Farhana Sultana

1997 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Fellowship Site: Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (Dhaka, Bangladesh)

By Pat McGroarty


Farhana Sultana knows that the relationship between human beings and their environment is endlessly complex. As both an academic and social advocate, she is dedicated to exploring the connection between ecological problems and human rights issues in her native Bangladesh. Trained as a Geologist who pursued Geography in graduate school, Sultana confronts both natural and social science perspectives in her research. “I know about the earth and I love it, but I was more interested in the people. The one discipline where you could study earth sciences and still do social sciences and social theory was Geography,” said Sultana during a recent interview from her office in the University of Minnesota’s Geography department.

As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, Sultana has studied the effects that water-related issues such as flooding, the corrupt shrimp industry, and now arsenic contamination have had on Bangladesh’s poor population and especially on the nation’s poor women: “No one is asking the social and gender questions as they relate to arsenic poisoning or to flooding. People have studied the technical, ecological, medical, and engineering-related aspects of these problems, but no one has considered their effects on the day to day lives of very poor people, especially poor women.”

Sultana will return to Bangladesh in September to study water issues and their effects on women in preparation for her doctoral dissertation. As she prepares for her trip she points to the importance of her 1997 Fellowship in Bangladesh, where she gathered information for her Master’s thesis: “I went to study the class and gender aspects of government policies and water policies. I explored women’s particular voice and power in policy making and the impact that various water policies had on very poor women.”
Sultana explained the nature of her Master’s project, “My thesis was actually two Masters papers. First, I was interested in flood control and flood management. Bangladesh is famous for its floods, and I undertook a gender analysis of different policies on flood control and irrigation as well as tropical cyclone disaster management. Second, I pursued the human rights violations and ecological devastation in the shrimp aquaculture industry.”

Flooding is an integral part of Bangladesh’s geological landscape. Home to the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, as much as eighty percent of the country can be covered in water if both rivers flood at the same time. Although this flooding has always been a strength of the region’s farmland (the floods replenish the topsoil with valuable silt), exponential population growth in recent decades has brought an extra burden to the land.

“During flood season the banks of the river shift and a lot of people get displaced, living in temporary hardship. With extended flooding, hardships are exacerbated. Some people end up having to live on their roofs for up to three months,” said Sultana. World attention came to Bangladesh’s flood issues in 1988, a year of especially severe devastation. Major investors including the World Bank and the United Nations pledged to make the nation flood free. This action, called the Flood Action Plan (FAP), started a debate that lasted throughout the 1990’s. “You could not have a conversation in Bangladesh without talking about the FAP. That’s what sparked my interest in the project. I wanted to study the voices of the poor marginal farmers, of the women,” she said.

The FAP was halted in the late 1990’s, but the embankments created by the project continue to effect people in the region, particularly women: “Building embankments can have an enormous effect on the gender aspects. Cutting off water to small streams and altering the hydrology of a region increases women’s burden and labor time in procuring domestic water. Certain weeds and reeds that are a part of the nutritional balance can no longer be gathered. Women often bear the brunt of those hardships.”

The second part of Sultana’s project studied the detrimental effects of the region’s shrimp industry: “The environment was changing because of large amounts of salinity introduced by the shrimp industry. Rice paddies were converted to saline shrimp ponds and drinking water was being affected, as were certain resources like fruit trees and other crops which couldn’t grow in the soil.”

Asia’s shrimp industry is a “boom or bust” operation heavily influenced by world demand and the constant threat of viral infection of the shrimp crop. These factors make it a mobile industry that thrives in developing regions such as Bangladesh, India, and Thailand where labor is cheap. “The shrimp industry has brought all sorts of human rights violations including abuse, rape, and reports of workers being guarded at all times. There has been out-migration of men from such areas due to collapsing livelihoods, often leaving women and children to defend for themselves, who often end up being cheap labor for the shrimp industry. These are only some of the ills that result from a rapidly changing social and ecological structure. But if they completely pull the industry out what would happen? We would have the collapse of an entire economy that depends on this industry, especially the foreign exchange the state gets from its exports. It’s a complicated situation,” Sultana explained.

The complexity of issues such as this is what has always driven Sultana to study the contradictory relationships between Bangladesh’s land and its people. She came to the United States to study Geology and Environmental Science at Princeton University. After graduating she moved to the University of Minnesota where she began her Master’s studies as a Macarthur Fellow in the fall of 1996. It was here that she learned of the Upper Midwest Fellowship Program and received a grant to conduct field research for her Master’s projects in the summer of 1997.

Sultana intended to return to her graduate program after completing her Masters in 1998, but instead took a position at the United Nations Development Program in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her two and a half years managing the UNDP’s largest global environmental program were an eye-opening experience: “I really got to see the belly of the beast, how policy gets made and how it works. Through my twenty-six projects I got to engage with various environmental projects, several water-related projects and I got to push for gender mainstreaming in the projects, which is important to me.”

After leaving the U.N.D.P., Sultana returned to the University of Minnesota where she is studying a new issue in water rights and gender equality: “Much of Bangladesh’s ground water holds arsenic. My dissertation is looking at arsenic contamination and the implications that has on a public health crisis where 35 million people are drinking contaminated water.”

There is debate among scientists over the role that humans have played in the arsenic contamination, but it is obvious to Sultana that proper policy has not been made to protect the nation’s women and underprivileged: “I’m not convinced that gender concerns have been structurally integrated into both policy and practice. Many poor people are not literate and do not have access to education about arsenic contamination, especially women. Women are responsible for domestic water. If they’re not able to fulfill that gender role, it has implications on their domestic bargaining power and livelihoods. This drinking water crisis is affecting them in many different ways, from increases in burdens to illnesses to social ostracization. I am interested in the acceptance and voice that poorer women have in the ways arsenic mitigation projects and policies are currently being formulated and the impacts of these policies and projects.”

As Sultana considers her plans beyond completion of her doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota, she knows she will continue to blend academic research with policy advocacy while studying women’s rights to water in Bangladesh: “Poor women’s needs and voices were and are not being heard in the corridors of power. There are a lot of factors that never made it into policy making. The focus of the issues I have studied has shifted slightly as conditions have changed, but it is still about water. My focus is still on human rights to water, to sustainable and equitable livelihoods, as well as nature’s rights to sustainability and integrity. I think that will always be central to my research endeavors. There are a myriad of issues in Bangladesh for me to study for a lifetime.”

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