Arsenic

ARSENIC

This project follows arsenic—one of the deadliest earth poisons, whose identification was most crucial to the formation of the forensic science of toxicology—in order to explore complex entanglements of natural and human violence. Case studies range from murder trials in Victorian England to environmental poisonings in Bangladesh and West Papua. The project claims that in contemporary times the entanglement of natural and political violence is so extreme that forensic investigations must look at complex and diffused structures of causality. It is in response to these entangled causalities, involving human and nonhuman actors alike, that the legal forums of the future must emerge.

Researcher

Nabil Ahmed

Prologue

The cyclone captured in the iconic “Blue Marble” image taken by the crew on the Apollo mission in November 1972 came to stand for the entanglement between natural and political violence in Bangladesh’s war of national liberation, Nasa’s Landsat satellite program, the launch of the Green revolution as a neocolonial system of agriculture around the world, as well as a record of how cyclones can return as affect.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=IDeTdFy7Vss%26showinfo%3D0

Bhola cyclone

The Bhola cyclone plays a major role in the modern history of Bangladesh. It was one of the worst natural disasters recorded in human history. In November 12, 1970, it devastated Bangladesh’s coastal zones and killed, according to some estimates, half a million people. Trying to subdue separatist sentiments, the ruling government in West Pakistan mishandled the relief effort and on March 24, 1971 launched a military offensive on Bengali civilians that escalated into what is called the Mukti Judho (War of National Liberation) in Bangladesh. The military and its collaborators were later accused of the genocide of three million people, a violence that still haunts the nation today.

Although the war and genocide remain central to the political imagination of every Bangladeshi, the role of the cyclone remains largely unknown. More than just catalyzing the sequence of events that led to the birth of the Bangladeshi state, the cyclone and genocide led to the reconceptualization of the tool of contemporary humanitarianism. It saw two new types of response that are still with us: on the one hand the humanitarian rock concert, and on the other, military intervention propounded as a means to stop genocide.

Satellite image of the cyclone before it made landfall, taken by the ITOS 1 satellite on November 11, 1970.

Satellite image of the cyclone before it made landfall, taken by the ITOS 1 satellite on November 11, 1970.

A cyclone shelter in Cox’s Bazaar, Chittagong and a radio operator of the Cyclone Preparedness Program. The coastline is dotted with these shelters, representing humanitarian architecture in the battle against a deadly planet Earth. Image: Nabil Ahmed, 2013.

A cyclone shelter in Cox’s Bazaar, Chittagong and a radio operator of the Cyclone Preparedness Program. The coastline is dotted with these shelters, representing humanitarian architecture in the battle against a deadly planet Earth.
Image: Nabil Ahmed, 2013.

Interview with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1971 calling for a military intervention on humanitarian grounds in support of Bangladesh. India entered the conflict on December 3, 1971. BBC, 1971.

There was immense destruction of physical infrastructure in Bangladesh in 1972 following the war of independence. The same year saw the launch of a new land survey satellite, LANDSAT 1, for the acquisition of satellite imagery of Earth. One of its first applications was to rationalize the Green Revolution by reading land cover changes for crop and water management. Aimed at solving the world’s food shortage, this was a US-led global agricultural program that the Americans hoped would pacify the planet’s poor and prevent uprisings.

The hands of Dr. Hasan holding a recently exhumed skull from a mass grave in Dhaka. Dr. Hasan is the convener of the Bangladesh War Crimes Fact Finding Committee who led the only forensic investigation into the mass killings. In the accompanying interview conducted in Dhaka in June 2012, Dr. Hasan described his practice as a forensic investigator. His investigations were crucial in producing the list of those accused in the war crimes trials that are currently taking place in Bangladesh. Photo: courtesy of Dr. M. A. Hassan

The hands of Dr. Hasan holding a recently exhumed skull from a mass grave in Dhaka. Dr. Hasan is the convener of the Bangladesh War Crimes Fact Finding Committee who led the only forensic investigation into the mass killings. In the accompanying interview conducted in Dhaka in June 2012, Dr. Hasan described his practice as a forensic investigator. His investigations were crucial in producing the list of those accused in the war crimes trials that are currently taking place in Bangladesh.
Photo: courtesy of Dr. M. A. Hassan

Yahya Khan, the president of Pakistan who would order the killing of a civilian population of ethnic Bengalis four months after this photo was taken, surveying the devastation of the Bhola cyclone from his helicopter on November 15, 1970. Daily Purbodesh. National Archive of Bangladesh. Image: Nabil Ahmed, 2013.

Yahya Khan, the president of Pakistan who would order the killing of a civilian population of ethnic Bengalis four months after this photo was taken, surveying the devastation of the Bhola cyclone from his helicopter on November 15, 1970.
Daily Purbodesh. National Archive of Bangladesh. Image: Nabil Ahmed, 2013.

