November 8th saw the world’s first Shadow Climate Tribunal held as part of Oxfam’s Campaign for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods in Bangladesh. Its aim was to show that climate change is, first and foremost, about human rights. Developed nations, as the main contributors to the carbon emissions that are warming our world, are in breach of international human rights law. Four witnesses, all victims of climate change, gave their testimonies as evidence, in front of a jury panel.
Mamtaz Begum, from Barguna on Bangladesh’s storm-battered southern coast, was one of those witnesses.
I’m from the UK and am spending my gap year (between high school and university) in Bangladesh, doing an internship with Oxfam. I didn’t know what to expect when I came out here. I thought I’d see something different, but I hadn’t anticipated being confronted so much by the stark reality of what it's like for those constantly battling against starvation and poverty, directly as a result of climate change.
I’m supporting the team that organised the tribunal so I was already familiar with Mamtaz and her story, through helping to write up information on the climate witnesses to be handed out at the tribunal, and taking photos of Mamtaz in her village. I felt like I knew her. But when I saw her, I realised immediately that I had no idea of the depth of her story. Actually hearing her speak was powerful, it took me by surprise. It made her story a reality in a way I could never have anticipated. Mamtaz was the first witness to take to the stage. The room was filled with over 1,200 people. She looked terrified, yet determined.
“In 1999,” she said, “my husband was lost to the sea. He never returned home. I was 24 at the time.” She paused, then suddenly broke down. You could tell it was hard for her to talk about it all, yet her voice carried strongly through the hall. “My seven year old son, the eldest, had to work as a labourer for 20 Taka (about US 20cents) a day to feed the family. I had to start begging.”
I looked around. Many people were wiping their own eyes. Her voice cracking, she continued. “I cannot feed my four children.” Over 10 years has passed since she lost her husband, but little has changed.
I’d never seen anything like this before. For me, disasters and destruction have always come filtered through the TV. Actually being there and hearing her speak something else entirely. There was no changing the channel. She wasn’t just another poor person on the TV; she was Mamtaz Begum and everything that came with it, someone with a story and a life off the cameras and outside interviews.
Mamtaz’s husband died in an unpredictable, sudden, and very violent storm, a recent phenomenon in the Bay of Bengal. A research paper by an international climate scientist, which was submitted to the tribunal as evidence, stated that rising sea surface temperatures have caused more volatile, more frequent, and more unpredictable storms in past years. Mamtaz told us her husband was always very careful. But the storm warning came too late this time.
I had always thought the effects of climate change would only hit in another 20 years. Well, here Mamtaz was, widowed at 24 with four children, directly as a result of climate change. It’s happening now, with people like Mamtaz on the frontline, and so far, largely on their own.