toxic colonialism, slow violence and lived toxicity in South Asia.


Camelia Dewan is an environmental anthropologist focusing on the anthropology of development. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow on the Norwegian Research Council-funded project (Dis)Assembling the Life Cycle of Containerships at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo where she examines the lived experiences of environmental pollution and labour precarity among workers and communities connected to Bangladesh's shipbreaking industry. Dr Dewan holds a PhD in Social Anthropology and Environment from the University of London (Birkbeck and SOAS) funded by the Bloomsbury Colleges and the research ethnographically examined development and climate change adaptation projects in southwest coastal Bangladesh. Her PhD thesis Crisis Beyond Climate Change was awarded the Royal Anthropological Institute's Sutasoma Award and is the basis of her forthcoming book Misreading Climate Change: How development simplifications have failed rural ecology and society in southwest coastal Bangladesh (University of Washington Press). She also holds an MSc in Development Studies from LSE and an MA International Relations at the University of Edinburgh and worked as a research consultant for the International Water Management Institute on a water governance project in southwest coastal Bangladesh.