Freedom fighters led a guerilla war for independence until hostilities ceased on December 16, 1971, when the Pakistani military command surrendered to the allied forces.
Animation of arsenic contamination at a territorial scale showing spatial variability in arsenic concentration from <0.25 μg to 1660 μg. The highest arsenic concentrations are shown to be in the alluvial and deltaic sediments.

 

Arsenic

Arsenic is the perfect poison because the traces it leaves behind are hard to detect. Complicating the matter was the fact that in Victorian times, it was present in a domestic setting, especially in wallpaper and paint. The toxic Victorian house has metaphorically and literally anticipated the large-scale environmental contaminations of the present.

Medical jurisprudence, forensic medicine and toxicology

The Marsh test apparatus was developed by the chemist James Marsh in 1836 to detect arsenic traces that provided the first applications of forensic toxicology used as evidence in court. These nineteenth century toxicological drawings and microscopic images show some of the processes of visualizing the geology of an invisible killer inside the human body. Environmental geologists later used forensic apparatus such as the Marsh Test as models for developing tests to detect arsenic in the soil and earth. Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Reproduction of lithographic plates and illustrations. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 1877 and 1893. Legal Medicine and Toxicology, 1909.

Earth poison

In 1972, Bangladesh emerged as a new state after the cyclone and national war of liberation. Following the war, UNICEF, inspired by the Green Revolution, undertook a major public health engineering project that aimed to provide safe drinking water by drilling millions of hand pumps. Over subsequent years, constructing private tube wells became normative practice. Although considered a major success, it exposed a significant part of the population to ground water aquifers (underground layers of permeable rock, sediment, or soil that yield water) rich in arsenic. Several decades on, the gradual environmental damage continues to have an impact upon populations in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. The same state and humanitarian players implicated in causing this damage are now charged with dealing with its consequences. Binod Sutradhar was the lead claimant in Sudtradhar v. NERC, the only legal case brought against the British Geological Survey and the National Environmental Research Council by a group of NGOs and lawyers who were seeking redress for the victims of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. They attempted to sue for negligence in failing to test for arsenic in Sutradhar’s well water in 1992. The BGS technical report was used by the state to draw up a national water policy that did not include arsenic testing.

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Seven water samples and their arsenic concentration taken from the area surrounding Binod Sutradhar’s house in Ramrail village, Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh in July 2013. The water samples are the main focus for a set of interviews conducted with the activists and lawyers who led the case, Sharmeen Murshid of non-governmental organization Brotee and Shubhaa Srinivasan of law firm Leigh Day.

Seven water samples and their arsenic concentration taken from the area surrounding Binod Sutradhar’s house in Ramrail village, Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh in July 2013. The water samples are the main focus for a set of interviews conducted with the activists and lawyers who led the case, Sharmeen Murshid of non-governmental organization Brotee and Shubhaa Srinivasan of law firm Leigh Day.

The Grasberg Mine

Arsenic is a main by-product of copper mining. One of the most devastating contemporary examples of territorial arsenic-related environmental poisoning is from the Grasberg mine. Containing the world’s largest gold and copper reserves, it is located high in the mountains of West Papua, a troubled province of Indonesia with an ongoing indigenous independence movement. The mine is at the heart of the ancestral land of the Amungme and the Komoro, two of the many ethnically Melanesian indigenous peoples that make up Papua. Freeport PT Indonesia, a subsidiary of the US mining company Freeport McMoRan, began a large-scale mining project in West Papua while Papuan territory was still the subject of dispute with the Dutch in the 1960s. Handed over several years before the so-called 1969 “Act of Free Choice,” the Freeport Grasberg mine came to both symbolize and act as a site of conflict for the annexation of indigenous territories. Using remote sensing technologies, the project seeks to unpack the complex processes of territorial poisoning emanating from the Grasberg mine.

The ruins of Devon Great Consols copper mine in Tavistock, Devon. Once the richest copper mine in Europe, between 1844 and 1903 the mine produced half of the world’s arsenic. Arsenic was widely used in Victorian Britain and throughout the world in textile industries, domestic environments, and agriculture.

The ruins of Devon Great Consols copper mine in Tavistock, Devon. Once the richest copper mine in Europe, between 1844 and 1903 the mine produced half of the world’s arsenic. Arsenic was widely used in Victorian Britain and throughout the world in textile industries, domestic environments, and agriculture.

The Grasberg mine, at 4,100 m above sea level, is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine on Earth.

The Grasberg mine, at 4,100 m above sea level, is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine on Earth.

Grasberg Mine

Grasberg Mine

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UNTEA symbol overprinted on existing Dutch New Guinea stamps, 1962.

