!! Beyond borders: Ship-Breaking Yards !! REVISED

Trip Start Jan 17, 2013
Trip End Aug 12, 2013

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Flag of Bangladesh  ,
Monday, March 11, 2013

Ocean vessels are the main driving force behind global trading. Ships come big, bigger and biggest and are built in ship yards using the latest technology and high tech machinery, spending millions of euros on their completion. However, all of these vessels will become obsolete at some point and need to be disposed, mainly for the price of its scrap metal that could easily still be worth a few million Euros. This process, simply called ship-breaking, takes place in third-world countries where ships are rammed full power onto the beach at high tide, after which an army of workers spend months using only their bare hands and some blowtorches to reduce the world's tallest ships into small fragments to be carried away for recycling. This industry is very infamous for its pollution and safety conditions and especially environmental organizations like Greenpeace are doing all they can to stop these yards. One can argue about the safety hazards for both nature and people, but one should not miss however the huge benefits for the region as it creates over 100.000 jobs in Chittagong. Due to some publications about these yards and the following negative publicity towards Bangladesh as a nation of unsafe labour, these yards are now strictly off-limits to any kind of foreigners. Getting even near one of the ships is virtually impossible...


One of my main reasons to visit Bangladesh however was to visit these ship-breaking yards, no matter what. I knew I had to spend some time in Chittagong to gather the necessary information so immediately after arriving from the night bus (the worst and most dangerous bus ride of my life), I started searching the internet and visiting some top hotels to ask for information. I quickly got in contact with a Bangladeshi who had experience guiding some tourists to the place. We decided to meet up that evening in a hotel to talk about it. However the person was very unclear and demanded a lot of money (basically because the previous tourists all fucked it up by paying him over 50$ for a service that is not worth more than I would say 5€, more than an average day salary in BNG). I decided not to do business with him and spend one more day on research and finding other people to help me out. He agreed however so we were both satisfied and had no hard feelings about it. 

Ship-breaking takes place in just a small number of other places in the world: Turkey, Pakistan and India. In Bangladesh the ship-breaking yards can be found on a 20km stretch of beach, just 20km from Chittagong. Chittagong is the second city of Bangladesh with around 4 million people and locals call it the business centre of Bangladesh. But with its busy harbor and many (steel related) industrial businesses, it is one hell of a polluted place. The way to enter Chittagong is through the Dhaka Chittagong highway; describing this like hell on earth would be an understatement. This two lane "highway" has been under construction since 2004 to make it a 4-lane road but all I could see was just a few bumps of sand waiting to get spread out over some unprepared land. The ship-breaking yards lay on the west side of the highway, separated by just a little patch of houses and trees. At night the ships stick out clearly from the tree tops, looking like huge buildings. Getting any clear overview of the beach is impossible but some locals suggested that at any specific time, there can be 500 ships laying to await their destruction. I certainly do not believe there are that many, but the author of the lonely planet claimed 10 years ago there were around 30 so the truth probably lays somewhere in between. 


After spending some days in Chittagong I got a bit ill but still I managed to find some guys who studied English literature and I convinced one of them to join me on the trip to the site. I had already gone there alone for a pre-research earlier so I sort of knew what to expect. However this time my guide was with me and he was a very good negotiator. Without any problems he guided the auto rickshaw driver to go to some random ship-breaking yard, of which there are around 30 of them. He never got me into the places because the guards would simply lock all the gates after they saw me. I knew however from my pre-research that there were some ways to make it onto the beaches. With the help of another local I went to one of these little alleys in between the yards and from there, miraculously, I stood eye-to-eye with dozens of workers while seeing around 7 huge tankers in the background. The workers were very surprised to see me and immediately stopped with what they were doing. Like in any place in Bangladesh, the people started staring at me as if I was an alien or something.

The site was almost magical. I know it is one of the most mysterious places on earth for non-Bangladeshis and it is certainly not a tourist destination, but I was there. The heat was intense, but the workers didn't seem to mind as they were carrying heavy metal across the yards, connecting steel cables to ship fragments 100 meters from the shore and cutting through pieces of metal larger than a small house. No one was wearing shoes, a huge contrast to what all the signs at the front gates were saying: 'safety first'. Well, maybe the Bangladeshi way but certainly not according to Western standards. 


Taking pictures there was almost impossible so I got very little. With each picture the supervisors got angry and my guide had to talk to them to keep things under control. During, I took some more pictures and apologized every once in a while for it. I did miss a substantial zoom because the ships were just very far out and all the action seemed to be more than 20 meters away from me too. But I saw with my own eyes the shear size of some huge oil tankers and the people walking in front of it looking like little ants. Cutting these ships is a painstakingly slow process so seeing anything happen is almost impossible. I can only leave my imagination as to how they are able to completely reduce these ships by using just some blowtorches and here and there possibly a crane to assist for the heavy jobs. 

Just think about it. How on earth can you cut through the massive 50 meter long propellor shafts, sometimes one meter in diameter, made of solid steel, that drive propellors of more than 5 meters in diameter? How do you ever get out the engines? I have seen from the many shops around the Dhaka Chittagong highway how they sell these massive engines in one piece. 


The way they work to destruct the hull of the ships is as follows: workers will start cutting away the sheet metal from the side of the ships after which they start cutting the ships into chunks with the size of a small house. These get dragged closer to the beach by attaching a thick steel cable by the help of around 25 people and using a diesel powered wench to do the pulling. After that, another army of blowtorch workers starts reducing it into bits so that 4 people can lift it up and carry it to some stock piles. From here trucks will come to load up and drive the metal to the nearby factories. But that is just for the metal hull of the ship. How they manage to get out the big parts which have to stay in one piece, I just have no clue. All I know is that many people die in this business and get hurt each day. Exploding gas tanks while they are being attacked at with blow torches, falling from great heights and getting crushed under heavy metal, dozens of people have already found their death on this beach. There is a reason why Greenpeace is at war with these yards...


However as I told before, there is a positive side of this industry. You cannot believe what these ships bring into the community in terms of jobs, money and materials. The yards account for the majority off Bangladesh's steel imports and all around are shops selling absolutely everything that comes of these boats: engines, complete kitchens, sofas, wooden closets, life vests, navigating instruments, buckets, boilers, gas reservoirs, fire escapes, ladders, freaking rescue boats. You name it, and they've got it. Just wondering who would ever but some of this crap because most can just be described as worthless junk, long vanished years ago. However the people seem to make a living out of it. I met one Australian guy (the only foreigner I have seen in Chittagong) who went there to buy two engines for a fraction of the price I would have to pay back home. 


Bangladesh, a country where it is not easy to get by by yourself. But seeing the lives of the workers at the ship-breaking yards only makes me realize I have nothing to complain about. Life in The Netherlands is one with some of the highest standard in the world, a complete contrast with what I have seen here. We should be more aware of what is going on around us and stop complaining about our lives back home. Go and travel, start exploring and start learning about how things are done in a different way. Whenever I see a ship now, I think about where it will end up in 10 years. Probably on the beach of Chittagong, let's hope their working conditions will have improved by then...

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Caroline on

jee, Bart, wat een ervaring! Heb je de foto's ook aan Greenpeace verstuurd? Zullen ze vast blij mee zijn en kunnen ze gebruiken voor hun campagne.
Hoop dat je alweer beter bent, goede reis verder! groetjes, Caroline (en de rest van je oude buurtjes)

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