Inside Bangladesh’s Polluted, Billion-Dollar Leather Industry
Hazaribagh is home to the country’s $1 billion tanning industry, a place where thousands work in the factories and chemicals makes the river slick and shiny. Everything revolves around the tanneries. “The village itself is kind of a giant factory,” says photographer Adib Chowdhury, who spent two weeks there last year. His cinematic photos in A Thousand Polluted Gardens brim with rich, colorful tones that belie the grim scenes.More than 150 tanneries have covered 50 acres in the past 60 years. They use chromium salts, acids and other toxins to treat hides that go on to China, India and beyond, sending some 762,796 cubic feet of wastewater flowing into the Buriganga. “It’s a famous local fact that if you go down to the river during sunrise and sunset, you can see the color shifts in the water,” Chowdhury says.
Thousands work in the tanneries, where school children pick up scraps before moving onto more dangerous tasks like dipping hides in acid. Many do so without gloves or even shoes, making skin and respiratory ailments common. It is unforgiving work; by one estimate, 90 percent of tannery workers die before age 50.
Chowdhury grew up in England, but his parents are Bangladeshi. He remembers relatives talking about the smell of Hazaribagh—a mix of sulphur and rotting carcasses. He read a Human Rights Watch report about the community in 2015, and felt he must photograph it. He flew to Dhaka in January, 2016, and smelled Hazaribagh even before he arrived. “It was honestly so bad, it makes your eyes sting and burns the back of your throat when you breathe,” he says.
He arrived early each morning when the light was best and people were washing up for work—sometimes using water drawn from the same places they washed skins. He started by photographing people working outdoors, then moved into the factories at midday. Chowdhury found their size staggering. At one point, children in the factory encouraged him to jump up and down. He did, and the ground squeaked beneath his shoes. “It was all leather,” he says.
In the months since Chowdhury’s visit, the government finally started improving the situation in Hazaribagh after 15 years of talking about it. It is establishing a site for tanneries, with a wastewater treatment plant, 12 miles away, and one-third of the tanneries have moved already. It remains to be seen, however, when the rest will follow, or what will happen to the city of a thousand gardens once they’ve gone.