UNTEA symbol overprinted on existing Dutch New Guinea stamps, 1962.

UNTEA symbol overprinted on existing Dutch New Guinea stamps, 1962.

UNTEA symbol overprinted on existing Dutch New Guinea stamps, 1962.

Time magazine, July 15, 1966. After an anti-communist purge that killed more than 500,000 people and led to the overthrow of Sukarno, the founding president of the Indonesian Republic, General Suharto came to power and established the “New Order” (in Indonesian the Orde Baru). Under the New Order economic policy of attracting foreign investment formulated by the “Berkeley Mafia,” a group of Indonesian economists trained at the University of Berkeley, the natural resources sector was the first to open up, and the first company to sign a contract of work with Indonesia was Freeport McMoRan.

Time magazine, July 15, 1966. After an anti-communist purge that killed more than 500,000 people and led to the overthrow of Sukarno, the founding president of the Indonesian Republic, General Suharto came to power and established the “New Order” (in Indonesian the Orde Baru). Under the New Order economic policy of attracting foreign investment formulated by the “Berkeley Mafia,” a group of Indonesian economists trained at the University of Berkeley, the natural resources sector was the first to open up, and the first company to sign a contract of work with Indonesia was Freeport McMoRan.

Grasberg Mine

Grasberg Mine

The violence of mine tailing from the Grasberg mine in the Timika region, West Papua, Indonesia. This LANDSAT 8 false color composite display shows how an area of 293,000 hectares, including the Otomina and Ajkwa rivers, which spill into the Arafura Sea, is used as a geotechnical system for tailing deposition. The journey of the toxic waste begins at over 4,000 m above sea level and leads down to the lowland estuaries, crossing eight different ecologies over a distance of 100 km. Over 200,000 metric tons of tailings flow through the river per day into this area, containing highly toxic arsenic, copper, cadmium, and selenium. The image shows the urbanization and militarization of the forest and mining area, as well as tropical and mangrove deforestation.

The violence of mine tailing from the Grasberg mine in the Timika region, West Papua, Indonesia. This LANDSAT 8 false color composite display shows how an area of 293,000 hectares, including the Otomina and Ajkwa rivers, which spill into the Arafura Sea, is used as a geotechnical system for tailing deposition. The journey of the toxic waste begins at over 4,000 m above sea level and leads down to the lowland estuaries, crossing eight different ecologies over a distance of 100 km. Over 200,000 metric tons of tailings flow through the river per day into this area, containing highly toxic arsenic, copper, cadmium, and selenium. The image shows the urbanization and militarization of the forest and mining area, as well as tropical and mangrove deforestation.

In 1962 West Irian was declared the first UN protectorate, in order to appease a territorial dispute between the Dutch Government and its former colony, the newly formed Republic of Indonesia. The UNTEA (United Nations Temporary Executive Authority) sent a peacekeeping force of 1,500 Pakistani troops. These very soldiers later fought in the war against Bengali nationalists and India in 1971. Pakistani soldiers guard a radio tower in Hollandia (present-day Jayapura). Photo: UN, 1962.

In 1962 West Irian was declared the first UN protectorate, in order to appease a territorial dispute between the Dutch Government and its former colony, the newly formed Republic of Indonesia. The UNTEA (United Nations Temporary Executive Authority) sent a peacekeeping force of 1,500 Pakistani troops. These very soldiers later fought in the war against Bengali nationalists and India in 1971. Pakistani soldiers guard a radio tower in Hollandia (present-day Jayapura). Photo: UN, 1962.

Pakistani UN Force on West Irian stamp, printed in three languages: English, Urdu, and Bengali.

Pakistani UN Force on West Irian stamp, printed in three languages: English, Urdu, and Bengali.

UN Resolution 2504 (XXIV) adopted by the General Assembly during its twenty-fourth session in 1969 outlining the agreement between the Republic of Indonesia and the Netherlands concerning West New Guinea (West Irian). The UN resolution notes the “Act of Free Choice” in 1969 when selected Papuan indigenous leaders were coerced to vote in favor of joining Indonesia in a display staged for UN observers.

UN Resolution 2504 (XXIV) adopted by the General Assembly during its twenty-fourth session in 1969 outlining the agreement between the Republic of Indonesia and the Netherlands concerning West New Guinea (West Irian). The UN resolution notes the “Act of Free Choice” in 1969 when selected Papuan indigenous leaders were coerced to vote in favor of joining Indonesia in a display staged for UN observers.

In the Stomach of the Dragon, Survival International and Small World Productions. Shot undercover and in secret inside West Papua in the 1990s, this film exposes atrocities committed by the Indonesian military against the Amungme and documents the environmental impact of the Grasberg copper and gold mine. Courtesy of Small World Productions.

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