Fishing in Bangladesh. Credit: Ami Vitale/Oxfam

Mamtaz' story: The fight for climate justice in the Bay of Bengal

Mamtaz Begum (35) lives in the village of South Tetulbaria near to the Bay of Bengal. Situated on the bank of the Bishkhali river, this village relies on fishing but the changing climate is threatening this way of life, and without fishing, there is little else for them to eat. In November 2010 Mamtaz, a young widow from Barguna, stood up and demanded justice for vulnerable communities near to the Bay of Bengal at a ‘climate tribunal’ in Dhaka.

After her husband’s death in the sea in 1999, Mamtaz, along with her children, went to her mother’s house and continued struggle to provide proper clothes or food for her children. She worked in the houses of others in the village and caught fish in the river. But often she did not have enough food to feed her children.

And then Mamtaz lost her mother to Cyclone SIDR. She remembers how her brother called out ‘look at the water' and suddenly they were hit by a great rush of water. “We all tried to fight against it. Later I was found somewhere unconscious. My mother and aunt had died.”

Mamtaz Begum. Photo: Ami Vitale/OxfamHer children survived by hanging on to tops of trees and lamp posts, but she says “all the houses, from this village to another, were washed away. I can't bear to think about how the people had died in the water”.

Her mother had helped the family with money she earned from teaching. But now she says, “All I have left is my four children, I don't have anyone else in the world. There's no one to take heed of us, whether we die or live. The sea has bereft me of everything – first my husband, then my mother. Now all I have is hunger and no clothes to wear.”

Mamtaz is not alone. Twenty percent of the women in her village are widows because so many have lost their husbands in the seas. Before the fishermen of the village were self-sufficient. Even in 2000, the village had 40 fishing trawlers. Now it is just 7 or 8. Most of the trawlers sank in the sea or were sold to repay debts.

Mamtaz is in no doubt that the changing climate is to blame for her current situation. Fishing is more dangerous, “These days the sea has become even more cruel. The weather turns bad so quickly that if the trawler goes into the sea, it doesn't get the time to come back. Those with God's favor get to return, everyone else dies at sea.”

But Mamtaz is not standing by and watching her life and her community’s way of life be destroyed. In November 2010 she spoke at the shadow Climate Tribunal in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Oxfam has worked with partners in India and Bangladesh to organize tribunals to develop the idea that those responsible for climate change, can and should be held accountable through the law. In Bangladesh the tribunal called for domestic measures including national legislation to protect the fisherfolk communities and an independent international tribunal to hold accountable those who are responsible for climate change.

Mamtaz was one of four witnesses who gave testimonies in front of the panel of juries about how climate change was affecting their lives. Mamtaz was the first to speak. The room was filled with over 1,200 people. She looked terrified, yet determined.

She told them how “In 1999 my husband was lost to the sea. He never returned home. I was 24 at the time.” She paused, and broke down. Many people in the room were wiping their own eyes. She continued “I cannot feed my four children” and told them how over the ten years that have passed since she lost her husband, little had changed.

The tribunal was considered so important for the public interest that one of the major satellite television stations telecast the entire event live.

The tribunal concluded that the impacts felt by the coastal fisherfolk community of Bangladesh is the direct consequence of climate change and resulted in some important recommendations for action, including that the Government of Bangladesh takes immediate measures to reduce vulnerability to the projected impacts of climate change, such financial assistance and a social safety net for the people of climate-impact zones.

It also recognized that women, particularly, are more vulnerable to climate change and that their vulnerability is not addressed adequately in existing global governance mechanisms. It recommended specific adaptive measures and financial support for women and that the Government of Bangladesh press this issue in ongoing international negotiations.

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Watch Mamtaz' story in video

How do the Climate Tribunals work

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