Friends of the Earth (FoE) has denounced plans by Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Shell, and Scottish oil and gas company, Cairn Energy, to begin initial exploration in Bangladesh’s ‘Block 5’ region this month, containing the Sundarbans National Park, home to some 450 endangered Royal Bengal tigers.

Shell’s assurances that it has no plans to conduct oil exploration in the park have fallen on deaf ears among the environmental camp, who say that any exploration without harming wildlife in the area, of which several species are among the planet’s most endangered, would be extremely difficult.

The 38,500 sq. km park, whose mangrove swamps are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains much more than tigers. The Sundarbans, which lies on the Bay of Bengal and straddles the Indian border, houses the threatened estuarine crocodile, the Indian python, the Ganges river dolphin and 260 bird species, and contains some of the last remaining rainforest of the Ganges plain. FoE says that in fact 75% of ‘Block 5’ is part of the internationally protected Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. The area is also one of the few wildernesses left in one of the world’s most densely populated countries.

Shell says that it will soon begin aerial surveys covering 6,500 square km, followed by 500 square km of seismic surveys.

“We find it hard to see how Shell will avoid going into protected areas, considering that they cover 75% of Block 5, and that the size of the area they are surveying is enormous”, an FoE spokesman told edie on 21 August. The spokesman said that it would also be impossible for any oil exploration not to have an impact on the region’s 2.5 million inhabitants, 800,000 of whom, he said, depend on the area’s natural resources for their livelihoods connected with fishing and logging. The area’s mangrove swamps also represent a crucial flood defence for Bangladesh, protecting millions of people from the tidal surges that frequently emanate from The Bay of Bengal.

Local activists also remain unconvinced by Shell’s assurances. “This is the most important area for tigers in the world and must be protected,” said Mohammed Ali Ashraf, of FoE Bangladesh. “The company would need to build pipelines and roads and maybe even a port.”

Shell counters that it has the government of Bangladesh on its side, who initialled the deal in May this year, and that the environment would not suffer. “We have continually made it very clear that we have no plans to conduct exploration in the Sundarbans National Park,” a Shell spokesperson told edie, adding that “only one well” is planned in Block 5.

“We are committed to carrying out environmental baseline and impact studies which will consider biodiversity as part of the terms of reference and engage local parties in consultation,” she added.

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