Notes from the Field

Reflecting on Rizwana Hasan’s Goldman Environmental Prize

April 22, 2009

Among the many satisfactions of our work with The Asia Foundation, it is a special privilege to work with remarkable individuals who invest tremendous energy and passion in their work with little thought or appetite for attention, but whose contributions are ultimately so innovative, bold, or otherwise striking, that they cannot escape notice. This week our old friend and partner, Rizwana Hasan, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), received the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism in Asia. We are thrilled for Rizwana as we reflect on our 16-year association with BELA.

In the spring of 1993, the founder and first executive director of BELA, Dr. Mohiuddin Farooque, visited our Dhaka office, where we worked closely with him in shaping the details of our first grant to BELA. Farooque bhai was perpetually larger than life. His hands would sweep in animation as he shared plans for an environmental advocacy program in his deep baritone voice, and his hearty laugh would fill the meeting room as he paused to share amusing anecdotes.

Photo: Tom Dusenbery

Photo: Tom Dusenbery

Beside Farooque sat Rizwana, whom we met for the first time. She had recently graduated from law school and was admitted to the Supreme Court Bar, and then hand-picked by Farooque as his deputy. Rizwana quietly followed the conversation, taking careful notes, while registering nuanced points with a nod of understanding and occasionally interjecting to flag critical issues before conversation moves on. As program plans were agreed upon and work began under our first and subsequent grants to BELA, we frequently interacted with Farooque and Rizwana. They were patient with our requests for reports and follow-up details — and more patient still with our periodic changes of course in adapting new program rationales. Farooque and Rizwana were a perfect team-Farooque the gregarious spirit and inspiration of BELA, the consummate mentor; Rizwana the meticulous partner and alter-ego who rendered the vision in concrete form, mastered the details, managed the logistics and associated personalities, and captured and articulated the results.

By 1997, BELA had outgrown its original office space, added new staff and programs, established its reputation as the country’s premier environmental legal defense and policy organization, and raised the bar as the leading voice and innovator in broader policy advocacy work among civil society organizations. Suddenly, the ever-robust Farooque contracted a serious lung infection. He flew to Singapore for treatment, but his condition deteriorated and he tragically died a few days later. Rizwana and colleagues were plunged into profound shock and grief. All of us who knew and respected Farooque bhai reflected with concern on the future of BELA without him. It was clear to his young colleagues, however, within moments of their tragic loss, that the only course in honoring Farooque as he would have wished was to carry the torch of his vision and spirit forward and that the torch bearer was Rizwana.

In the years since, while the torch has burned bright with the energy of legions of dedicated young BELA lawyers, Rizwana has borne its greatest weight through her leadership, professionalism, and tireless resolve. She stepped comfortably and confidently into Farooque’s role-influenced by Farooque’s experience as mentor, but swift to define her own professional style and to establish a unique voice as an environmental advocate. Under Rizwana’s leadership, BELA has gone from strength to strength, pressing the bounds of environmental advocacy, addressing priority environmental protection issues, anticipating future threats to the environment, and extending the practical reach of environmental law and enforcement to touch all Bangladeshis whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by environmental degradation.

The body of environmental jurisprudence to which Rizwana and her colleagues have contributed in recognizing the constitutional right to a clean environment, her brave work in addressing the environmental and safety hazards of the ship-breaking industry, and other milestones have been recognized and well documented by the Goldman Environmental Prize.

In reflecting on her well-deserved honor, we are especially struck by a particular thread that is woven through the fabric of Rizwana’s work. From the outset of her career, Rizwana has understood and demonstrated by example that environmental activism is not simply about wielding the advocate’s sword, important as it is to raise a firm blade when circumstances require. It also involves reaching out to key decision-makers and opinion leaders in government, industry, interest groups, and vulnerable communities by educating, engaging, lending technical assistance, and forging partnerships among reform-minded individuals that share common interests. We have heard Rizwana reflect on occasion that some of the most significant achievements in environmental law and policy reform have resulted from the patient dialogue and relationship building that she and her colleagues at BELA have advocated, shaped by a keen understanding of the place of the environment in the political economy of reform and the incentive structures that affect environmental policy and lawmaking in Bangladesh.

The BELA model and approach warrants further reflection and expansion at this present post-election juncture in Bangladesh, where the future of the political and broader governance reform agenda rests with a combination of political actors and citizen stakeholders; on the readiness of political leaders to embrace reform and on citizens to demand it; and on the willingness of all stakeholders to work together in protecting the environment and defining the future of governance in Bangladesh.

We congratulate Rizwana on her well-deserved honor. We wish that we could have sat in the hall to cheer as she received her award, but will save our celebration for her return to Dhaka. Farooque bhai was surely with her in spirit as she accepted the Goldman Prize, his heart swelling with pride.

Hear an interview with Rizwana on KQED’s Forum radio program or read more about her award on the Goldman Prize website.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Bangladesh. Shahjahan Kabir is the Foundation’s Program Advisor and 36-year veteran of the Bangladesh office. They can be reached at kmcquay@asiafound.org and skabir@asiafound.org, respectively.

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